Flying Into Jiuzhaigou Airport (JZH) – A Pilot’s-Eye View

19 December 2014
19 December 2014, Comments: 0

Translated from Chinese.
From the logbook of Pan Xiaoben, September 11, 2014.

Don’t look at the 3,000 meters of runway available – so much ground speed with very little reverse thrust, and you can run out of runway in a hurry.

Huanglong Airport – one of China’s three high plateau airports, located on a mountain range to the west of the township of Hongxing in Sichuan Province, is the first airport in Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefect. The natural terrain in the area slopes down from north to south. There are mountains on both sides of the runway center line, so the clearance is rather poor. The airport is at an elevation of 3431 m, 88 km from Jiuzhaigou.

With a total project investment of one billion yuan, the designed annual throughput in 2010 was 800,000 passengers. Runway length is 3200 meters, width 45 meters, runway 20 has a displaced threshold of 200 meters. The airport can handle large and medium-sized aircraft such as the Boeing 757 and 737-700, and the Airbus A319. It’s about 240 km by air from Chengdu, or about 40 minutes flying time.

The first aircraft to land there was that of the flight test center conducting certification tests, and they really had their work cut out. They spent 15 days on engine failure emergency procedures, practically memorizing the 1:200,000, 1:100,000 and 1:50,000 topographical maps of the area.

I hear that they are going to install a second ILS system. Last year when the airport was put into operation it was okay – just that your heart is in your mouth every time you take off! “Wow, that was really slow, this is where you get to practice all your main wheel taxiing!”

When the Northwest Administration (of the CAAC) was using a 757 for airport tests, there was no single-engine flight testing at all. There were only taxiing tests, and instrument landing tests. The leader had only one thing to say about it: “I was just guaranteeing the safety of the flight test.” Boeing’s China representative, Frank, also flew to Jiuzhaigou on a 757. After landing he just shook his head, he had no words. (As the saying goes, “Please make the person in charge of high-speed railway ride the high-speed train every day!”)

I heard that Sichuan Airlines burst 19 tires in one month because of heavy braking. From this it seems clear… if a hot glue tire repair shop was opened at Jiuzhaigou airport, business should be really good.

You could say that Jiuzhaigou is one of the most difficult airports in China to fly into. There are a number of features contributing to this:

  1. Height above sea level. Elevation is 11,350 feet. At this elevation aircraft performance is poor, deceleration is slow, the controls are sluggish, the engines do not develop full power. You have to be particularly careful extending the flaps and using the APU, to avoid exceeding limits. Altitude also results in high true airspeeds. Touchdown speeds of 170 are common. With sluggish controls you really want to make sure of your touchdown point.

    Don’t look at the 3,000 meters of runway available – so much ground speed with very little reverse thrust, and you can run out of runway in a hurry. Do not expect everything to be OK if you overshoot, there is a precipice at the other end.

  2. Difficult terrain. The airport is surrounded by 4-5,000 meter high mountains. 5,600 meter (18,370 ft) high Xuebaoding is about 10 nautical miles to the east. The airport’s safe altitude is 6,200 meters (20,340 ft). The airplane scrapes the tops of the mountains. Climb out and final approach terrain is extremely difficult. At 5,000 meters (16,400 ft) you’re established on ILS runway 20, the radio altimeter displays a little over 1,000. On final the mountains on both sides really could be called towering. You feel like you can almost touch them. On the left side of the climb out is Huanglong, but, climbing desperately, you don’t have time to enjoy the scenery. If you have an engine failure on take-off, you resign yourself to your fate.
  3. Nasty weather. Severe turbulence is an everyday occurrence, and you often can’t see the instruments clearly. Especially on final, if it is not a strong crosswind pushing you sideways, it is a downdraft which makes you feel like throwing up. Apart from a fairly steady wind in the mornings, usually the wind is all over the place. Instant changes in crosswinds from 15 m/s from the left to 10 m/s from the right are common. Add in the rarefied air, you lose a few knots in airspeed and are constantly adjusting power, even up to 70 or 80 (% N1). Most frightening is the deep ravine at the end of the runway, the root of all evil, ah! Passing over the ravine is the decision point, at this point there is a diabolical wind. All the way to the ground a high crosswind can come at any time, a large crosswind, a blast of air. CAUTION! CAUTION!
  4. Jiuzhaigou’s harsh terrain. If you don’t turn off the EGPWS terrain warning, the alarm will undoubtedly sound!
  5. Descending to low altitude, the radio altimeter reports two times: 500 ft!
  6. Your B752 is on the ILS approach, the windsock goes limp, and you roll almost all the way to the holding point at the other end of the runway.
  7. Established on the ILS at 5,000 m., you may feel very “intimate” with the mountaintops below; down to the first automatic callout of “five hundred”. You can see the pine trees on the mountaintops on the right verrrry clearly!
  8. Windshear illusions are common.
  9. Rapidly changing weather. Visibility can go from 800 m to 8,000 m in a few minutes.
  10. Sudden changes in wind direction after 4 pm.
  11. To this day, there is no procedure for an engine failure…, but basically at take-off the captain says: “If we lose an engine we go straight back to Chengdu!”

