The flight into Bhutan is infamously frightful, drawing the breath away, especially for the faint-hearted. Kids who love roller coaster rides, however, might enjoy the thrill, finding it awesome.
If you considered the last 90-degrees turn to land at old Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong tricky, try the figure 8 needed to negotiate and bring a large plane through a series of mountain-lined switch-backs to land at Paro Airport. Though listed as the third most difficult airport at which to land, the other two are only for small fixed-wing or STOL (short takeoff and landing) propeller planes, whereas Paro is for full-size Airbus jets.
Figure 8 is not just a figure of speech; it is usually used as flight pattern training for a drone, but not for a real airplane, unless you are piloting a fighter jet during a dogfight. And the danger is real. In 2004, my friend, the late David Tang, with a group of friends in a private jet flew into Bhutan for his 50th birthday. During landing, the wing touched the ground, and the plane was appropriately grounded thereafter. Judith, my dear friend from New York canceled her planned trip to Bhutan, when she found out that the captain of her private jet had to go through additional training in India before being allowed to fly into Paro Airport in Bhutan.
So, it is with many preconceptions that I sat down to talk to Captain Ugyen in Thimphu, the capital of the kingdom. By then I had made several visits to this wonderland and conducted some small projects in the country at the invitation of the Royal Grandmother, besides being received by that most senior member of the Royal Family.
Captain Ugyen came to meet me in her full regalia, hat, uniform and all. with four stripes on her shoulders. She is the first woman captain of Druk Air, the flag carrier of Bhutan and for a long time the only airline to serve the Himalayan kingdom; the only airline that dared serve this hazardous route, requiring precision as well as guts.
Captain Ugyen, however, does not look so gutsy; not macho at all, in fact. Her story went back twenty years. In 2003, Ugyen was finishing high school and heard that Druk Air, the national airline of Bhutan, was short of pilots. She was curious and decided to check out the opportunity. But at the time Druk Air only provided one full and one half scholarship to two men, none to women, to go abroad and receive flight training. Still, she met Bhutanese Captain Chodea in 2004 and was encouraged to pursue her flying career. Later on, Captain Chodea also became her trainer when she joined Druk Air.
Ugyen successfully convinced her family to help support her to go to flight school, which was quite expensive. In January 2005, she went abroad and started her training. Of twenty plus students, there were only three or four women. After 20 hours of lessons, she was able to fly solo in fixed-wing airplane, gradually reaching 50 hours, learning and getting her instrument rating. After one year and eight months of training, she was able to go from private to commercial rating.
In 2007, she joined Druk Air and began her line training in flight and, in about a year, became First Officer in May of 2008. She flew for ten more years, logging 7,000 hours, before finally being promoted and being checked-out as Captain for the airline in 2018. As of today, 2022, she has logged over 8,000 hours in flight.
Today, even the senior pilots are only in their 50s and there are few chances for promotion for junior officers. However, the gender ratio has changed from when she first joined. With seven Captains in total and herself being the only female when she began, now there are four women within the full line-up of pilots.
That ratio is still small compared to many outside countries. Ugyen conveyed to me that there seem to be many more female pilots in India; while in flight, she can hear a lot more radio conversations with female voices. A sexist may say that is because women converse more. But in reality, India is a country with over twelve percent female pilots, more than twice the global average.
Flying into Bhutan is not the usual flying. Due to the difficult terrain and the Category C runway, there is absolutely no night landing. It is also a VFR (visual flight rules) operation airport. All Airbus aircraft were designed for a 45-meter wide runway for landing and take-off. But Paro Airport has only a 30-meter wide strip. The wingspan of the A320-neo, with 140 passengers maximum, that Captain Ugyen flies is over 35 meters, stretching beyond the runway’s width. The length of runway being 2,265 meters, it is also barely long enough for takeoff. Furthermore, it sits at 2,244 meters in elevation. At such an altitude, the thinner air also provides less lift for the airplane when compared to sea level.
Despite that, Boeing sent a 737-700 to Paro and completed eleven successful test flights soon after the airstrip was completed. Nevertheless, Druk Air ultimately opted to use the Airbus 319 and 320 series. This may become more the norm than exceptions in the future, even for huge orders from countries like China. The Ukraine war has demonstrated that the long arm of US sanctions knows no borders. Potential buyers might worry about the honoring of purchase contracts and the risk of obtaining parts and maintenance should the government go berserk or get irrational based on external or internal political needs.
During the last two years of the pandemic, Captain Ugyen has flown many relief and Medevac flights, carrying emergency supplies or evacuating gravely ill Bhutanese back home for treatment when India found their own medical facilities overwhelmed. One of our own CERS directors quietly purchased and supplied much-needed pandemic equipment and had them flown into Bhutan. Captain Ugyen may possibly have piloted that flight.
