Chopper Service: Transporting The Lunaps From The Remote Highlands Of Bhutan To Punakha

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“The chopper is like a taxi for the Lunaps,” said a crew member of the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Service.

His Majesty the King of Bhutan trekked across Lunana from the 1st to 11th of July 2018, visiting villages and meeting with the people of the most inaccessible parts of the country. Seen here is the Rinchenzoe La, the highest pass on the trail, at an altitude of 5,269m. Like all passes in the country, it is adorned with prayer flags, invoking deities to provide protection and safe passage to travellers. (Source: Facebook/His Majesty king Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck)

  

By Tshering Dorji | Kuensel

It’s 8 am. Paro is frosty but calm. Inside an old aircraft hangar, the ground crew of the Royal Bhutan Helicopter Service Limited (RBHSL) prepares the A5 airbus chopper for take-off.

In about half an hour, the rotor blades starts to spin as the A5 hovers over the valley. From the northern Himalayas to the desolated paddy fields and clustered settlements of Thimphu, the splendid view from the sky comes to an abrupt end as the chopper descends along the Mochhu in Punakha.

Soon after it touches ground on the dusty helipad at Zomlingthang, the enthusiastic passengers get ready to go home. “The chopper is like a taxi for the Lunaps,” said a crew member.

 

 

Photo: RA Online

 

The chopper made four trips to Lunana from Zomlingthang on 25 December as it transported the residents of Lunana home from Punakha. And this is not unusual. At times two choppers had to be deployed, making between eight to 10 trips a day.

Crew members quickly prepared the weighing scale and start weighing the passengers and their cargos, while the captain, whom the Lunaps affectionately calls as ‘the driver’, pulls out two seats to accommodate their luggage.

What the Lunaps buy from Punakha and reasons for doing so

Sacks and cartons, the luggage of a Lunana resident contains almost everything imported. Instant noodles such as Wai Wai, beverages like Appy, Druk 11000 beer, garments, edible oil, meat, chicken, buckets, processed cheese, utensils, eggs, compound bows, rice, roasted rice, biscuits, footwear, toys and everything that are available in the shops of Punakha.

“In a place like Lunana, everything is vital for survival,” said Sonam who came to see his family off to Lunana.

“Men usually take the horses and make the journey on foot taking about a week,” he said adding that the chopper service has made it easier for women, children and the elderly to travel.

 

 Photo: Kuensel

 

While the chopper can accommodate up to six passengers, Lunaps often forgo their seats for their luggage.

The Chief Executive Officer of the RBHSL, Chewang Gyeltshen said that initially the chopper used to carry only passengers. Of late, passengers from Lunana started transporting goods including construction materials as well.

Back on the ground, officials make sure everything is weighed correctly as it can prove dangerous if the chopper gets overloaded. The A5 can ferry a load of about 330 kgs in winter and about 250 kgs in the summer because of the difference in temperature.

Subsidised cost of a round trip from Zomlingthang to Lunana

Another official is involved in collecting cash from the passengers. Some passengers share the fare among themselves depending on the weight of their luggage, while others with heavier load choose to bear the cost single-handedly.

A regular chartered flight could cost about Nu 150,000 (USD 2150) an hour. However, the RBHSL offers about 34 percent discount to the people of Lunana.

In addition 50 percent of the cost is born by the government, which lowers the fare to about Nu 55,000 (USD 790) a trip from Zomlingthang to Lunana. The round trip from Zomlingthang to Lunana takes almost an hour.

 

Photo: Druk Asia

 

“The chopper service is the most beneficial among all the developmental activities that has happened in Lunana,” said the village tshogpa, Pema who is the main contact person between the RBHSL and the community.

Before the chopper service was introduced, tshogpa Pema said that most Lunaps (Lunana residents) had never seen an aircraft before. Now, taking a chopper is nothing extraordinary for the Lunaps and it is not surprising that they personally know the crew members and officials of the RBHSL.

Almost every household has the contact number of the RBHSL officials and almost every resident in Lunana has already taken a ride on the chopper.

Each flight that returns from Lunana carries chhugo (hardened cheese), curd, butter and cheese. The chopper also delivers parcels from the mountains to their family members who are waiting at the bank of the Mochhu in Punakha.

A ‘religious’ trip for some Lunaps

Among many others who flew home on 25 December, after attending the moenlam chhenmo (the great prayer ceremony) in Punakha, Gyem Lham, 65, considers herself blessed as she could attend three moenlam chhenmos in Punakha in a row.

 

 

Gyem Lham, 65, readies for take-off.

Photo: Kuensel

 

Up in the mountains, she revealed that people hardly get to attend prayers and religious ceremonies.

“Because of the helicopter, I was able to understand the words of Buddha,” she said.

As it was her turn to board the chopper, she limped towards the chopper and looked nervous.

“It’s my third flight and I still don’t feel comfortable,” she said. “But it is still better than walking.”

To overcome airsickness, Gyem Lham usually closes her eyes and kneels down.

“While in the air, I don’t know where I have reached and neither do I look outside,” she said.

A 40-year-old, Passang Lhamo also flew to Punakha to attend the moenlam chhenmo.

“I feel blessed and sanctified,” she said, adding that she will always remember the words of the Buddhist masters who presided over the ceremony.

But unlike Gyem Lham, she is excited to fly even though she has already been on the chopper four times already.

“Every flight is different from the last,” she said.

The conditions of the landing pad and risks from flying object damage

While the chopper service has brought great benefits to the people of Lunana, officials at the RBHSL are more concerned about the condition of the landing pad.

 

Photo: Always Bhutan

 

CEO Chhewang Gyeltshen said that the landing pad in Zomlingthang is dusty and not favourable for landing and take-off

A chopper’s engine is usually rinsed after every 50 hours of flight. However, he said that rinsing has to be carried out after every trip to Punakha because of the dusty grounds in Zomlingthang.

While the construction of a more conducive landing pad has already been proposed to the government and is included in the 12th Plan, it needs to be prioritised.

An official from the RBHSL said that the danger of sustaining flying object damage (FOD) is also another concern. Since the landing pad in Zomlingthang is situated on public grounds, one can find people playing archery, picnicking, taking driving lessons and even grazing animals. Moreover, the area often sees tourists camping, which leaves the ground littered.

“There is every chance that FOD may hit the rotor blades,” the CEO said.

To solve this issue, the crew members said that the Lunaps have been very cooperative in cleaning up the ground before every take-off and landing.

Despite all these issues, the CEO said the biggest challenge faced is actually in refuelling the choppers. A team is sent from Paro to Punakha with barrels of fuel in a bolero pick-up every time there is a flight. Refuelling follows every landing in Zomlingthang as well.

 

This article first appeared in kuensel  and has been edited for the Daily Bhutan.

 


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