Hard 737 Landing at Paro International Airport

15 Dec 23 7 Comments

An abridged video of this landing was recently posted on Reddit. The flight took place in July 2021 and the video footage went viral in the weeks that followed. The aircraft lands safely, but it’s quite a textbook example of bad airmanship. The popular version of the video is a thirty-second excerpt where it can be hard to make sense of what is happening.

Here is the full 1½ minute video of the unstabilised approach and hard landing filmed by someone at the back of the flight deck.

This was a cargo flight, so no passengers were shaken up. The aircraft was a Boeing 737-300 registered in Indonesia as PK-YGW. According to Aviation Herald, the flight was scheduled from Kolkata, India to Paro, Bhutan to deliver COVID vaccines to Bhutan before continuing to Thailand.

Now to be fair, Paro International Airport is considered one of the most challenging airports in the world. It is located in a deep valley at 2,250 metres (7,400 feet) and surrounded by mountains rising to 5,500 metres (18,000 feet). The original runway was just 1,400 metres (4,600 feet) and required aircraft capable of short take-off and landings. Those aircraft also had to be able to fly the one-hour round trip from Kolkata to Paro and back, 650 nautical miles (1,200 km), as there was no possibility of refuelling at Paro. The national airline of Bhutan, Drukair Royal Bhutan Airlines, started operations with two 18-seat Dornier 228-200s. According to a Drukair advertorial in the Frontline, at the time, in the mid-80s, the airport was just a runway and a two-room, two-story building. The ground floor housed the check-in counter, while the room upstairs served as the tower for Air Traffic Control; the departure lounge was on the lawn.

In 1998, Drukair upgraded to two 72-seater BAe 146s in 1986 when a hangar was built to house the jets. The runway was reinforced and lengthened, followed by the installation of a VOR and a taxiway. These days, there’s even a post office, a VIP lounge, restaurants and a gift shop.

The runway has been extended again to its current 2,260 metres (7,430 feet), allowing the airport to take a broader range of airliners, with Drukair upgrading their fleet to Airbus 319s. However, it’s still a very challenging manual approach through a long and winding valley. Pilots need special certification to fly in and out of Paro International. There is no radar, and the airport is only accessible in daylight for visual approaches flown manually. Usually, pilots have ten or twenty miles to line up for a visual approach, but the valley in Paro is narrow and winding, with the runway only coming into sight at a half mile out .

In the video, two pilots, likely both captains, are flying their first approach into Paro while a Bhutanese Captain sits in the jump seat to guide them in. During the footage, we repeatedly see the right-seat pilot, who should be Pilot Monitoring, holding up his phone and filming the approach. He finally puts it down after they have landed.

The video takes a turn for the bizarre with the aural alert: BANK ANGLE! The pilot responds to the alert as if it were part of a checklist: “Bank Angle check!” Now, it may not be possible to fly the approach without warnings from the Extended Ground Proximity Warning System, but the reactions of the pilots, not to mention the distraction of recording the flight, put this firmly into the category of an unsafe approach in my book.

At no point do any of the three captains consider breaking off the unstabilised approach. There are difficult airports where it is not possible to do a go-around, but Paro is not one of them. That said, the missed approach procedure is apparently very challenging. One pilot in the video comments, who claims to have flown in and out of Paro, says that the go-around at Paro makes the approach look like a piece of cake. Another says simply, “If you’re unable to approach the runway of Paro, you will be unable to perform this go-around, too.”

The last moments of the video show the pilot trying hard to get lined up to the centre line as the Extended Ground Proximity Warning System warns SINK RATE! PULL UP!. Finally, the aircraft comes down fast and hard, without a trace of a flare, and bounces on the runway.

Pilots who know the area have argued that it isn’t possible to fly a stabilised approach into Paro; however, the lack of professionalism as the pilot attempts to get lined up to the runway in the last few seconds is very hard to watch. On the other hand, much Internet ire has been directed towards the person (or persons?) laughing at the end with light applause. I don’t think that is so damning; it seems more likely a reaction of sheer relief at being on the ground and free to get out of the aircraft.

If you want a detailed analysis, Mentour Pilot recorded an excellent 12-minute video breaking down the approach and the landing when the video first went viral.

His full-body flinch as the aircraft touched down made me laugh. At the 07:40 point, he shows us a normal approach to Paro so we can compare the two and better understand the instructions given to the Pilot Flying.

The Boeing 737 departed Paro again sixteen hours later for a flight to Bangkok; one has to wonder how well they were able to test the structural integrity in that time.

The Boeing 737 that survived this landing was sadly destroyed two years later, after a cargo flight to Sudan where it was caught in the cross-fire at Khartoum in April 2023.

This video may not be quite as bad as it looks at first glance. I noticed in a video of a competent approach to Paro, the pilot simply turned off the ground proximity warnings completely. Still, this 90-second clip demonstrates what a lack of Cockpit Resource Management looks like. Alone the fact that the right-seat pilot is holding up a phone to film the approach, rather than monitoring their descent, shows a dismissive attitude towards the demands of safe flight. Paro demands the utmost skill and concentration from pilots. If you aren’t vigilant for your first attempt at that challenging approach, then what will you be like on your tenth or two-hundredth flight into the same airport?

On the bright side, that landing does a great job of showcasing how sturdy the Boeing 737 actually is. My favourite comment posted to the video on YouTube was “I don’t know what all the fuss was about, I think the luggage handlers did a fantastic first landing!”