Jiuzhaigou Huanglong airport

Jiuzhaigou is not really suited to flying, so they insisted on building an airport – but the runway is that short! Although the expansion project lengthens the runway to 3400 m, it is still too short. Even a desperately fighting aircraft can only get off the ground in the last 600 m or even less! The addition of an arresting wall may be considered to have basically solved the problem of the safety of aircraft on the runway, but if it comes to a single-engine go-around or an engine failure at rotation…

Some people have used Flight Simulator to find out what happens after an engine failure (I believe that anyone from the aviation community with a conscience could come up with the conclusions below after careful calculation):

  1. Unless you are very, very close to Vr, abort the take-off immediately. If speed has already passed V1-2 (approximately), whether the take-off is continued or the brakes are applied, the runway is just not long enough (it’s about 400 m too short). Immediate use of maximum reverse thrust + maximum braking and then waiting until you run into the arresting wall, that should be no big problem!
  2. Engine failure after rotation, you don’t even want to think about the departure procedures or you’ll certainly be running into a mountain!

First, find a deep valley to thread your way through, then use the pitifully low 100+ climb rate to ascend slowly (757, decreased by 50%). After you have done that, you may still be less than 2,000 feet off the ground for a long time after take-off, with the ground proximity warning giving you more than 10 minutes of mental preparation.

Finally, pray that the weather by all means does not deteriorate and there are no clouds on your track. Otherwise you’re just waiting to meet God, right!

For Jiuzhaigou airport it goes without saying – if there is no major incident, that is good luck! This kind of “airport” that does not even have the conditions for air navigation should not be connected by air at all!

One may well ask: who decided to give a 3,500 meter high airport a runway as short as an unfathomable 3000 meters when it was first built? If at that time 3000 m was considered long enough, why now not only extend it to 3,400 meters but also add an “arresting wall”? When the runway was only 3,000 meters long, was airport (operational) safety just left up to “luck” and a “small probability event”?

At Lhasa airport (Tibet), which is almost the same elevation (not to mention that it has a 4,000 meter runway), the surrounding terrain and weather conditions are much more favorable than those of Jiuzhaigou. How can some people insist on building an airport in a place as unsuited to flying as Jiuzhaigou?

Several more pieces of information are omitted below, but anyone in the industry with a conscience can obtain the same information…

Unless there is substantial load shedding on all flights, I would not fly to Jiuzhaigou, and I would do my best to stop my family and friends from flying there. Life is the most important thing!

Finally, I pay my respects to all those who fly to Jiuzhaigou Airport year round. It is you who give a 300% effort to maintaining this airport’s fragile safety record. You are all courageous people, you are the best, I wish you a safe life!

To this day the grave dangers of this airport are concealed for the sake of preserving harmony. Not so long ago, huge problems were created when Beijing Airport was flooded by rain. I hope that Jiuzhaigou Airport will not experience such a “low probability event”!


XL Translation Services specializes in technical and aviation related translation in the Chinese and English language pair.

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Rob Paix

Founder at XL Consulting
Founder and Executive Manager of XL China, Rob is originally from Australia but has lived much of his life in Asia, including 6 years in China. He particularly loves Xi’an and Western China. His varied career to date reflects his passion for aviation, travel, language and communication.

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