The approach of a lifetime

Monday, October 21, 2013
Paro, Muscat, Bhutan
The approach into Bhutan was one I was looking for more than any other. We would be it he first general aviation planes to fly in to the country! It's constantly rated in the Top 10 scariest airport approaches. Needless to say the anticipation was high. Then of course there was the country itself. With its charge of US$150 just to visit the country, mass tourism is kept at bay in this Buddhist country. Like Myanmar, we expected a country not yet overrun with tourists.

Our day began with a depressing drive through the streets of Chittagong back to the airport . This time we took a taxi so we could take more pictures. The traffic didn't disappoint for plenty of colorful photo ops and video clips of seemingly near misses. We decided it would be a great video game driving the streets of Chittagong. "Chittagong" would even make a good name.

The hotel coordinated the taxi for us and charged us 1500 local currency for the fare which we paid at reception. We found out upon asking the taxi driver that he only received 500 of that. This was just another example of the corruption and exploitation that we sensed throughout our brief visit.

At the airport we didn't have any handling agent so needed to go to the Tower ourselves. Surprisingly, our "Pilot & Flugzeug" badges did the trick again. Upon arrival, because we were staying less than 3 days, we didn't great any stamp in our passports for this technical stop, so were glad that went hassle-free. Always wearing pilot shirts is also surely mandatory .

We were escorted to the tower and removed our shoes upon reaching the top. These guys had it made. They were 4-5 people in air conditioning, water boiler, hot plate, sofa for taking naps, the works. It took a while, but eventually we got our dues paid and our flight plan filed. Then we had to get stamps on all the carbon copy paperwork at immigration and customs and get back to the tower to get our clearance. At this point I went to do our pre-flight with Maggie and Johannes went to take care of the final clearance touches. That of course took an hour of waiting around, but at least it wasn't with too much hassle.

Once departing we found ourselves nicely tucked between the Jetprop and the Cessna Silver Eagle. This would work out perfectly for spacing in Paro because there was enough time between estimated arrival times. Given how long things took in Chittagong to depart, we were pleased. What wasn't so enjoyable was the storm front we had to pass through right after reaching cruise . It was choppy for a while and we were glad to be out of the clouds. From there we were able to remain largely clear of clouds for the rest of the flight.

It was amazing to see the flat countryside abruptly change to Himalayas on the GPS. Below us though were only clouds so we couldn't confirm that until in the distance we saw a massive snow-covered peak protruding from the clouds. Wow. The last time we'd seen a mega peak like this poking out from the clouds was along the Alaskan coast. That really seemed like such a long time ago with a world of experiences between us and the adventure of that day...

This is when we knew things would get interesting. It was almost completely overcast below us, and the mountains were starting to get higher down there somewhere. At the same time, Paro was a VFR-only, meaning we could only descend and approach the airport if we could see the ground and could make outs the valley we had to approach . Hmm....

As if on cue, we found an open hole in the clouds and announced with Paro tower our desire to descend and approach the airport. Johannes and entered the lat/long waypoints into the GPS the day before so off we were following our breadcrumb path and needing to quickly lose 8000 ' altitude. Speed brakes came out, gear was dropped, and down we went. In the neighboring valley we caught a glimpse of the runway! Too cool! We were so fortunate to have the GPS paths for the appropriate valley. One, that looks wider and more tempting to fly in to, was off our right wing and we could see why a jet many years ago had flown that valley and led to the ban of generally aviation flights until ours this day.

Down we went and around the bends of the valley. It's was all so new to me and so much fun. Approaches in Texas just don't hold a candle to this! Most of the time, if not all the time, airliners land on runway 33 . They can handle landing with some tailwind. With more than 10 knots tailwind though blowing down runway 33, we definitely wanted runway 15. That meant though flying over the runway, passing the airport, choosing the right valley to the left of the town of Paro, doing a 180, and then dropping again to make the approach to runway 15. Good stuff!

We flew over the airport and then needed to give close to full power to arrest our descent, climb a bit into the valley, and make the tight turn at safe speed. After the 180 in the valley we were fast in our descent to the runway so I pulled power and rode the approach down at a healthy clip. It was fast and fun stuff around the last bend! We overflew a good third of the long runway bleeding off speed. Maggie's engine was to cold from the steep descent and between the beeps of that warning and the constant terrain avoidance warning from our GPS I'm glad we didn't have any passengers. They would have clawed through the seats!

The touchdown was smooth and smiles were huge . I've never been close to so happy from a flying experience. The entire Attu experience was more overwhelming, but the cool factor and rush of this approach was pure adrenaline. We made it! We were the first generally aviation piston engine aircraft into the country! The first Mooney! It was an honor. Upon taxing to parking Arnim, Jan, and a whole audience of airport personnel were there to meet us. Everyone was grinning, but nearly as much as we were. After getting out of the plane, we posed for pictures and pasted the Bhutan flag next in line on our strip. The personnel of the airport, having never seen an airplane this small wanted to take a look inside. The two lovely ladies from customs asked if this was the smallest plane in the world. It was just an awesome feeling.

We awaited Dietmar's and Veronika's approach in their Silver Eagle (the first Cessna?!). They, like us, chose to overfly the airport and 180 back for runway 15. They disappeared in the valley for what seemed like too long a time before we spotted them coming over the hill just nicely in the way of final approach of the runway . It was interesting to see how they flew it much differently than we did. Regardless, all went well with them too. Their smiles were equally large. It was fun to see.

We boarded a mini bus to our hotel in the capital of Thimphu. It was a good hour drive in amazing countryside. I'd imagined a country so hit in the Himalayas to have far fewer trees, but it was amazingly lush. We stopped at a street side market to pick up some food and there for the first time noticed the calm and relatively street dogs. They were so nicely treated, and as we'd come to find out, they were everywhere. The wholes country just made a lovely peaceful first impression.

Our hotel was fantastic. We enjoyed drinks and a fabulous buffet dinner with others, all of us trading stories. It turns out we all basically flew different approaches with some of the heavier larger planes opting for runway 33. We were all loving it. What a great day. Priceless.

Routing from Chittagong (VGEG) to Paro (VQPR):
ONEKA G463 DAC W3 SDP R598 PRO and the various 20 points of the breadcrumb trail that we followed as the VFR approach. Altitude was 16,000' and flight time was 3h10m..
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