Aviation: In its first local charter, a group of Lunaps hired the government’s helicopter to travel back to remote Lunana in Gasa.

A group of 18 Lunaps, each paying Nu 32,750, flew from Zomlingthang in Punakha back to Lunana. The local rate for hiring the helicopter is around Nu 167,500 or USD 2,500. A five percent surcharge is added for transportation of fuel to Punakha. A total of three flights were conducted.

This is the first time the helicopter has been charted by locals and not for tourist purposes.

Many Lunaps, mostly the elderly and children, are currently in Punakha spending the winter months away from the harsh northern cold. They also migrate down to Lunana to stock up on basic necessities.

While Lunana is still under snow cover currently, the Lunana gup, Goenpo Tshering said that the group had to travel back based on an emergency. The group comprised of children, women, and even a 20-day old infant.

Travelling back on foot at this time of the year would have been impossible as the passes would be blocked. The passes are clear only between March and October.

Even when clear, the trek to Lunana from Tashithang and Goenshari in Punakha would take eight days. Some can make it in as little as five days.

In comparison, the helicopter flight took 25 minutes.

“It’s a great moment for us as a company and for the royal government,” Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services (RBHS) CEO Chhewang Gyeltshen said. “Our people living at high altitudes now have an alternate means of travel to reach home without confronting the arduous days of walk to reach home,” he added. “Not to mention the dangers of walking through the rugged terrain and the high snow laden passes which are perilous.”

Chhewang Gyeltshen said that more flights for the Lunaps could occur. “We have also discussed with the village headman to mobilize travellers and we have agreed to position a helicopter for a day or two in Punakha and do as many shuttles as possible to safely reach them home,” he said.

However, despite the significant savings in time travel, Goenpo Tshering said that there may not be further demand for the chopper given the hiring rate and unless a concession is provided.

He said that the Lunaps have requested the Prime Minister to consider a concession but that no decision had been made yet.

Lunana has a population of around 2,000 people from 195 households. The Lunaps farm and also depend on livestock but their main source of income is the highly lucrative fungi, cordyceps.

Locals are charged USD 2,500/hour for any kind of flight while tourists have to pay USD 5,000/hour. For medical evacuations, locals are charged USD 2,500/hour but tourists have to pay USD 10,500/hour.

For cargo operations, RBHS is charging USD 5,000 for transporting cargo in the helicopter cabin, and USD 6,000 if it is carried in a sling outside the helicopter.

Meanwhile, Chhewang Gyeltshen said that RBHS will consult with the Punakha dzongdag to establish a helipad and have basic requirements in place in the dzongkhag. RBHS has been transporting aviation fuel to Punakha and Bumthang so that helicopter operations can be extended. There is currently 800 litres of fuel based in Bumthang.

Chhewang Gyeltshen said that DHI Infra has also expressed interest in having power transmission equipment airlifted by RBHS.

So far, the helicopter has carried out medical evacuations, tourist flights, and one hydropower survey flight for the economic affairs ministry in the east of the country.

Gyalsten K Dorji