Q. Landing in Paro airport is different and way more challenging than landing in other airports due to the location of the airport in a valley surrounded by towering mountains, making it one of the most dangerous airports for landing in the world. What are the take-off and landing procedures?
Indeed, flying in and out of the Paro Airport is such a thrill for pilots. I would term it as one of the most “demanding” as it requires the highest levels of piloting skills, but not necessarily the most “dangerous”.
There are many airports around the world which are much easier to land and take off but may be much more risky owing to traffic and the instrument landing procedures that allow aircrafts to fly in at much worse weather conditions. So, saliently, those airports could be more dangerous than Paro airport, where pilots do not attempt a landing below a certain weather minima or pre-conditions being satisfied. That is, of course, just my personal opinion.
The takeoff procedure from Paro involves a certain weather limitation being satisfied prior to departure. The flight path of the aircraft in between the mountains and visual reference points must be clear of any clouding.
It is the single engine performance of the aircraft that must be taken into account while deciding on the total load of passengers and other loads that may be carried onboard. This usually impacts the total amount of fuel that can be carried onboard, thus, long distance destinations usually require a technical halt at a nearby airport in India, where we can uplift more fuel to continue the journey.
Procedures for takeoff are only visual. There are no instrument departures out of Paro. There is a VOR/DME to help pilots with their orientation in IMC (instrument Met Conditions). As a part of the Company Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), there are pre-determined “headings” or “tracks” to help the pilots fly safely out of the terrain and join the Airway/Air-routes in the area. Overall, the departure is performed only in VMC (Visual Met Conditions) and the pilots are trained to identify certain landmarks along the path to help them perform the procedure safely.
Similarly, the arrivals and landings must also be performed visually. All captains are trained meticulously to fly the approach and landing in the simulators and the actual aircraft, where they are required to demonstrate their ability to safely take off and land in Paro in asymmetric engine conditions in the event of a failure in one of the engines.
Initial approach in IMC involves the pilots commencing a “Cloud Break Procedure” using the onboard navigation system coupled with VOR/DME to help break visual with the ground around the airport. Pilots are then required to disconnect the autopilot and navigate visually to land at the airport. Landings from either side of the runway (runway 33 and runway 15, which are directions in which the runway is oriented) involves very sharp turns prior to touch down, to align the plane to the runway. Runway 15 is extremely challenging for pilots especially with strong prevailing winds in the valley around the airport. Even with years of experience, this maneuver can still seem tricky from time to time. But with a year-long command training, newly released commanders are well-trained to handle any of the exigencies that may arise in operating the A320 in Paro.
Paro airport may be the most demanding on a pilot’s skill, especially flying a jetliner such as an A320/319. It is not inherently the “most dangerous” given the nature of the terrain surrounding the airport that allows a pilot to manually fly the aircraft safely. And pilots will never operate into Paro airport unless the weather conditions are favorable.
The manual flying skills and knowledge of the local terrain is essential in being able to safely fly the plane in and out of Paro. A newly hired or upgraded captain is mandated to undergo a stringent training and checking procedure prior to being released to take command of aircrafts.
Q. I understand that not every pilot is certified to fly into the mountainous terrain that surrounds the Paro airport. It takes special skills and technique to land the plane. What kind of training a new pilot must go through and what qualifications to obtain before being allowed to fly the plane in and out of Bhutan?
This is true. A newly hired pilot, especially a captain, has to have a valid ATPL license issued by a competent Civil Aviation Authority. The candidate is mandated to meet the minimum duration of hours.
At the beginning, the training department will assess the competence of the pilot in the simulator. After satisfactory completion, we will introduce him/her to a model of the Paro airport in the simulator. With a trainer as the second pilot, they will be introduced and observed whilst flying the maneuvers at Paro. Obviously, flying in Paro airport is not for the faint of heart. This process helps us eliminate those pilots lacking the competence to operate in Paro.
