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Aviation: In the event of any emergencies requiring rotary air support, Bhutan’s first helicopter will be able to respond from today.

The services of the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services (RBHS) was launched by Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay at the Lungtenphu helipad in Thimphu, yesterday.

The inauguration is a part of the 60th birth anniversary celebrations of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo.

The primary role of the helicopter is to aid the public during emergencies.

The chairman of the helicopter board, Kinzang Wangdi, pointed out that the helicopter would respond to distress calls to airlift seriously or critically ill persons from very remote areas like, for instance, Lunana. “Where evacuation through horseback or even in a road condition, would mean a difference in the life and death of that person.”

Responding during disasters, like fires, floods, and earthquakes, is another primary mandate.

“All of us cringe at the memories of how we lost six young lives several years ago because we did not have the means to save them,” the chairman said, referring to the 2009 incident in which rescuers were not able to save six schoolboys trapped on a rock in the middle of a swollen Wangchhu. Rescue attempts had dragged on for thirteen hours.

“We also sadly remember how we lost one of our national heritages, the Wangduephodrang dzong, to the ravages of fire, as we looked on helplessly,” Kinzang Wangdi added. The dzong was razed by a fire in 2012.

“It is my honour to report here that the standard operation procedures to respond to medical evacuations and disaster calls have been drafted and approved by the board,” Kinzang Wangdi said.

Ceremony: Tshugla lopon Samten Dorji conducts the purification ceremony at the Lungtenphu helipad

Ceremony: Tshugla lopon Samten Dorji conducts the purification ceremony at the Lungtenphu helipad

The helicopter can be equipped with a sling capable of lifting 1,500kgs, that can be used to not only lift people but water as well for fire fighting duties.

Kinzang Wangdi pointed out that the helicopter will also be used to ferry government officials to oversee and monitor developmental activity. “We very well know how timely intervention or lack of it have played an integral part in the success of developmental activities,” he said.

The helicopter company will have to sustain itself from income generated from commercial services provided while not fulfilling its social mandate to the public.

“Therefore, when we’re not required to fulfil the socio-developmental mandate the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services will also be opened to business,” Kinzang Wangdi said. He pointed out that the helicopter can be hired for private uses like transporting passengers, scenic flights for tourists, and transportation of cargo. He said that it is expected that the Bhutan Power Corporation and Bhutan Telecom may be the helicopter’s primary clients in transporting cargo. The two companies have hired helicopters from Nepal in the past to transport infrastructure to the northern parts of the country.

While the helicopter board has determined service rates, it is yet to be endorsed by the cabinet and therefore could not be revealed by the chairman, yesterday.

Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay pointed out the advantages of having rotary services in Bhutan as opposed to fixed-wing aircraft. He said that as a landlocked country, air services was very important and that as a result of the mountainous terrain, space was limited to build runways for fixed-wing aircraft.

There are an estimated 40 helipads in Bhutan compared to four airports.

The Prime Minister has already used the helicopter.

While the helicopter was undergoing a familiarization flight for its pilots to Lhuntse on November 2, Lyonchoen also hitched a ride. “I can testify to their experience and ability,” he said, referring to the pilots. “We went through all different types of flying terrain and flying conditions the other day, and I can say very simply, that our helicopter is in extremely good hands, extremely safe hands.”

The flight time to Lhuentse was around an hour. By vehicle, the trip to Lhuentse from Thimphu would have taken between two and two and half days, Lyonchoen said. He also pointed out that a vehicle would have to travel 489km to Lhuentse, but by helicopter this distance was reduced to 150km.

Lyonchoen also emphasized that he expected nothing less than the highest international standards when it comes to safety and comfort from the company.

Lyonchoen also pointed out that for self-sufficiency to be achieved, the fast services of the helicopter would be required in assessing economic development. This would also encourage foreign direct investment, he said.

It was also emphasized that the helicopter is public property and that for the company, profit must not become more important than its public mandate.

Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services (RBHS) CEO Chhewang Gyeltshen said that so far, proving flights had covered 15 dzongkhags. However, he pointed out that if a distress call was received today for either a forest fire or a medical evacuation, the helicopter would be able to respond.

RBHS has recruited one Airbus recommended pilot and one engineer. While a test pilot from Airbus and an Airbus engineer is currently here with the helicopter, they will be returning to Singapore shortly.

This may be an issue later on as the Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority (BCAA) has notified RBHS that for VVIP flights, two pilots will have to be on board as a precautionary requirement.

The Airbus H130 can be flown with only one pilot as long as long as the pilot’s certifications and medical clearances are up to date.

However, BCAA director, Wangdi Gyeltshen said that the authority is following international best practises. He said that the BCAA had required Tashi Air to follow the same requirement when it operated its Pilatus aircraft in Bhutan. He added that we shouldn’t be too confident and that time would allow the authority to examine the issue, and perhaps, review it later on.

Following the ceremony, the helicopter, which can seat up to seven passengers and one pilot, made two brief flights over Thimphu city carrying with it the Prime Minister, ministers, and other senior government officials.

Gyalsten K Dorji

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