31
$\begingroup$

Why is Paro Airport (currently the only international airport of Bhutan) considered one of the most dangerous airports to land in the world?

Is it because of the mountains? In my opinion, Princess Juliana International Airport is also as challenging as Paro.

  • Why do the pilots need a special certification to land there?
  • How do they achieve this certificate?
$\endgroup$
  • 11
    $\begingroup$ I think this says it all...youtube.com/watch?v=rmGy7qcDwQU $\endgroup$ – DJohnM Nov 27 '14 at 19:21
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Yeah! It all seems calm for the first part, and then as they're closer to the ground it's like "hmmm - where's the runway", then the turn onto finals: wow! There it is! $\endgroup$ – GreenAsJade Nov 28 '14 at 6:06
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ @User58220 Now I know that I can never be an airline pilot. Not only am I too old to learn something like that but also, I'd burst out laughing and lose concentration when, at a critical moment, the aircraft dispassionately criticized my flying: "Retard. Retard. Retard. Retard." $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Nov 28 '14 at 10:36
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby: The worst thing is than the call itself is retarded. It seems to be triggered by 20 or 15 ft RA and does not check speed, so it will tell you even if you are slow on the approach and should keep power down to touch-down to avoid tail-strike (there was a tail-strike incident where this was described; I read it on avherald, but don't remember enough details to find it now). $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Dec 3 '14 at 8:57
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby: As for the History Channel list both the order and the choice are rather questionable. It is built more to be varied, otherwise Nepal alone probably has 10 airports more dangerous than TCNM. TCNM itself probably got into the list more due to risk of the fools hanging on to the fence than risk to aircraft themselves. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Dec 3 '14 at 9:13
53
$\begingroup$

The approach to Paro is unbelievably complicated. It is flown visually through a valley with high mountains all around and no sight of the airport until the last moment. Here is a cut of a map with the approach paths:

Area around Paro Airport (from Google Map) with approach directions

Approach to runway 15, marked in red, is worse in this regard. The ridge is rather close to the airport, so the final turn usually ends over the runway threshold. The wings get level with 30–50 ft (10–15 m) remaining only (here's a video). The approach to runway 33, marked in blue, allows a bit more of a straight final, but not by much. In either case the aircraft must emerge from the turn with correct altitude, speed and rate of descent. So the pilot has to know landmarks in the valley and how to judge correct approach profile by them. The approaches also often involve turning around higher in the valleys which again must be done by landmarks at places where it is known to be possible. It is this knowledge pilots have to demonstrate before they can attempt the approach (as pilots in command).

There are other airports where pilots have to receive special training to be permitted to fly there, for example the Samedan Airport near St. Moritz in Switzerland, which is similar mix of high altitude, high mountains around and visual approach, though it's still a lot easier as the airport is visible from much greater distance.

There is however nothing similarly difficult on Princess Juliana Airport. It appears approaches to Princess Juliana are only flown to runway 10 and these are over flat sea and flat beach. The runway is visible from great distance and the approach is straight. The featureless water makes it slightly harder to judge height than solid ground, but that's what the approach lights (VASI/PAPI) and distance-altitude table are for (there is no ILS at TNCM, only VOR-DME). And there are many airports with approach over water, so it's nothing unusual for the pilots. If there was approach to runway 28, it would have to be off-axis to avoid the hills on the island, but it does not appear to be used at all.


The pilot, Marek Tůma, who ferried in and for first 3 months commanded the ATR-42-500 A5-RGH, wrote a 4-part report (2, 3, 4; unfortunately in Czech) about flying in Bhutan.

According to that the training involved:

  1. Couple of hours on simulator (in Bangkok).
  2. Then they were permitted to ferry the plane to Paro.
  3. Flight as observers with the training captain who showed them all the relevant landmarks in reality.
  4. Some practice circuits.

They couldn't fly with the training captain in the other seat, because they were ATR-42 pilots and the training captain flies A320-family (and possibly still has rating for the older BAe146, but not ATR-42).

