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ICIMOD experts provide information to support helicopter relief and rescue missions

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Within hours of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal on 25 April, help from overseas started arriving at Kathmandu airport. Soon helicopters from India, the US, and China joined the helicopters of the Nepali Army and private operators in a marathon effort to reach remote villages to pick up the injured and drop relief supplies and medical teams. In the first days after the earthquake, concerns emerged about foreign helicopters not finding their destinations as they were flying in unfamiliar terrain, or having to turn back because of bad weather. On 30 April 2015, five days after the earthquake, within three hours of receiving a call from the Home Ministry, a team of atmospheric scientists from ICIMOD set up a temporary office at the Nepal Army hangar at Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA) in Kathmandu, where they worked from dawn to dusk helping helicopter pilots in their rescue and relief efforts until 28 May. The pilots needed the GPS coordinates of their destinations, 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 destination landing sites for different helicopters, mapped potential flight paths, and provided elevation information to calculate load limits. The pilots were provided colour printouts of customized maps showing 3D terrain images of their routes and destinations with GPS coordinates and elevations marked. Wing Commander Shiv Shankaram, who flew a Gorakhpur, India, based MI17 helicopter, while in conversation with an ICIMOD staff member said that elevation accuracy is very important in flying, especially over hilly terrain. As altitude affects the efficiency of helicopters, pilots need to know what height they will be flying at in order to plan their loads for delivery and pickup. He also said that the aerial maps they had been using to navigate over large distances were not of sufficient detail, making it difficult to accurately assess altitude. The images provided by the ICIMOD team were of great help to them in relating to the nearby hills and rivers and to locate villages accurately. As a result of the efforts of the ICIMOD team, flight preparation times were significantly reduced and the 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 as a blessing from the gods”, said Colonel Dipak Karki, who was in charge of dispatching the rescue and relief helicopters. Flight preparation times were significantly reduced and the odds of reaching destinations improved. This led to an increase in the number of successful flights per helicopter per day. During the service period, the ICIMOD team was acknowledged for providing instrumental service to accomplish 2,751 sorties in the various earthquake-affected locations. After more than three weeks of continuous emergency services at the airport, and once the number of helicopter flights per day slowed down sufficiently, ICIMOD staff initiated a phase-out plan, sharing data and files, and teaching army officials how to use the online tools, reducing the frequency and duration of airport visits by the ICIMOD staff.

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