01 Sep 2017
6 min read
1601 words
Colonel Madan KC talks about how he dealt with the challenges of his job as a Search and Rescue pilot, and how the rewards of the job kept him going

He likes to brush off his rescue missions as just another day's work, but Colonel Madan KC, a now retired Nepali Army rescue pilot, certainly has a legendary aura about him. The pilot--who has saved hundreds of survivors of natural disasters and injured mountaineers, and even recovered bodies of many who didn't survive--may have lost count of the number of missions he has led over the years, but he has always been grateful for the opportunity he has received to make a difference.

In his 31 years with the Nepal Army, KC has been lauded for his work. However, it was the 1996 Everest rescue that put him in the spotlight. The risky rescue mission entailed the highest altitude helicopter landing in history at the time, and the incident was later the inspiration for two Hollywood films--the latest being the 2015 thriller Everest.

For this week's Inspire, Alok Thapa spoke with KC about what it's like to save people's lives, and how the colonel's family deals with the dangerous nature of his job.

During search and rescue (SAR) operations, you risk your life to save the lives of others. What drives you to do this?
I never planned to be in the army, let alone become a pilot. When I got shortlisted for pilot training, I didn't even know how to ride a bike. But I got a hint of what my job demanded as I started getting more involved in various rescue missions. I would say there is no sight more gratifying than the expression of the person whose life you just saved (and his family members).

Of course, there are times when you can't save a life. How do you deal with that?
When I'm on the job, I never let my emotions cloud my judgement. For any small deviation from the standard operating procedure almost always leads to disastrous outcomes. There have been times when we have been asked not to take on a rescue mission at the last minute because of situations that were beyond our control, and it does feel bad when we have to do that. However, I'm not the kind of person who spends my days wondering about the what if's and worrying about something that I have no control over. As with life, you need to move on.

You mentioned that the army and piloting happened by chance. What were your real ambitions?
I had no ambitions, actually. I was born in a small village in Pokhara, where we didn't have a lot of facilities. My family was poor, but we managed to get by. My father was a retired police officer and my mother a housewife, so at an early age, I had accepted that things would not come easily to me. I started schooling at the age of nine, after the first school opened in our village. Later, I came to Kathmandu to study science, and thus started a new phase of my life.

What have those years taught you?
In those days, Rs 100 was enough to cover my monthly expenses--which included my rent, food, travel expenses and college fees. I used to share a rented room with a bunch of friends. But there were times when I couldn't manage to pay for my amenities, so I had to live off bread, which used to cost me 25 paisa, and tea for days. Those tough years have made me appreciate my education, my work, my family and my journey so far. I'm grateful for everything in my life--and that's what drives me to do more every day.

How did your career as a pilot actually start?
I was quite tall and lanky, and in my class, everyone used to joke that I should enroll in the army. So, on a whim, I applied for a Second Lieutenant vacancy while I was pursuing my bachelors degree. I was among the final nine who got selected from over 300 candidates. When I told my family about it, they didn't believe me. Later, there was an opening for pilot training; I applied, and lo and behold, I got selected.

And how did it feel to be a pilot?
In those days, pilots were usually foreigners, and people had reservations about a local lad operating those flying machines. But for a young Nepali man, a career as a pilot was definitely appealing because, among other perks, it promised an attractive salary and the opportunity to travel around the globe. In those days, there weren't any private helicopter companies, so we were always busy undertaking a range of interesting missions. It was during that time that I got to rescue survivors of natural disasters, and that was what really drew me towards SAR.

What was the appeal of SAR?
When you are training for the military, you train for something you hope will never happen--war. But in SAR, you get to use all the skills you learned over the years to do something that's worthwhile. Every mission presented a new challenge that helped me grow and learn.

Was SAR everything you thought it was going to be?
It was everything that I had hoped it would be, and more. SAR made me trust my instincts and take risks, which allowed me to save many lives. Every mission is a team effort. When you're flying, you are literally relying on each other for your lives. There were times when we would be hovering just a couple of feet above a cliff, and we would be able to save people's lives only if we worked as a team.

Can you share one of your most memorable missions?
It was during the 2045 BS (1988) Udayapur Earthquake, which had hit the Eastern Development Region. When I was flying over a crumbled building, I saw an old man waving his arms. I flew down to the top of the structure and rescued him. When we landed, we found that his family had been anxiously waiting for us, and they rushed to embrace the old man as soon as they saw him. When you see fathers hug their sons, and husbands run towards their wives, you realise how worthwhile every risk you take is. As pilots, we get to witness all of that. I've had that experience a number of times. Nothing can substitute for that experience. 

Your highest profile mission was the 1996 Everest Rescue--how did that day unfold? 
Eight climbers had perished near the summit of Mount Everest during a single storm. But miraculously, an American climber, Beck Weathers, had survived two nights at that altitude. I couldn't abandon him, and so, even after a failed first attempt, I went back for him. I emptied my chopper of any unnecessary equipment to make the aircraft lighter, and flew solo up the Khumbu Ice Fall. That was a very risky decision I took because I was on my own, and at that altitude, no one could even come and help me. I maintained my confidence and steadily pushed the French-made B2 Ecureuil (Squirrel) helicopter beyond its recommended limits, above 6,200 metres, to rescue Weathers. When returning, I also managed to save a Taiwanese climber from Camp II.

How did it feel to be portrayed in the Hollywood blockbuster Everest?
It felt nice to be acknowledged for doing my duty. While it was flattering to receive media attention and accolades from around the world, for us, it's all a day's work. To me, my work is about having the courage to take risks, and giving people hope when all else has failed.

What keeps you busy nowadays?
I have retired from the Nepal Army, but I'm still active and fly regularly. Of late, I've been thinking about making an autobiographical documentary--a film that will not only depict the Everest rescue mission, but will also narrate my other life experiences.