Those who make the cut will be trained on the procedures in a classroom. Finally, once their ground training is completed, they are required to perform a specific training which is coined “valley training”. This is an actual training in the aircraft, which is performed by an examiner who is trained for this type of training. Once their competence is demonstrated, they will continue their training under the supervision of training captains, who will supervise their procedural valley flying techniques and competence. Every trainee commander will have to complete 30 landings and takeoffs under supervision. At the end of it, a final line check will be performed by a TRE, prior to being successfully released to fly without supervision.
The above procedure is solely for experienced captains. For a new upgrade, the procedure is much longer and can take up to 12 months to complete.
Q. Any unforgettable mid-air incidents you have ever experienced?
I have been lucky in all these 21 years of my flying career. Apart from a few technical issues here and there, I don’t really have much to share. Bad weather is very much prevalent in our area of operation. The pre-monsoon, the monsoon and the retreating monsoon seasons are always challenging. The period from February through the end of May is coined the “windy season” for our operations. No afternoon operations are permitted since the wind in the Paro valley can gust up to 45 knots, making the flight operations very turbulent and difficult.
I suppose taking command of a plane for the first time is always an unforgettable moment for every captain. My first flight as a captain was a memory that I will cherish from time to time. The weather was a challenge that day. I breathed a sigh of relief after safely bringing the flight back to Paro, the next day, after completing 4 long sectors.
Q, Is being a pilot your childhood dream? Tell us about your journey to achieving an Airline Transport Pilot License (ATPL) in Spain after you completed A level.
In the late 90s and the early 2000s, being a pilot was not a popular career choice. After I had completed my “A levels” in Science, I was offered a government scholarship to study medicine (MBBS). While I was waiting to start my course, Drukair had a vacancy for Airline-sponsored Pilot Training that came with a subsequent employment. This sounded too exciting for me. I applied for it and managed to get in. So here I am, 21 years later, no regret over the career choice I had made for myself.
I had the opportunity to undergo a pilot training course at BAE Systems Flight Training College. It used to be a British Flying College but based in the Andalucia region in Southern Spain, thanks to its favorable weather conditions for flight training. It was then renamed as FTE (Flight Training Europe). The course was very intensive with its ground school and flight training being integrated. I can say that the training and the knowledge that I received during my early days did prepare me well for my future career as an airline pilot.
What is unique about my country, Bhutan, is that the opportunities are endless if you put in the right effort. The leadership, starting right from our benevolent Kings to the government, always works to ensure equality and fairness in every aspect of our nation. I am happy to be born and raised in Bhutan where I was given opportunities to thrive and succeed in my life. I am always grateful and indebted to my Kings and my motherland Bhutan.
Q. What do you enjoy most about your work?
Once a pilot, always a pilot. “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return” – Leonardo da Vinci.
I have no regrets or qualms with my career choice. It dawned on me that sky is my home where I belong. Hence, flying has been my life for the last 21 years. I have also been an instructor for the last 8 years and an examiner for the last 5 years. It is always a pleasure to be able to pass on my knowledge and experience to the younger pilots.
There are a myriad of different types of people – People with different beliefs, outlooks and personalities. But when it comes to flying, there are fixed sets of belief-systems that stand true regardless of what your belief is. It brings me great joy in molding the inexperienced pilots and turning them into fine professionals that make up the bulk of our roster. When I succeed in doing that, I take pride in that and derive tremendous satisfaction from my job.
Q. I understand you spend most of your time nowadays at quarantine facilities due to the global pandemic. What do you miss the most about flying before the pandemic and what are your hopes for the aviation industry when the pandemic is over?
As a pilot, I have been through many global pandemics such as SARS, Swine-flu, MERS etc. But little could any of us foresee that a respiratory illness such as the COVID-19 would come along and wreak havoc on the aviation industry. There have always been highs and lows in the industry but this, by far, has been the worst we have ever experienced.
The pandemic has triggered a ripple across the aviation world and devastated the very foundation of what has been created through all these years of successful operations. However, it also provides us an opportunity to reset, reflect and start afresh. I hope aviation would rise from the ashes and bounce back even stronger and better prepared.
