Bird strike suspected after seven Britons die in Nepal air crash

TRIBUTES have been paid to seven Britons who were among 19 people killed in a plane crash in Nepal when their aircraft burst into flames before plummeting to the ground.

• Crash occurred near Nepal’s capital of Kathmandu with plane headed for Lukla

• Dead Britons had planned to climb Mount Everest

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• Reports suggest crash was caused by a bird strike

Darren Kelly, 45, from the Isle of Whithorn in Wigtownshire, was one of the victims of the tragedy in Kathmandu, which is believed to have been caused by a bird flying into one of the engines after take-off.

Prime Minister David Cameron said it was an “absolutely horrific incident”.

The seven-strong group from Britain, who were aged between 27 and 60, had been heading for a three-week trekking holiday in the foothills of Mount Everest when their twin-engine, propeller-driven Dornier plane crashed into a football pitch by the banks of the Manohara river in Bhaktapur.

Local travel firm Sherpa Adventures identified the British victims as Mr Kelly; his brother, Vincent, 50, from Bolton; Raymond Eagle, 58, from Macclesfield; Christopher Davey, 51, from Moulton, Northampton; Timothy Oakes, 57, from Winwick, Cheshire; Stephen Holding, 60, from Barlaston near Stoke-on-Trent, and London-based Oxford graduate Benjamin Ogden, 27, an associate at international law firm Allen & Overy.

The Foreign Office said the victims’ families had all been informed. It is understood five Chinese nationals, four crew members from Nepal and three Nepalese passengers, including the group’s tour guide, also died.

In the close-knit community of the Isle of Whithorn, shocked villagers were coming to terms with the death of Mr Kelly, originally from Lostock in Bolton, describing him as a “great asset” to the area. He and his partner, Jannine, relocated about five years ago to south-west Scotland, where they got married and renovated an old warehouse to turn it into a holiday let accommodation.

Harbourmaster Shaun McGuire said: “ I knew Darren well. He was a really fine fellow and mixed with everyone. He enjoyed having banter with the chaps in the pub especially about football – he was a Bolton Wanderers fan.

“He loved scuba driving. He was a keen member of the diving club in Newton Stewart and used to explore wrecks around the coast. He went to Scapa Flow last year. He was also a golfer and a cyclist.

“He sponsored a local bowling competition in memory of a local fisherman who lost his life in Solway Harvester tragedy.”

Mr McGuire added: “The whole village is devastated by Darren’s death and our thoughts go out to the family.”

Alastair Scoular, 39, the landlord of the Steam Packet Inn, next door to Mr Kelly’s home, said: “He was one of the straightest, most hard-working people I have ever met – a really nice guy. He was part of the community and will be a very sad loss.”

In an emotional tribute, Mr Oakes’ wife, Angie Gaunt, said her husband had been on a “trip of a lifetime” and such accidents “should never deter people from living out their dreams”.

Ms Gaunt, who had a daughter with the mountaineer, said: “He lived life to the full and died doing something he always wanted to do. He always wanted to go to Everest base camp, and that’s what he was doing. It was the trip of a lifetime – he had always wanted to do it.

“When you live, if you live your life to the full, you take risks. You can go to work in the morning and get run over by a car. This should not deter people. He was a climber and a mountaineer.”

The group arrived in Nepal on Wednesday and had been due to begin trekking yesterday. But within minutes of their plane departing Kathmandu for Lukla, things went disastrously wrong.

The pilot reported trouble two minutes after take-off, with reports suggesting a bird had flown into one of the front engines. Tribhuvan International Airport official Ratish Chandra Suman said the plane appeared to have been trying to turn back to the airport when it crashed.

Witnesses said they heard screaming coming from inside the plane before it crashed into a field and said it was already on fire before it hit the ground.

Harimaya Tamang, who lives near the crash site, said: “We thought the pilot was trying to force land because it was on fire and the river area had open space to land.

“The plane hit the ground, bounced once, but it did not break. The plane was already on fire, the local people rushed with buckets and tried to put out the flames but it was too hot and people could not get close enough.”

Footage showed the front of the plane on fire as it hit the ground. The fire quickly spread to the rear, but the tail was still in one piece. Photographs showed a large blaze with thick black plumes of smoke.

During his visit to Brazil, Prime Minister David Cameron said: “It is an absolutely horrific incident, and obviously I feel for the families concerned.

“I know our ambassador in Nepal is on the case and on the spot dealing with it. Obviously, we will have to find out exactly what happened. It is a deeply, deeply tragic case.”

Ashley Toft, managing director of Hampshire firm Explore Worldwide, which organised the Britons’ trip, said the plane belonged to Sita Air, Nepal’s domestic airline.

He said the weather had been good as the plane took off at about 6:15am local time, adding: “We are devastated by this news. Our thoughts are very much with the families of those affected, both in the UK and in Nepal.”

John Tucknott, British ambassador to Nepal, said: “Regretfully, all those on board perished. Our thoughts at the moment are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives.”

It is also almost a year to the day since another plane crash in Nepal killed all 19 people on board. A turboprop plane belonging to Buddha Air was carrying 13 foreign tourists, three Nepalese passengers and three crew members when it crashed a few miles south of Katmandu.

James McConnachie, co-author of the Rough Guide to Nepal, who has frequently visited the country over the last 20 years, said flying there was “very dangerous indeed”.

He said the mountainous terrain and regulation of domestic airlines were both “appalling”, with fuel often adulterated and some aircraft in a poor state of repair. There had been some 24 major crashes in Nepal since 1992, he added.

Mr McConnachie said the airport in Kathmandu was next to a river that was used as a rubbish dump, and that attracted “a lot of birds” to the area.

He said: “It is just a very poor, corrupt country. You cannot trust [the aircraft] in quite the same way as you can in better-regulated countries.”

Philippa Oldham, head of transport at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “Ninety per cent of bird strikes occur during take-off or landing of aircraft and the majority of bird strikes lead to little damage of the aircraft. But they can sometimes cause aeroplane failure – particularly if the bird is very large.”

The Foreign Office has set up a helpline for concerned relatives on 020 7008 1500.