The most Dangerous Airport in the World

I first heard about Paro airport from a friend’s son. When he was ten years old, he was addicted to flight-simulator games, and Paro was a legendary airport to him and his little group of enthusiasts. I first learnt from him of the extremely steep angles of approach and take off, needed because Paro is a deep valley, at an altitude of 2300 meters, surrounded by peaks which are over 5000 meters high. This was not all, he said, it had a short runway, and the approach had to wind through a safe path between mountains. Interestingly, since the beginning of civilian flights in 1983, Paro airport has not had a single accident.

A few years later, I was in a party of four who flew in for our second visit to Bhutan and saw all this first hand. On our previous visit we had taken the road up from Phuentsholing on the Indian border. The flight took off in the early morning from Kolkata. Later I realized why. The pilots make a visual approach, and have to return to Kolkata and be ready to try again the same day if the weather turns bad.

A good view of Everest over a cloud bank

Our flight was uneventful. We had a clear view of the massive summit of Mount Everest. Auguries are part of the culture of Bhutan, and the calm and majestic view of Chomolungma augured well for our trip. The uneventful trip included a hair-raising descent to Paro airport. We could clearly see the mountain walls which seemed to hang just outside the windows of the cabin. The plane twisted and turned through the valley of the Paro river until it came down to a perfect soft landing at the airport. The small cabin broke into applause. It was well-deserved, the pilot was one of the handful who are qualified for Paro airport.

Paro airport terminal, Bhutan

Bhutan, with its population of half a million, was a refreshingly informal place. We could stay on the apron and admire breathtaking views of the walls of mountains rising around us. Eventually we moved into the squeaky-new airport terminal, got our visa and moved on.

Watching Everest

Watching the movie Everest so soon after blogging the highest I’ve ever been was interesting. The Everest Base Camp is about the same height that we reached then. After the movie, The Family and I had a short discussion on how it would be to walk up to that point from Namche Bazar. We agreed that it would be more tiring to walk, but the slower pace of the climb would give you more time to acclimatize.

Writing the blog post had refreshed my memory of the pounding headache I nursed at a height where the Everest climbers begin the final trek. So this was on my mind throughout the movie. Remembering how difficult it was for me at that height made me appreciate the sheer physical stress of working at altitudes where the oxygen level is so low. The heart starts working harder, fluids begin to accumulate in places they should not. This kind of stress is shown in the movie, but I might have overlooked it if I’d not faced a milder form of the same problem.