Exploring Mt Everest from the air

By Dick Smith 9 April 2010
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In 1993, Dick Smith took an eye-opening flight over the Himalaya; here he tells us about that adventure.

ANGA SHERPA HAD A huge grin on his face. He was looking down on the 8874-metre summit of Everest from the co-pilot’s seat of my aircraft, and getting a new perspective on a mountain that had dominated his life. As a boy, he had walked in its awesome shadow daily on his way to the Hillary School and more recently, as a captain with Royal Nepal Airlines, he had flown nearby. But he’d never been as close to it as he was now, and his elation was obvious.

I knew exactly how he felt. Two days earlier, on 15 October 1991, I’d spent an hour circling the summit. The weather was so clear I could see the footprints left by Spanish mountaineers who had reached the peak the hard way the previous day.

The experience was unbelievable and I felt privileged to be one of the very few people to obtain permission from the Nepalese Government to fly over the summit. But my flight had a serious purpose. Between taking photographs, I, my wife, Pip, and my friend and co-pilot Frank Young and his wife Leonie, were gathering weather data to assist four balloonists – one an Australian – in their attempt to make the first unpowered flight over Everest.

We also intended to provide support for the balloonists on the day of their historic flight, but unfortunately they could not chain approval for us to depart from Kathmandu Airport before dawn. This was imperative because the team intended to take off at dawn and it was a 30-minute flight from the airport to Everest. Naturally we were disappointed, but we had been able to gather plenty of weather information during five flights in the days before the successful balloon attempt on 21 October. We were also happy that the balloonists were able to use film shot from my aircraft in a documentary on their flight.

WHILE DETECTING DETAILS of wind speed and direction at various altitudes and relaying them to the balloonists at Gokyo, 45 km south-west of Everest, via two-way radio, I became aware of the poor communications in the area.

There was no direct communication by normal aircraft radio between Kathmandu and the Sir Edmund Hillary airstrip at Lukla, 40 km south of Everest, which is used by many of the 11,500 trekkers to the famous Khumbu area each par. This worried me because it means pilots leaving Kathmandu often have no information on the sometimes very different — and severe — weather conditions at their destination, putting them and their passengers at unnecessary risk.

We take such communication for granted in Australia, but the Nepalese cannot afford it. I decided that on my return to Australia I would try to rectify the situation, and I have since offered the Nepalese Department of Civil Aviation AG assistance to acquire a solar-powered repeater station.

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 29 (Jan – Mar 1993)

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