A Tara Air DHC-6 Twin Otter aircraft [File image] Image Credit: AFP

KATHMANDU - A passenger plane heading to a mountainous area of Nepal went missing on Sunday with 22 people on board, the airline said. 

"A domestic flight bound to Jomsom from Pokhara has lost contact," Sudarshan Bartaula, spokesman for Tara Air, told AFP. He said there were 19 passengers and three crew members on board the twin-engine aircraft.

A similar Tara Air Twin Otter plane had gone missing in 2016 with 23 people on board. The wreckage of the plane was later found near the village of Dana in Myagdi district. All 23 on board perished in the crash.

As per State TV reports on Sunday, this missing aircraft had 4 Indian citizens on board, among others. "The aircraft was seen over the sky of Jomsom in Mustang and then had diverted to Mt. Dhaulagiri after which it hadn't come into contact," Chief District Officer Netra Prasad Sharma confirmed to ANI over the phone.

Search and rescue

Phanindra Mani Pokharel, a spokesman at the Ministry of Home Affairs, told AFP that two helicopters have been deployed for a search operation. But he said visibility was low.

"The bad weather is likely to hamper the search operation. The visibility is so poor that nothing can be seen," Pokharel said.

Jomsom is a popular trekking destination in the Himalayas about 20 minutes by plane from Pokhara, which lies west of Kathmandu.

Quoting police officials ANI reported that the aircraft is suspected to have crashed in the "Titi" area of Lete in Mustang District. "Locals from Titi have called and informed us that they have heard an unusual sound as if there was some bang. We are deploying a helicopter to the area for the search operation," Ram Kumar Dani, DSP of District Police Office, Mustang told ANI.

The Home Ministry deployed two private helicopters from Mustang and Pokhara for the search for missing aircraft. A Nepal Army chopper was also being prepared to be deployed for the search, Phadindra Mani Pokharel, spokesperson at Home Ministry told ANI over the phone.

Tara Air was formed in 2009 as a subsidiary of Yeti Airlines, using aircraft from the Yeti Airlines fleet. The airline was established to operate Yeti's STOL (Short Take-off and Landing) flights, with a focus on providing services to remote and mountainous airports and airstrips.

Mustang is a mountainous region and the fifth-largest district of the Himalayan nation which hosts the pilgrimage of Muktinath Temple. The district, also known as "Land beyond the Himalayas", is located in the Kali Gandaki valley of the Himalayan region of Western Nepal.

Mustang (from the Tibetan Muntan meaning "fertile plain") is largely dry and arid. The world's deepest gorge that goes down three miles vertical between Dhaulagiri and Annapurna mountains runs through this district.

Abysmal safety records

Nepal's aviation industry has boomed in recent years, flying tourists, trekkers and climbers as well as goods to remote corners where road access is limited. But the impoverished Himalayan nation has a poor air safety record due to insufficient training and maintenance.

The European Union has banned all Nepali airlines from its airspace over safety concerns. The country also has some of the world's most remote and tricky runways, flanked by snow-capped peaks with approaches that pose a challenge for even accomplished pilots.

 - In March 2018, a US-Bangla Airlines plane crashed near Kathmandu's international airport, killing 51 people.

- The following year (2019) three people died when a plane veered off the runway and hit two helicopters while taking off near Mount Everest. The accident happened at Lukla airport which is the main gateway to the Everest region and is reputed to be one of the most difficult in the world for landings and take-offs.

- Also in 2019 Nepal's tourism minister Rabindra Adhikari was among seven people killed when a helicopter crashed in the country's hilly east.

This month Nepal's second international airport opened at Bhairahawa, aiming to give Buddhist pilgrims from across Asia access to the Buddha's birthplace at nearby Lumbini. The $76 million project will ease pressure on the overburdened Kathmandu international airport.

Inputs from AFP, ANI