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Paro International Airport: How to land an Airbus in the mountains of Bhutan

Paro International Airport: How to land an Airbus in the mountains of Bhutan

Nestled in a narrow valley between high mountains, it has no technical aid and struggles with changing weather. Drukair’s Chief Pilot explains how to travel to the challenging Paro International Airport.

Dhondup Gyaltshen does not accept one thing. “People always talk about Barrow being a dangerous airport. “It’s not dangerous,” says the chief pilot for state airline Drucker. “But working there is a challenge.”

Paro International Airport is Bhutan’s domestic airport and is located in the Paro Chu River valley at 2,235 meters above sea level. Throughout the mountains it reaches a height of 5500 meters. Because of the high altitude, aircraft cannot take off and land here with a full payload. An experienced pilot explains that “the density of the air decreases with increasing altitude.”

Best place for Bhutan airport

This problem is exacerbated when temperatures rise in summer. The temperature is currently 33 degrees. “At higher altitudes and higher temperatures, the air becomes very thin,” says the pilot. But that and the situation in the gorge are not the only challenges Jialchen and his 23 teammates have to face every day.

In addition, there is the runway which is 2,265 meters long and can hardly be extended due to the terrain and weather. “If you include all the points like this, we already have downsides that would speak against building an airport.” However, according to an experienced pilot, it is the best place for an airport. “From Paro International Airport, one can drive to the capital Thimphu in one hour.”

Very strong wind in spring

He said the weather at Paro airport is tough, especially in the summer. “During the monsoon, the weather can change every 15 to 20 minutes,” said Drukair’s chief pilot. Spring is tough too. “Then we have very strong winds,” says Jalchen. “But we’re used to it.”

The only international airport in Bhutan does not know technical assistance. There is no ILS instrument landing system. “We’re always getting close to our vision,” Gyaltshen explains. His airline owns three Airbus A319-100, an A320neo and an ATR 42.

Most of them come from the south

Most of the time, Drukair pilots land on runway 15 from the south. “There is a waypoint south of the airport called Takti, where we go down to 16,000 feet or 4,876 metres,” the Bhutanese national airline chief pilot explains. He says that when you see the lighthouse south of the airport, you go down to 13,500 feet and then to 12,000 feet. “We have to see the runway there, otherwise we won’t be able to land,” he says.

Dhondup Gyaltshen: The Drukair Chief Pilot. Photo: dukir

“When we see the runway, we orient ourselves to points in the landscape,” says Gilchen. Now there is a curve. At about 10,000 feet, the cockpit crew sees a temple. “There’s still two to three minutes left until landing.” At the last moment, another sharp turn is made to align the aircraft with the runway.

Everything happens on the horizon

In order to land at Paro International Airport, pilots must undergo extensive training. First comes the training in the simulator. “We do three or four sessions where we train on runway handling, and engine failure on takeoff and cornering,” says Jalchen, chief pilot. Next, newcomers must complete 40 flights with a training captain.

The experienced captain says that anyone who flies in Bhutan should really love to fly. “Today everything is automated everywhere, you have GPS, you have ILS. Of course there are many small airports in the world, but for smaller aircraft. But for the size of our Airbus jets, the Barrow is one of the biggest challenges because we fly manually and only visually,” says Gialchen. On approach, the cockpit crew has to turn off the GPWS, which warns of collisions with terrain. “You’ll hit all the time.”

Two alternate airports

In order to be able to land in Bhutan, Drukair’s Airbus A319 aircraft had to be specially modified for landing in Paro. “The normal engine that other operators use can’t provide enough power,” said Jialchen. The Himalayan national airline is based on CFM-56-5B engines with a thrust of 120 kt. On the other hand, the Airbus A320neo is identical in construction to the machines used by other airlines. Its engines are powerful enough.

What if landing is not possible? “We have two alternative airports in India,” says Gilchen. The closest is Bagdogra which is about 15 minutes away from Paro and the other is Guwahati which is about 25 minutes away.

Overwhelmed every time

But is the pilot still enjoying the beautiful scenery, or is he just too busy? “Every time, really every time. I have been traveling for over 33 years and every time I get to the airport I feel very satisfied.”

aeroTELEGRAPH is organizing a reader’s trip to Bhutan in October 2022. Not only will you learn about the wonderful kingdom of the Himalayas, but you can also experience an exclusive approach to Paro Airport in the cockpit of a Drukair Airbus. More information can be found here.