  • “If you can walk away from a landing, it’s a good landing. If you use the airplane the next day, it’s an outstanding landing.”
    — Chuck Yaeger

  • In good weather, airplanes landing at Washington National (DCA, aka “Reagan”) have to make several noise-abatement turns (staying over the river). Pilots may be able to see the runway from a bit further away than at Paro, and don’t have to dodge actual obstacles (as the narrated clip above describes for Paro) but they have to make a turn at no more than 300 feet up and maybe even lower (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:DCA_River_Visual.png). Somehow a variety of pilots manage this approach thousands (if not tens of thousands) of times a year. (Before a runway-incursion issue this year, the last incident Wikipedia lists is the Air Florida icy takeoff ~40 years ago.) I don’t know what kind of training pilots get before flying into National, but it seems better than what happened here (there are limits to on-the-job training…). I wonder why some enterprising person has not programmed this approach on a simulator, so pilots can be drilled on what it will look like (cf the 2nd clip’s suggesting that Pilot Flying was afraid to make the required close cut around a hill) — ISTM it would be worthwhile even if they have to go a long way to get the training.

    As for the supposed Pilot Monitoring filming the descent — WTEF?. If I see the blurry video correctly, he was a four-striper; he should have lost a stripe for that. Was there \any// inquiry afterwards, or was this ignored because it was just a cargo flight?

  • I agree: The most obvious fact that sort of “jumps off the page” is the extremely poor CRM in this cockpit.
    The monitoring ??? (WTF?) pilot did not really participate, he was too busy filming the approach.
    “Four striper”. In major airlines, this does indeed have some meaning.
    But quite often it just means: the guy in command.
    Of an aircraft of any size or performance.
    It is quite common to see a video of a bush operation, with the (single) pilot operating e.g. a Cessna Caravan sporting four gold bars.
    I know of an operation where (s)he would be awarded only three, if in command of an aircraft in the class for which a SCPL would suffice.
    I also know of a flying school, where the instructors on C150 or C172 wear four stripes.
    So generally speaking, the number of stripes is a bit irrelevant.
    It is a remnant from the early days of aviation, when many aspects of operating a commercial airline were related directly with naval regulations and tradition. Hence airplanes’ navigation lights still are green on starboard, red on port and white for the tail light.
    Unifirms were also derived from the naval tradition.
    Okay, this was a B737, so it may be assumed that he, the guy in the right seat, was indeed a captain with an ATPL and a B737 rating. Was he a training captain?
    Stabilized approach: In my (considered) opinion, this sort of approach would not ever qualify as “stabilized”, never mind how well executed.
    Never mind Chuck Yeager, he was a legand and a once-off.
    But many years ago, I saw a video in which Chuck’s character was assessed as to his suitability as a pilot It was intended to show how cockpit SOPs have evolved, not to discredit Chuck!.
    Surprise: He was “the bnest of the best”, but would not have made the grade in an airline. He would not be able to handle modern CRM nor the dry, totally regulated cockpit discipline.
    According to this, he probably would have tended to ignore his copilot and do everything himself.
    Like the guys in this video here, although Yeager probably would have greased it down on the numbers.

    • I was intrigued by this and thought I’d try to see if it was available anywhere online. Turns out it was “Horizon” (I had forgotten all about this series, made in the day when TV documentaries weren’t as superficial as they seem to be these days). I found the episode available online here: https://archive.org/details/BBCHorizonCollection512Episodes/BBC+Horizon+-+s1986e06+-+The+Wrong+Stuff.avi. Interesting looking back at how CRM developed and its early days in the airline industry.

      • The section around minute 20 doesn’t identify which incident they were simulating, but I note that it includes the same “joke”/slam at copilots that appeared in an old post here about a narrow escape from a bad approach at Ketchikan. (Don’t know why “search” isn’t finding it; I remember noting at the time they were lucky they didn’t go off the side of the far end of the runway.) Don’t think the video is of the same incident as the runway markings are different (no displaced threshold) and the description sounds like the case was deadly rather than just a near miss.

        The observation (cited above) that military training (which is where most pilots at least used to come from) is exactly wrong for an ATP pilot doesn’t discuss whether there would be a difference between solo fighter pilots and crew chiefs of bombers or freighters. I wonder whether anyone has looked at finding competent team leaders and training them as pilots — maybe too long a process? Or at least interviewing people building hours from a commercial license to an ATP to see who will do will in a team?

        And I’m looking at the simulations of problems and how busy three people are, and wondering (even with the successful saves we’ve seen here) how safe flying is with only two people in the cockpit. The video discusses the automation of flight plans, but that doesn’t cover what happens when the plan breaks; it also talks about ever-more-extensive programming, while not being explicit about the sort of failure-of-imagination (by software designers) that was a major factor in the 737-MAX disasters.

        All in all a fascinating video — thanks for the reference!

        • semi-correction: the video discusses one airline that interviewed pilots for ability to work in a team — but that was People Express, which went tits-up 36 years ago.(*) I was wondering whether there were efforts either to do this overall (maybe as qualification for even getting an ATP?) or to find suitable people long before they tested for ATP and smooth their way forward.

          (*) Someone who was in England at the same time I was (August 1987) mentioned being amused that his Continental flight from Newark had the right paint on the outside of the hull but the People Express markings on the service trolleys.

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