Fly­ing Through the Moun­tains

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.

Southasia - - Travel Airport - By Muham­mad Omar Iftikhar Muham­mad Omar Iftikhar is As­sis­tant Ed­i­tor at SouthA­sia. He writes on re­gional is­sues and so­cial ac­tivism.

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.

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