Hard 737 Landing at Paro International Airport
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 image also shows that "Asia Cargo Airlines" 🇮🇩PK-YGW, the small commercial Boeing 737-300 freighter that arrived from 🇦🇪Sharjah in the night before the current unrest, is now also wrecked, after being spared for a few days. https://t.co/nEIc02wekh pic.twitter.com/GAi8Ut6Tmx
— Gerjon | חריון | غريون | ኼርዮን (Deactivated) (@Gerjon_) April 19, 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!”