Bringing back the Dakota

From The Kathmandu Post (14 August, 2014)

A flight-worthy DC-3 aircraft must be brought back to help maintain a crucial link with our modern history

The last Douglas DC-3 Dakota aircraft of Royal Nepal Airlines to fly out of Nepal, in 1973, was also the first one to be given the Nepal registration as 9N-AAB when it started flying in 1958. The departure marked the end of the country’s Era of the Dakota, the aircraft that ushered Nepal into the modern age, linked various parts of a geographically divided nation, and participated in the ‘Dakota diplomacy’ that ended the Rana regime. The De Havilland-Canada Twin Otters that took over from the Douglas Aircraft Company’s Dakota DC-3 are still going strong, though a bit aged.

Amidst the many matters that grab our attention in these unstable times, from foreign VVIP visitations to landslip disasters, floods, ‘encounter’ killings and ruling parties not seeing eye-to-eye, in this column I propose to take the readers’ mind off contemporary concerns to also imagine Nepal as a country moving towards normalisation. This requires one to think and act as if we are already there and so, how about a tantalising proposal—one this writer himself has nurtured for more than two decades—to bring back a flying condition DC-3 Dakota? Let us give it the old colours and maintain it as a flying museum to excite us about technology, aviation, tourism and our modern history. It takes some imagination, and is not at all that audacious.

Dakota diplomacy

The Dakota joined the effort at regime change when a Himalayan Aviation aircraft flew over Birgunj and Kathmandu dropping anti-Rana leaflets, most likely in 1949. The airline was owned by the Calcutta-based clan of Subarna Shumsher, which was also financing the Congress party in exile, and the aircraft which made the Nepal sorties is said to have been piloted by a Pole named Bujowski, called ‘Buji’ by his owners and passengers.

CPN Singh, the ambassador of India, was a regular passenger on a Dakota with the Indian registration VT-CVC. He shuttled between Kathmandu’s Gauchar and New Delhi’s Safdarjang Airport as part of the effort to get the Ranas to make way for what became the short-lived royal-democratic combine. King Tribhuvan’s iconic hand-wave as he deplaned at Gauchar in February 1951 was at the doorway of VT-CVC, with its unpainted aluminium fuselage.

Royal Nepal Airlines Corporation (RNAC) was started in 1958 with the acquisition from India of 9N-AAB, the first aircraft with Nepal markings. Soon thereafter, a handful of Dakotas were gifted to the airline by the US Government, the formal handover being made to Ganesh Man Singh as Transportation Minister in BP Koirala’s cabinet. These would have been World War II surplus aircraft used for the transport of soldiers and war material, including for the famous sorties ‘over the Hump’ of the South Asian Northeast. (In all, more than 16,000 of the DC-3s and their military counterpart, the C-47, were produced.)

RNAC was a well-managed pioneering airline with the Dakota as its flagship and workhorse, with individual aircraft given names like Himal Chuli, Manasulu, Makalu and Langtang. The underbelly of the planes was left bare aluminium, the top half painted white with strips of blue and red running along the windows and tapering at the nose. The livery was imaginatively supplemented by the winged Swet Bhairav painted beneath the cockpit window, the national flag adorning the tailfin, and nicely chosen Roman and Nagari scripts to render the airline name.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Nepal was practically without roads and highways, and it required the Dakota to link the grass runaway on the Gauchar plateau with the strips at Simara, Pokhara, Palungtar, Bhairahawa, Bharatpur and Biratnagar. The raucous drone of the Pratt & Whitney twin piston engines provided an acoustic signature of the era, and the first generation pilots in smart white shirts and peaked caps were exotic heroes—KK Shrestha, Ram Prasad Gurung, BK Shrestha, Bobby Shah, RC Upadhyaya, PJ Shah and others.

The finest portraits of the DC-3 were those taken astride the great spreading Pipal tree under Machhapuchare’s gaze at Pokhara’s airport. The geologist-explorer Toni Hagen took one of these, besides a moving picture of a Dakota taking off from Pokhara. The most famous passenger of the Nepali Dakota was UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold, who converted his outward journey to Delhi in king Mahendra’s 9N-RF2 (the earlier VT-CVC) into a mountain flight. Hammerskjold had the flight diverted so as to get close to the Annapurna range: his pictures and accompanying essay came out in National Geographic magazine in 1961.

Search party

That was then. The Dakota’s insistent drone has not been heard in these parts for four decades now. But there are still several hundred DC-3s flying elsewhere, though the number is dwindling. From North America to Europe to Australia, many are meticulously maintained as flying museums while others still do freight duty in the more remote parts of the US, Africa and Latin America. Some Dakotas have had their engines converted from piston to turbo-prop, which does not really make them ‘Dakotas’ anymore (if you ask me).

Airworthy DC-3s, it seems, can be had from anywhere between $80,000 to $150,000. There are also quite a few un-airworthy aircraft scattered around the world, including South Asia, and restoring them would be a labour of love, but painstaking. The generation of pilots and engineers who understood the ‘tail-dragger’ Dakota and its engineering and flying peculiarities are already in deep retirement.

Amidst obvious challenges, we need a not-for-profit company to be formed, raise the funds, and build the required managerial and aviation skills to bring back and fly a DC-3 Dakota over Nepali skies. The plane would have to be given its original RNAC colours and markings, to be located (with parking fees waived) at Tribhuvan/Gauchar.

A worldwide search would surely yield the kind of DC-3 aircraft that one could purchase, or have donated by a friendly institution or individual. The aircraft would be flown ‘back’ to Nepal and parked by the old runaway 20-02 used by the DC-3s of yore, which now serves as domestic and helicopter parking as well as aircraft cemetery.

Under the ideal scenario, a future ‘Nepal Dakota Flying Museum’ would charge tourists appropriately for a nostalgia flight that takes them back to the history of aviation as well as the history of modern Nepal. Given the modern day air traffic congestion, the aircraft would take off and take a wide circle along the Kathmandu Valley rim to gain height up to, say, 11,000 feet. It would then carry out a series of figures-of-eight over the northern reaches of the Valley, providing views of the High Himalaya and Mahabharat midhills and valleys. The flat glass panes of the rectangular windows will provide ideal opportunity for mountain photography.

The most important factor besides the financial viability would be the maintenance of the aircraft, which would, of course, have to be of the highest standard, including the latest avionics. Let us also keep in mind that the DC-3’s heavy carrying capacity relative to other aircraft flying domestically would make it useful for disaster relief and airdrops.

Re-introducing the Dakota to Nepali skies would also bring a new experience to the new generation in this age of turboprops and jets. Everyone should have the opportunity to watch a Dakota take off, to hear the engines’ roar, the plane starting its run, the tail coming up and the fly past in a snarling cacophony.

Ahhh, Dakota! Apparently, it is not impossible to love an aluminium machine!

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