Q. As a commander who has flown over 14,000 hours, can you share with us some interesting/unknown facts that people might not know about flying the plane?
Statistically speaking, flying is the safest mode of transportation. When people think of pilots, they think of us flying the plane on autopilot.
While this statement can be true, it is not necessarily the case. The pilot competency requirement is even more stringent than it used to be.
First, the basic piloting skills and competency requirement remain the same, it hasn’t changed.
Secondly, a pilot has to get a grasp of new technologies and features that are being introduced to them to enable greater automation.
Thirdly, a pilot has to act as a mediator between the aircraft and its automation systems, in essence, having an equal understanding of both. Automations have certainly improved safety and reduced piloting errors. But errors in automation systems are now at the forefront of many causes of air accidents. It’s essential for pilots these days to retain their basic piloting skills while having to increasingly improve their understanding of all the automation systems.
Q. What are your favorite Drukair destinations?
While I have no preferences to fly to any of the destinations on Drukair’s route, flying to Bangkok is always preferred since it is a night halt destination where you can eat some authentic Thai food.
Q. I recently saw a video about a commercial flight from Nepal to Bhutan. Everest’s peak can be clearly seen from the plane en route to Bhutan. What is one spectacular cockpit view you have ever seen?
On the flight from Paro to Kathmandu and vice versa, you fly parallel to the Himalayan range along its southern side. You will be able to see Everest, Kanchanjanga, Makalu and Lhotse peaks. These are 1st, 3rd, 4th and the 5th highest mountain peaks on the planet, just under 50 minutes of flight time. On a clear autumn or winter day, these sights are spectacular!
However, if you happen to catch a flight from Paro to Delhi and vice versa, you will be flying along the south-parallel of the entire eastern Himalayas. They include the Himalayan mountains in Bhutan, China, Nepal and India.
Q. I have been on A320 quite a few times, but I don’t think I have ever been on A319. The distinct difference between both is the length of the fuselage – A319 is 33.84 m in length while A320 is 37.57m. You are a commander on the Airbus A319/ A320, what are your experiences flying these two types of aircrafts?
A320 and the A319 are essentially the same plane. A319 is a variant of the A320 class of aircrafts. The other variants available are the A318 and the A321. The only difference is the length of the fuselage and in some cases, the thrust rating of the engines. Any A320 type-rated pilot may fly any of these variants of the A320 with minimal ground training.
The flight handling characteristics might be ever-so-slightly different but nothing major.
Q. You are a Type Rating Examiner (TRE), and your main duty is to revalidate a pilot’s proficiency ratings on the aircraft they fly. How is the assessment process conducted? Aside from the technical knowledge, is the pilot’s personality important as part of the assessment process?
I am a Designated Check Pilot and a Type Rating Examiner for Drukair, on behalf of the Civil Aviation Authority of Bhutan. As a Type Rating Instructor for Drukair, my job is to teach and assist all pilots in learning. However, as a TRE, I wear the hat of authority for the job. My duty is to assess the pilot’s competence without any prejudice. The assessment standards must be in accordance with the standards required by the BCAA.
When it comes to personalities, everyone is different. Absolutely no two pilots are identical in their thought process. There is a wide range of personalities that most pilots fall into. During our initial screening process, we prioritize a pilot’s knowledge, technical skills and his/her personality.
Acquired skills, such as technical skills and knowledge are important too but not as much as personality, which is an inherent quality that is difficult to change. It is important for a pilot to have a good and positive outlook. Through our initial and recurrent CRM courses, we promote healthy practices and educate/sensitize pilots on behaviors that may impact a successful team building and a safe operation.
Chhimi Dorji has been a Druk Air Captain for over 12 years and pilot for over 21 years.
He is currently the Training Manager for Pilots and a Type Rating Examiner (TRE), doing examining duties for the Bhutan Civil Aviation Authority. He has logged in over 14,000 flight hours in total and about 10,000 of them as Captain.
Photograph credit: Drukair (except otherwise cited)