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Slipping the sandals in the Maldives page 3

Story and photos by Robert S. Grant

Also, Wood demonstrated parking at floating plat­forms, since shallow water, coral reefs and lack of shelter prevented aircraft from going to beaches. Constructed from treated wood that had been lined with tires, the platforms were anchored semi-permanently in lagoons and, on windy days, presented difficult targets. Balancing power levers, sea current and wind took patience. Many higher time Twin Otter pilots tried several times before shutting down.

Once propellers stopped, preferably overlapping the water, unloading inbound passengers began while one crew member monitored the dhoni’s approach. The drivers, unfamiliar with air­planes and the costs involved in repairing them, frequently approached too fast or parked their bows under a wing. Just during my time in Male, dhonis caused two aborts by favouring the space selected for takeoff and landing.

Few passengers, who connected with Hummingbird via charter carriers such as Lauda Air, Monarch or Singapore Airlines, had seen floatplanes. Inbound German, Italian, British and numerous other European passengers could be distinguished by their white legs, heavy shoes and cold-weather clothing folded under their arms. When newcomers planted their feet on the platforms, vistas of islands accented by water shades varying from blues to near black tones mesmerized them. Once they discovered the beautiful golds, blues and reds of fish, crabs and squids sheltering under the floats, they nearly had to be pried into the dhonis.

Released to line flying, my typical day started at 0400 to catch an 0500 dhoni for 10 rufiya (US $1) that docked at Male’s airport on Hulule Island. All flying had to be day VFR, and, since surface vessels kept resorts stocked with whatever they needed, we never flew freight runs. Fortunately for aircrew, Hummingbird Airways provided breakfast and lunch. At least 98% of the company pilots on the daily dhoni were Canad­ian except for two Americans, an Australian and a Maldivian–Ahmed Thiham, the only islander to captain a Twin Otter. Direct-entry captains required 2,000 hours as pilot-in-command with 1,000 on floats and 250 on type. Copilots sometimes arrived with fresh commercials.

A typical Twin Otter such as 8Q-HIJ weighed 8,245 pounds on straight Wipline 13000s. With passengers and a 30-minute reserve plus flight fuel, most pilots preferred ending their trips with no fewer than 200 pounds each in aft and forward tanks. They could not log more than 32 hours in seven days, a factor monitored closely by Zambe, since most put in five to eight hours per day. Luckily, this resulted in one day per week free from duty, sometimes two. Company policy allowed two months in Male and one month to the home country, transportation paid.

After a 10-minute dhoni ride, pilots boarded a mini-bus to company offices to obtain a “May­fly”–the daily flight schedule and crew pairings. Usually, the same vehicle took them to the seaplane base, where they commenced walkaround inspections of their assigned airplanes. Besides doing the standard procedures in aircraft flight manuals, the walkaround involved checking fuel tanks with a custom-made wooden dipstick. The standard de Havilland model did not suffice for accurate readings for Series 300 Twin Otters on Wipline floats, because the angle of the fuselage differed between seaplanes and wheel aircraft.

Seaplane maintenance in the Maldives meant constant vigilance. Salt water not only corroded airplanes but seeped into hydraulic and electric lines, rendering items like radios and fuel gauges useless. A dedicated crew of Sri Lankan and Brit­ish AMEs and apprentices constantly repaired minor defects, which would otherwise cause grounding. For major inspections, they attached beaching gear, hauled a Twin Otter to a ramp and, in the broiling sun, swarmed the airplane. A lack of hangars and heavy bookings–up to 900 passengers a day for the fleet–made their task difficult.

Maldives pilots rarely considered Twin Otter flight decks the most pleasant place to work when OATs peaked into the 30s and 40s. Within days, I exchanged my shoes for sandals, the only footwear able to withstand heat and constant saltwater soaking. Some pilots slipped their sandals under their seats and flew barefoot. Wrink­led short-sleeve shirts and plastic water bottles always seemed to be part of the cockpit decor.

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