Why So Few Pilots Are Allowed At Bhutan’s Paro Airport

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Bhutan’s Paro International Airport is frequently featured on lists over the “world’s most dangerous airports.” Less than two dozen pilots are certified to make the manual by-daylight-only approach between 18,000 ft peaks, through a long, winding valley and onto a runway that is only 7,431 ft long, and visible only moments before landing. 

Why so few pilots are allowed to land at Paro
Landing at Bhutan’s Paro International Airport requires pilots to have a special certification. Photo: Getty Images

Manual approach by check-point landmarks

Very few pilots are certified to land at Bhutan’s Paro International Airport, and not without reason. Firstly, there is no radar to guide planes into the airport. The pilot needs to fly entirely on manual mode, according to procedures for landing that have been designed by experienced pilots and aircraft manufacturers. These specify at which speed and altitude the aircraft needs to be at specific visual landmark check-points as the pilots make their approach. 

For these reasons, flights are only allowed during daylight and under good visibility, and can often be diverted due to clouds. As if being able to check the visual landmarks and the runway wasn’t enough, the pilot also needs to watch out for electrical poles and house roofs on the hillside as they maneuver between the mountains at a 45-degree angle before dropping quickly onto the runway.

Other airports rely on ILS (Instrumental Landing Systems) to guide the aircraft laterally and vertically in an approach to landing. At Paro, the pilots only have one VOR (Very high-frequency Omni-directional Range) to guide them. However, an IFP (Instrument Flight Procedure) called RNP AR Cloud-Break is being developed for Paro by Airbus-owned NAVBLUE. 

Pilots need to adjust their approach according to visual check-points – and look out for rooftops. Photo: Getty Images

Unique and challenging factors 

The mountains surrounding the airport can be up to 18,000 ft, while Paro itself sits at an elevation of 7,364 feet. This in itself affects and restricts the performance of aircraft. Pilots also say that the runway is only really visible brief moments before landing.

Most airports have at least 10 nautical miles of distance for pilots to gauge an aligned approach onto the landing strip. Paro’s airport offers only one to two. However, it allows take-offs and approaches in both directions, as opposed to another recurring “world’s most dangerous” features, Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Lukla, Nepal.

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The pilots who are allowed to land at Paro airport are indeed a rarity. Photo: Getty Images

Drukair has a brand new A320neo

Only two airlines fly to Paro International Airport. The state-owned flag-carrier Drukair, also known as Royal Bhutan Airlines, has five planes in service. Three of them are 12-year-old Airbus A319-100s, and one turboprop ATR 42/72. It just took delivery of a brand new Airbus A320-200neo on the 18th of March, but the aircraft has yet to be deployed into revenue service. The privately-owned Bhutan Airlines operates two Airbus aircraft, both of them of the A319-100. 

National Airline Drukair recently took delivery fo an A320neo. Photo: Getty Images

Initially for the Indian military

Paro International Airport was initially built as an air-strip for on-call helicopter operations by the Indian Armed Forces on behalf of the Royal Government of Bhutan. The country’s first airline, Drukair, was established only in 1981 and inaugurated scheduled revenue flights two years later. The Bhutanese Department of Civil Aviation was only established in 1986, until what time Drukair was responsible for the operation and maintenance of the airport. 

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Drukair has 25 Bhutanese pilots, as well as 10 expatriate pilots on their crew. Only a handful of them have so far been certified to land the planes at Paro. The first Bhutanese female captain is Ugyen Dema who joined Drukair in 2006.

Have you landed at Paro Airport? How did you experience the approach? Would you like to fly there? Let us know in the comments! 

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