During those heady days, she was required to enter into quarantine after each flight, either for twenty-one days in early 2020 or for two weeks later on. She did 21-days twice and has totally lost count of how many 14-days quarantine periods she had gone through within the past two years before it was finally reduced to 7-days earlier this year. Such dedication to a tough career during such a stressful time deserves another half a bar on her shoulder, if not a full bar.
At least two films of Captain Ugyen piloting, or should I say gracefully maneuvering, an Airbus into Paro Airport have been posted on YouTube. The best is a seven-minute plus version from June this year, with over 1.7 million viewers recorded so far and almost a thousand comments left. The style and relaxation with which she took this big bird down is what amazed many pilots, or wannabes still flying simulators, to applaud the ship’s captain. She has made flying a passenger jet into a smooth art, as if a beautiful swan was coming into a flawless and graceful landing.
It seems appropriate to quote some of those comments below:
- – This is just amazing how much skill, experience and pure intuition it must take! By far from any aerial manoeuvres including low altitude loops, carrier landings this is on par or above given the responsibility involved in delivering hundreds of passengers safely to a destination. Standing ovations!
- – Straightening and levelling the plane until a second before touch down. Kudos to both of them
- – Seems like a walk in the park for them…on a Sunday afternoon….drinking a water bottle while on approach! Lets see if Mr Bean can do it too!
- – Look at how relax she is while doing the job… just-another-day-at-the-office like stuff. Simply superb.
- – That’s awesome! Hopefully now I can get a higher score in the simulator. This one is really hard. I keep banging the plane into the ground right after I clear the mountain to reduce altitude. Looks like she kept further left and kept banking. Seems scary even in VR. I can’t imagine that in real life
- – This is the best I’ve seen on the internet thus far. I can watch this over and over and over and over. I totally enjoyed that approach and landing she hand flew it like a boss
- – Wow! For a minute there I thought I was watching Top Gun Maverick. Awesome job! Watched it over and over.
- – That is a former military pilot at the controls, textbook manoeuvres; no doubt about it. I had to hold my breath the last few turns.
- – Man, she is flying it like it is a Cessna. Big respect.
Seems a worthy comparison.
- – Wow. Whatever they’re paying her….they should double it!
- – Wooowwwww! That was pure joy. Despite the age of equality, it shouldn’t and doesn’t matter the Captain was a woman but I cannot lie the sight of that tiny lady almost weighed down by the four fat gold stripes on her shoulder boards, operating the controls in a focused yet effortless and graceful way – and seeing the aircraft swoosh and bank at her behest – added an extra special blend of spice and piquancy to an already incredible clip!!! My thanks to the people that brought us this marvellous sequence and of course to the Captain and her copilot….
- – God bless the Commander and officer crew member in Jesus name, Amen
- – Captain must be an angel from heaven, working for God
- – Amen Praise the Lord in Jesus Name Amen Quite a few praised the Lord and prayed for the Captain, probably overlooking the tiny Buddha image stuck in the middle of the instrument panel.
– That was some seriously amazing flying. I want to marry that lady Sorry, Captain Ugyen is married… to an Airbus 320neo (age of both is a secret).
- – Great job – I have better wipers on my 1972 Mini!
- – You’d think in these multi million dollar aircraft they could have better windshield wipers.
- – Where did they get the windscreen wipers from! Off a series 1 Land Rover Several viewers commented on the obsolete-looking windshield wipers on this Airbus320neo aircraft, as opposed to the very hi-tech dashboard panel.
- – I’d definitely have to be diapered up for that approach.
- – I wonder if she did her flight training in New Zealand? Indeed, Captain Ugyen went to flight school in New Zealand, at Christchurch in January 2005. – Oh God, Female Captain fiddling with knobs, hands on dashi! Scary… – And my wife couldn’t park her car without crashing it into the pole
|A few viewers took sniping sexist remarks regarding a female at the control of an airplane. My advice to them is that if they should fall ill, make sure to tell their male doctor not to use any X-ray on them, as it was invented by a woman, Madam Curie, who is the only person who has ever won two Nobel Prizes in two different fields of science. I have always said doing anything well is a science, doing it extremely well is an art. It is perhaps most appropriate to end with Captain Ugyen’s own words: “I really do believe flying is an art. It is amazing to be able to strike the perfect balance of safety and comfort, making flying a jet into Paro feel easy and comfortable for the passengers. While humans were never meant to fly, with training, experience and persistence, we can develop an instinct that allows you to feel and fly even an Airbus like it’s an extension of yourself|
|into a place like Paro. Flying into the heart of the Himalayas is half the challenge…the prevailing and prominent weather conditions makes it the real challenge.” She has indeed turned a science into an art.|
FILM ON YOUTUBE:
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