He also wrote that while on early flights when temperatures are still low the performance is good, later in the day it becomes marginal and they often needed to follow the valley quite far before they managed to climb above the mountains. Careful planning and weight and balance calculation was always necessary.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ There is no ILS at TNCM - VASI lights only. $\endgroup$ – J... Nov 28 '14 at 13:04
  • $\begingroup$ @J... true; I'll fix it. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 28 '14 at 14:12
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do we even dare ask what a go-around procedure for Paro is like? $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Nov 28 '14 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth: Go-around procedure is no different from take-off procedure: climb up the valley up to the turning point. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 28 '14 at 18:09
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @DJClayworth: There are other airports where landing is only one way and take-off is the opposite way and go-around is not an option beyond certain point, for example Tenzing-Hillary Airport at Lukla. But Paro allows both take-off and landing in both directions, so go-around is always possible. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 28 '14 at 18:17
30
$\begingroup$

This is really two questions

  1. Why does Paro need special certification?
  2. Why doesn't Princess Juliana need special certification?

I'll answer both, which I think answers your overall question about "Why does Paro need special certification but Princess Juliana doesn't?"

Why does Paro need special certification?

You've mostly answered this, it's because it's high up and in challenging terrain.

  • Less dense air at higher altitude requires a higher groundspeed on landing
  • The nature of the valley means there are almost constant, unpredictable gusty crosswinds. Nasty at any airport, but worse here due the terrain
  • The runway is short considering the terrain - it's not a short runway per se, but it increases the chance of needing to go around, which is tricky
  • It's very hard to go around compared to most airports - you need to know exactly where you're flying, rather than just maintaining runway heading and climbing out until given other instructions
  • You're in mountainous terrain (lots of things to crash into!)
  • The approaches are visual - added to the fact it's a difficult approach in the first place. The lack of ILS makes landing harder, you don't know if you're on the glideslope or not
  • And this has been covered by the other points, but it's worth repeating.... There are 5000m high mountains all around it, dramatically limiting approach and escape options

There's real no question that Paro is a difficult airport to land at: it requires an unusual approach, special awareness, a higher than normal level of skill and is very unforgiving.

Why doesn't Princess Juliana need special certification?

Because although the videos look very dramatic, simply put, it's not very hard to land at. The runway is short compared to most international airports, but it is long enough. Once the runway is beyond the minimum required for an aircraft, it's long enough and that's all there is to it. A longer runway may in theory require fewer go-arounds, but a "long enough" runway doesn't make landing there hard

Other than the runway length which, as just described, isn't actually a problem, there's nothing too difficult about it:

  • It's got nice, open approaches at each end
  • Clear glideslopes
  • It's at sea level, maneuvering is about as easy as it gets
  • It's an Instrument approach, you can make it in almost any weather
  • There's loads of time/space to make a missed approach and go around
  • There are no 5000m mountains around it, just lots of sea - and if you crash into the sea, you would have crashed into the ground anywhere else, so this isn't any more difficult than any other airport

It's not the easiest airport ever to land at, but it's not unusually difficult... although it certainly looks very dramatic, with the videos of Airliners sweeping over the top of a beach and road. The important thing to note is that the beach and road are both well below the glideslope - aircraft only really care about obstructions near or above the regular glideslope.

Although that beach approach looks crazy it actually poses no problems whatsoever for an aircraft - the jets are still comfortably on the glideslope: they don't care if the last section before the runway is grass, sand, a road etc, they were always going to be at that altitude.


You since edited the question to ask how they get this certification - you'd have to go and work for Druk Air (Royal Bhutan Airlines). Until recently they were the only carrier who flew into or out of the airport, and they work with the Bhutan government to certify pilots.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ 2 very great answers! was hard to choose the one to tag as answer, choosed the one with more upvotes! $\endgroup$ – TesterMen Tester Nov 28 '14 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not so sure about "nice open approaches at each end". From Google Maps it looks like there's a 250 m ridge about 2.5 km from the threshold of runway 28. (The other answer indicates there are no approaches in that direction). $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Nov 28 '14 at 17:38
  • $\begingroup$ @HenningMakholm: Indeed, it seems at TNCM runway 28 is not used at all. I tried looking up approach plates and all of them only mentioned approaches to runway 10. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 28 '14 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ It's not used simply because prevailing winds make 10 a good option almost all the time, and there's no need to go over the hills - as far as I'm aware 28 does have a 3 degree (ie standard) glide slope available though if it was wanted (that said, I wouldn't bet my house on it) $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Nov 28 '14 at 18:46
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If the elevations at Google Maps can be trusted, a glide path flatter than about 6° would pass through the hills east of the lagoon. $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Nov 28 '14 at 19:18

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.