KATHMANDU: A 43-year-old plane operated by a private airline in mountainous Nepal went missing on Sunday (May 29) with 22 people on board, and officials said cloudy weather was preventing search helicopters from flying into the area of the flight's last known location.
The Tara Air plane took off from the tourist town of Pokhara, around 125km west of the capital, Kathmandu, for Jomsom, about 80km to the northwest, the officials said.
Flight-tracking website Flightradar24 said the missing De Havilland Canada DHC-6-300 Twin Otter aircraft with registration number 9N-AET made its first flight in April 1979.
"One search helicopter returned to Jomsom due to bad weather without locating the plane," the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal said in a statement.
"Helicopters are ready to take off for search from Kathmandu, Pokhara and Jomsom once weather conditions improve. Army and police search teams have left towards the site."
The airline said the plane was carrying four Indians, two Germans and 16 Nepalis, including three crew. Seven of the passengers were women, it said.
The plane lost contact with the control tower five minutes before it was due to land at Jomsom, a popular tourist and pilgrimage site, an airline official said on condition of anonymity.
The country's weather office said there had been thick cloud cover in the Pokhara-Jomson area since the morning.
Police official Prem Kumar Dani said a land rescue-and-search team had been sent to the area near Mount Dhaulagiri, the world's seventh-highest peak at 8,167m.
Nepal's aviation industry has boomed in recent years, flying tourists, trekkers and climbers as well as goods to remote corners where road access is limited.
But the impoverished Himalayan nation has a poor air safety record due to insufficient training and maintenance.
The European Union has banned all Nepali airlines from its airspace over safety concerns.
Nepal is home to eight of the world's 14 highest mountains, including Everest and its weather can change suddenly and airstrips are typically sited in difficult-to-reach mountainous areas.
In 1992, all 167 people aboard a Pakistan International Airlines plane were killed when it ploughed into a hill as it tried to land in Kathmandu.
In early 2018, a US-Bangla Airlines flight from Dhaka to Kathmandu crashed on landing and caught fire, killing 51 of the 71 people on board.
The following year three people died when a plane veered off the runway and hit two helicopters while taking off near Mount Everest.
The accident happened at Lukla airport, which is the main gateway to the Everest region and is reputed to be one of the most difficult in the world for landings and take-offs.
Also in 2019 Nepal's tourism minister Rabindra Adhikari was among seven people killed when a helicopter crashed in the country's hilly east.
This month Nepal's second international airport opened at Bhairahawa, aiming to give Buddhist pilgrims from across Asia access to the Buddha's birthplace at nearby Lumbini.
The US$76 million project will ease pressure on the overburdened Kathmandu international airport.