“High terrain and steep mountain adjacent to the apt. Rapid phenomenon change of weather in and around apt.” This is the brief for pilots landing in the Paro International Airport. “Surface wind conditions are different along rwy and can be requested.”

Built at an elevation of 2,235m, the PIA operates under the Visual Flight Rules with no night landing. The single 2,265m asphalt runway with 30m width is classified as a Category C runway.

While coming in to land at the airport, the most expensive equipment in the cockpit is switched off. Elsewhere, pilots rely on the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System. Captain Ugyen Dema, said that the EGPWS is safety system that gives advanced warning of potential ground or obstacle collisions. Using GPS and on-board data, EGPWS monitors the aircraft’s position and terrain issuing alarms if it detects a potential conflict. Captain Sonam Choeda explains why the expensive piece of instrument is of no use to them. He said that for the Paro approach, as it transmits audio warnings and flashes warning lights, it becomes a distraction and hence has to be switched off.



The PIA was built in the record time of three years. While the foundation stone was laid on 24 October 1966, the actual construction had been started earlier, in 1965.

On 8 June 1966, a helipad was constructed in Paro. The Indian Air Force Liaison Team with 56 personnel was formed. The AFLT came into existence as a result of the expression of desire by our Third King to establish an air link with the rest of world.

A few months later, on 24 October, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Arjan Singh laid the foundation stone of the Indian Air Force Station at Paro.

Building of the airfield was entrusted to the Indian Border Roads Organization (DANTAK). Known then as an Advance Landing Ground, the 1,400m runway could land a Dakota airplane.


Three years later, on 23 March 1968, the ALG was inaugurated. According to the 31 March 1968 edition of Kuensel, when the Deputy Prime Minister of India, Mr. Morarji Desai touched down on the newly constructed Paro air strip on 23 March in a special aircraft, he was warmly received by senior officials of the Royal Government of Bhutan and the Indian Special Officer in Bhutan.

The inauguration was conducted in traditional Bhutanese fashion. After the monks offered prayers, flowers were showered down from a helicopter.



Kuensel was not alone in reporting about the PIA.  For instance, in 1968, the CIA operatives took an aerial photo of the Paro airfield. Labelled, “Paro Dzong Airfield Bhutan. 27-23N 089-26E,” with Mission 1049-2, 18-23 December 1968, it marks three areas. The first is the runway which it records as 3300’x70.’ The second marking is the extension under construction which it records as 1390’x70’. The third marking is the China/Sikkim/Bhutan border 27NM.

Earlier, in 1959, the CIA had reported on the potential construction of the airport.  According to the CIA Bulletin dated 24 December, “India may survey Bhutan’s passes into Tibet and build air strips, and train Bhutanese forces.”

The Bulletin quoted General, K.S. Thimayya, India’s Chief of Army Staff. It stated that Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigme Dorji had agreed to India conducting a comprehensive survey of Bhutanese passes into Tibet, and the building of an airstrip capable of accommodating C-47 air-craft.

The report further states, “In recent years, the Bhutanese government has permitted Indian map survey parties to enter the country, has allowed Indian aircraft to over-fly Bhutan to trade goods at selected locations.”


1952 White Paper

“In 1952-53, establishment of a fully equipped aerodrome at Punakha and the purchase of one Dakota aeroplane.” This proposal was contained in an undated white paper under the heading, “Priority to the projects relating to communications in strategic and political importance.”

Air Services was one of the three subheadings grouped under Bhutan’s proposal to India. In the subheading,  “Wireless Telegraphy and Roads,”  Bhutan proposed a total budget of Rs. 6,50,000 to build the Punakha airstrip and to buy an aeroplane. The amount of Rs. 3,50,000 was projected as non-recurring expenditure. This is the amount that was required for the establishment of a fully equipped aerodrome. The remaining Rs. three lakhs was requested in foreign exchange to  buy a Dakota aeroplane.

In the same proposal, Bhutan proposed purchase of a second Dakota aeroplane in the following year or 1953-1954. The budget proposed was Rs. three lakhs for non-recurring expenditure and foreign exchange required was Rs. three lakhs. This included purchase of spare parts.

After more than a decade, the proposal of the aerodrome and airplane was taken up again. Our Third King sent PM Jigme Palden Dorji (1919-1964) to Delhi in February 1964 to raise the issue.  During the meeting with the Ministry of External Affairs, the question of the construction of the air strip at Paro was raised.

Included in the, points for discussion during P.M ’s February 1964’s visit to Delhi was the construction of the Paro air-strip by DANTAK. The footnote contained in bracket read, “Funds can be found by re-appropriation within the Development Grant.”

The points further states that pending such time as a helicopter can be made available for the exclusive use of Bhutan, eight flights per month (by IAF helicopter) may be allotted from Hasimara/Bagdora etc to Paro, Thimphu and other centers in the interior.

It states that “the cost of such flights can be met by re-appropriation within the existing Development Grant. These eight trips per month would be exclusive of emergency flights requisitioned for mercy missions (e.g., Flights in connection with illness of H.M. etc.). The flights should be made available on direct requisition by the Bhutan government on the local IAF bases at Hasimara/Bagdogra, so that the delay involved in making references to Shillong/Delhi etc., under the existing procedure may be eliminated.”


Ministry of External Affairs

According to a 1964 MEA report, tentative decisions were reached in a meeting between the Prime Minister of Bhutan and Mr. M.G. Kaul, I.C.S., Joint Secretary (EA), Ministry of External Affairs held on the 25th February 1964.

The report states that PM Jigme showed photographs of the site of the proposed airfield. The report stated, “A final decision regarding the actual execution of the project will be taken in a meeting to be held in Joint Secretary (A Division)’s room on 27th February 1964, where General Dubey of the B.R.D.B. will also be present.”

Subsequently, India brought up the discussion of the construction of the airfield in Bhutan. The MEA, Notes on Bhutan-Part II states “We had asked Bhutan to allow us to construct an air-strip at Paro. After long delays, Jigme Dorji told us, very recently, that they agreed to the proposition.”

The note mentions that the question should be reconsidered, because the position, now, may be different from what it was in early 1963. The same MEA report states, “Do we need this airfield, today and will we need it tomorrow? If we construct the airfield, today, and we should be prepared to defend it. I am practically certain that the Bhutan Army cannot be expected to defend the air-strip, if there is any trouble from outside. As far as I can see, it can be defended in an emergency by parachute landings only.”


Paro over Punakha?

The MEA report suggests that Paro valley would be more suitable for the airfield. “The Paro valley, as I have said earlier, is much wider than the Thimphu valley. Parachute landings in Paro, as far as the terrain is concerned, are certainly possible.” According to Kuensel 15 November 1969, stated that Paro was found to be the most suitable place for the construction of an air-field. From 1968 up until 1983, the Indian Armed Forces used the airport mainly for on call helicopter operations.

Given the high terrain, steep mountain and rapid phenomenon change of weather in Paro International airport, it does not come as a surprise that only a squad of highly skilled pilots have the distinction of being certified to land at the airports.

Despite geopolitical uncertainties and lack of resources, the airport was built in a remarkably short period of time. Completion of the airport in 1968 put Bhutan on the air map and it brought a new dimension to the traditional relationship between Bhutan and India. Today, the Paro International Airport has been recognized as one the world’s most challenging airports.


Contributed by

Tshering Tashi