Is it really the most dangerous flight landing in the world, where only 12 pilots are qualified to fly into the Land of the Thunder Dragon? We speak to a Drukair pilot to set the record straight once and for all.
Firstly, there’s no radar to guide planes into the country.
Next imagine navigating around a long, winding, narrow valley surrounded by mountains as high as 18,000 feet, the pilot flying entirely on manual mode (and sheer experience).
Finally, while most airports offer at least 10 nautical miles – that’s about 18km – of distance for pilots to gauge the most aligned approach onto the landing strip, this airport accords just one to two nautical miles – which literally means no room for error.
We are talking about Paro International Airport, the main gateway into the Land of the Thunder Dragon – impossibly beautiful at every turn, a carbon negative country that’s also the happiest kingdom on earth.
But before explorations begin, have you ever wondered what goes on inside the cockpit? We catch up with Namgyal Wangchuk, Senior First Officer with Drukair, Royal Bhutan Airlines for the real story behind landing into Paro.
1. It truly is “one of the most challenging flights in the world”.
To put it simply, it’s mainly because of the terrain that surrounds Paro International Airport. The mountains go as high as 18,000 ft and the airport in contrast lies at an elevation of 7,364 ft – which affects and restricts the performance of the airplane. Navigating a mid-sized jet requires more space and time to make critical decisions during take-off and landing the aircraft.
2. Halve Changi Airport’s runway length, and you’ll have an idea of Paro Airport’s tight landing strip.
Another factor that makes flying into Paro unique and challenging is the length of the runway. It’s only 7,431 ft long (compared to Changi Airport’s 13,123 ft), and all the above factors demand the pilot to be very precise when landing.
3. Planes can always land on auto pilot mode, right?
Not for approach into Paro. We do have our own company procedures for landing that’s been designed by our experienced captains and plane manufacturer, which depicts at what speed and altitude we’ll have to be at each checkpoint while approaching descend. I won’t go into detail as it’s quite technical!
4. If pilots can’t fly manually with confidence, then Paro International Airport is out of the question.
Other international airports have a technology called an ILS (Instrument Landing System) which guides the aircraft laterally and vertically in an approach to landing. But in Paro, the descent is always manually flown and we have just one VOR (Very high frequency Omnidirectional range) equipment to aid us in the approach.
5. You’ll never find red-eye flights into Bhutan.
All flights into Paro are limited to Visual Meteorological Conditions only – meaning there must be sufficient visibility of other aircrafts and surrounding terrain. Bhutan bound flights are thus restricted to daylight hours, so no night flying!
6. Think the views of the Himalayan Alps are mesmerising? Wait, there’s more.
As you might have heard, our country has been preserving its forest cover so when we fly in, we’re very close to the mountains which lets you in on an amazing view. Nearing the airport, the rice fields are always changing in colours according to seasons so that’s quite an experience too.
7. Yes, Drukair has expatriate pilots too!
There used to be very little international pilots with Drukair, but now that the the aviation sector in Bhutan in general is growing rapidly we now have 25 Bhutanese pilots, and a good size of 10 expatriate pilots.