In 1952, Bhutan proposed the establishment of a fully equipped aerodrome at Punakha and the purchase of a Dakota airplane. However, Paro was chosen, and the construction of the airfield commenced in 1965. With India’s assistance, the Paro airstrip was completed in a record time of three years, in 1968. At the time, there was global turmoil where all major powers suffered hefty domestic unrest and change.

Despite having an airfield, the national airline could only be established in 1981. Two years later when the German-made Dornier was purchased, operations began.

One reasons attributed to the delay in starting the national airline was the lack of foreign reserves. Although, tourism, had started in 1974, and was earning foreign currency, the savings were not sufficient to buy an airplane until 1983.

Before the advent of the air travel, people had to rely on jeeps to travel to the capital via the freshly cut highway.  For example, when India’s former ambassador to Bhutan, A.N. Ram, was posted to Bhutan in 1968, he landed in frontier airport of Hasimara in West Bengal. Operated privately and based in Calcutta, Jamair had a 10-seater aircraft operating in that sector.  From Hasimara, the Indian diplomat had to make the 14-hour journey by jeep along a rough road to Thimphu.

While some believe that commercial flight service between India and Bhutan was set up to overcome inconvenience others believe that it was more strategic.  Jamair was permitted to operate in and out of the Paro airfield on a weekly basis from 1968.

Kuensel dated 15 December 1968 covered the announcement of the Jamair flights. It stated that, “Messrs. Jamair Co (P) Ltd., will be operating flights from Calcutta to Paro via Hasimara with effect from 26th December.”

The article announced the flight details as follows: Every Monday (the first flight, however, to be on Thursday, 26th December 1968). Calcutta-Paro fare: Rs. 135/- per person (free allowance of baggage of 20 kg). Excess baggage Rs. 1.25 per kg, freight Re. 1/- per kg. Hasimara-Paro sector fare: Rs. 40/- per person (free allowance of baggage 20 kg.) Excess baggage 35 paise per kg. Freight:- 30 paise per kg.

It is possible that a few chartered flights may have taken place. Scheduled commercial flight to Calcutta began only in  1983.

To put in context the value of money, on the same page of the newspaper article captioned Donation from Japan, the article reads, “A cheque for $ 2,000,00 (Rs. 15,000) has been received by the Gyaltsi Khalwa [Ministry of Finance] from the Government of Japan for flood relief work in Bhutan.”

Jamair was founded in 1946 by the chief engineer of the China National Aviation Corporation, Mr. James B. Muff, and financed by the Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawangar (today known as Jamnagar) in Gujarat, hence the name of the airline.

In 1949-50, the Maharaja was bought out. The airline’s base was moved from Jamnagar to Dum Dum Airport in Calcutta. Operations began with one aircraft, a Douglas C-47B. By 1977, Jamair’s fleet consisted of five Douglas DC-3 and DC-4 aircraft.

The official discussion of starting the air service in Bhutan has surfaced in 1964 in an undated minute of the meeting titled, “Talks by His Majesty with Foreign Secretary, Kaul, Defence Secretary, Chief of Army Staff, Chief of Air Staff, Additional Secretary Menon, and Joint Secretary Abraham.”

Out of the eight points recorded in the minutes, three were on aviation. Point one stated that, “it was felt that a civil Indo-Bhutan airline flying from Calcutta to Paro via Hasimara would be most suitable. The Minister for Civil Aviation and Tourism Dr. Karan Singh would shortly send a team to prepare a feasibility scheme. It was accepted that the proposed airline may initially lose money. Chief of Air Staff Lal strongly recommended the aircraft F 749 and stated that Paro airfield was big enough for his plane. A suggestion was also made that a few Bhutanese boys should be trained as pilots.”

Point two stated that His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck was informed that the work on the Yongphula airfield would start in August 1971. After its completion, work would start on the Bumthang airfield. In the last point related to aviation, the Indian dignitary sought the confirmation from His Majesty of the location of the new helipad at Thimphu below the Lungtenphu farm.

Shaba Cucumbers

Recalling her flying memories with Jamair, Carolyn Tshering said, “Today [2023] my daughter bought me some Shaba cucumbers, undoubtedly the best but at a staggering price of Nu 100 each. It was a coincidence that I was going through my old Kuensel copies and came across this advertisement. In 1968, the cost of a flight to Calcutta was Nu 135, and excess baggage was 1.25 per kg. So, for that price today, I can buy two cucumbers.”

Carolyn had to travel to Bhutan from the United Kingdom as she was contracted to teach English at the newly founded government school in Thimphu. She remembers Jamair being privately owned and using a World War II Dakota.

She said that flying in it felt like the seats were held together by wire as it rattled on take-off and landings. But the pilot, who was also a war veteran, was quite brilliant and even landed her in Paro during a blizzard.

Recalling her thoughts, she said that there were about six seats that moved backward and forward, depending on whether the plane was ascending or descending. “Our luggage lay all around us, and nothing was strapped down. There would always be baskets of fruits and vegetables thrown in at the last moment to be delivered.”

Carolyn who continues to teach English in Thimphu, remembers making four flights on Jamair. She said that her experiences are never to be forgotten. The alternative was the long drive to Phuentsholing in an open-sided Mahendra jeep, which could take up to 12 hours depending on the continual road construction. “So, what would you choose if you were given the choice – one and a half cucumbers or a flight to Calcutta?”

According to Jamair’s first and  frequent flyer, Dasho Paljor J. Dorji, the flight service stopped abruptly after a year when the Royal Government of Bhutan did not entertain Jamair’s request to increase the subsidy from Nu. 1,000 to Nu. 2,000 per annum.

Jamair has etched itself in the aviation history of Bhutan. As the first airline to spread its wings in the skies of Bhutan, the airline played a crucial role in connecting Bhutan with the outside world. Despite its short-lived operation, the private Indian airlines provided a lifeline for travelers like the Indian diplomats, expatriates and government officials, offering a convenient alternative to long and arduous journeys by road. The memories of flying on the World War II Dakota aircraft, with its rattling seats and baskets of fruits and vegetables, remain etched in the minds of those who experienced it. While Bhutan’s aviation landscape has evolved since then, Jamair will always be remembered as the pioneer that paved the way for Bhutan’s aviation industry.


Tshering Tashi