Flying Through the Mountains

Written by Muhammad Omar Iftikhar  •  Features  •  April 2013 PDF Print E-mail

The scenic beauty surrounding the Paro International Airport in Bhutan is a traveler’s delight. However, flying in mountainous terrain is not an easy task.

The landlocked country of Bhutan is a traveler’s paradise. Surrounded by mountains and natural beauty, the country’s breathtaking sights attract tourists from around the world. The adventure begins when the airplane lands at the Paro Airport, the country’s only international airport which is situated in the Paro district. Nestled between towering mountains and lakes, the airport’s scenic location has become a tourist spot on its own merit.

The airport derives its name from the Paro Chhu Lake that runs parallel to it. Maintained by the Department of Civil Aviation, the Paro Airport terminal was constructed in 1999, offering a glimpse into Bhutan’s architectural heritage. In 2002, the airport handled nearly 37,000 passengers and 91,000 tones of cargo.

If passengers need to steady their nerves while the airplane descends, surrounded by mountains on either side, then the pilots too must maintain absolute concentration and possess nerves of steel while steering the airplane to safety. Despite its spectacular beauty, the Paro Airport is one of the most dangerous in the world. Flying an airplane into Bhutan is so challenging that only eight pilots in the world are qualified enough to land or take off from the Paro Airport. The airport, situated only 1.5 miles (2.4 km) above sea level and surrounded by pointed peaks of up to 18,000 feet, has a runway strip measuring only 6,500 feet in length (1.9 km).

Not only do high mountain peaks pose a challenge but pilots must also take extra caution when steering the plane to fly past houses built on the mountains. The wings come within an arm’s length from crashing into the roofs. It is because of this demanding environment that international carriers refrain from putting Bhutan on their route network. Only two airlines operate in the country - Druk Air Corporation Limited, Bhutan’s national airline and Tashi Air or Bhutan Airlines, the country’s first private airline. Druk Air flies to New Delhi, Kolkata, Bangkok, Kathmandu, and Bodh Gaya. Direct flights do not come to Bhutan. Tourists must first go to Nepal and take Nepal’s Buddha Air to reach Bhutan. In 2010, Buddha Air became the first international airline to operate to Bhutan. The thrilling air trip from Paro to Kathmandu passes over the tallest mountain range in the world. In clear weather, travelers can see Mount Everest and the entire Himalayan range.

The Paro Airport operates only in daytime, as it is nearly impossible to fly during the night. The control tower gives the green signal only when the atmosphere is clear. Due to the airport’s close proximity with the mountains, the conditions are not conducive for a night-flight.

Nearly 30,000 tourists use the airport every year. Bhutan has an undeveloped infrastructure and the country lags behind in modern facilities because of its isolated location. However, the Paro Airport does offer a range of services. Cargo facilities at the airport include a transit zone, fresh meat inspection site, baggage x-ray equipment, courier centre and aircraft maintenance crew. Facilities for passengers include check-in desks, baggage claim belt, parking spaces, airport hotel, post office, bank, restaurants, VIP lounge, and a Duty Free Shop. The airport’s facilities include a passenger terminal with four check-in desks, one cargo terminal and two aircraft hangars.

Apart from air travel, visitors can commute to Bhutan through roads using public transport. However, road travel in Bhutan is also dangerous as the mountainous terrain and an underdeveloped infrastructure makes the journey quite perilous. International tourists enter the country through three land borders in eastern Bhutan, namely Phuntsholing, Gelephu and Samdrup Jongkhar. They travel through mountains, hairpin bends and sub-tropical areas before reaching the city districts.

Airline pilots face a number of challenges when flying to Bhutan. First, the air pressure becomes difficult to handle when flying in an open area surrounded by mountains. The air swirls around the airplane as it begins descent. A similar disruption occurs during take-off as well, as the airplane has to fly upwards. The air pressure is, however, not much of a problem during take-off as it is during landing, as the pilot has to touch down precisely within the short landing strip.

Apart from Paro Airport, two other airports in Bhutan are the Yongphulla in the Trashigang District and Bathpalathang in the Bumthang District. Both serve as domestic airports. Bhutan also has plans to construct more domestic airports in the city of Gelephu in the Sarpang District.

The influx of visitors increases from April to June when Bhutan holds numerous national festivals and the pleasant climate makes it a memorable journey. The airport becomes over-crowded during peak seasons but the excitement of visiting Bhutan considerably lessens the discomfort. 

Muhammad Omar Iftikhar is Assistant Editor at SouthAsia. He writes on issues and social activism.

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