ICIMOD supports helicopter relief and rescue missions


Within hours after the earthquake struck Nepal on 25 April 2015, help from overseas started arriving at Kathmandu airport. Soon helicopters from India, the US, and China joined helicopters of the Nepali army and private operators in a marathon effort to reach remote villages to pick up the injured and stranded, and to reach relief supplies and medical teams.

However, concerns soon emerged about foreign helicopter pilots not finding their destinations as they flew over unfamiliar terrains, or having to turn back because of bad weather.   

Photo Credit : Arnico Panday/ICIMOD

On 30 April, based on a request from the home ministry, a team of atmospheric scientists from ICIMOD set up a temporary office at the army hangar at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, and worked there from dawn to dusk until 28 May, helping helicopter pilots in their rescue and relief efforts. The pilots needed GPS coordinates of their destination, which they had earlier tried to compute off paper maps using rulers.  

The ICIMOD team brought in Google Earth on big screens, helped find destinations, helped identify and evaluate landing sites for different helicopters, mapped potential flight paths, and provided elevation information to calculate load limits. The pilots were provided color printouts of customized maps showing 3-D terrain images of their routes and destinations with GPS coordinates and elevations marked.  

Wing Commander Shiv Shankaram of India who flew a Gorakhpur-based MI17 helicopter said elevation accuracy is very important in flying, especially over hilly terrain. Since altitude affects the efficiency of helicopters, pilots need to know what height they will be flying in order to plan their load for delivery and pickup. He also said the aerial maps they had been using to navigate over large distances were not of great detail making it difficult to assess altitude accurately, and therefore, the images provided by the team were of great help to locate affected villages accurately.

Photo Credit: Siva Praveen Puppala/ICIMOD

As a result of the support, flight preparation time was significantly reduced, and reliability of reaching destinations increased, thereby increasing the number of successful flights per helicopter per day. 

“Right after the main shock ICIMOD appeared at the airport to help our relief flight movement,” said the Col. Dipak Karki, who was in charge of dispatching the rescue and relief helicopters. 

According to the Nepalese army, ICIMOD’s support was instrumental in accomplishing 2,751 missions in the various earthquake affected locations in Nepal. 

After more than three weeks of continuous emergency service at the airport, and once the number of flights per day slowed down, the ICIMOD team initiated a phase-out plan, sharing data and files, and teaching army officials to use the online tools.