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Slipping the sandals in the Maldives page 2

Story and photos by Robert S. Grant

The company flies five Series 300 Twin Otters and several land-based amphibious Cessna Caravans in mostly white paint schemes. After observing intense water traffic on the airport’s east side, I soon recognized why operators considered Twin Otters the ideal type for Maldives work. Besides being built with more than enough strength to absorb constant, fully loaded takeoffs from water varying from glassy to extremely rough, they easily carried 16 passengers and three crew, since trips rarely exceeded 35 minutes each way.

A 1970s photo in Propliners magazine showed that floatplanes could not land beside the airport’s Runway 18-36. Since then, officials have constructed breakwaters and channels. Today, seaplane traffic flies from the east side “Bowling Alley”, a short, moat-like, angled ditch gouged out of the ocean floor and marked by floating orange buoys anchored in the shallow turquoise water. Unlike in Canada, pilots could rarely relax in the luxury of unlimited takeoff and landing areas. With average loads, departures to the north required a 40-degree turn during the takeoff run. As many as six aircraft, including competitors Sun Express and Maldivian Air Taxi (Kenn Borek Air), often waited in turn for departure clearance from the tower. Incoming heavies like Boeing 747s frequently delayed float aircraft. If on the water, they were told to hold–not easy in strong winds and tide. Aircraft arriving from resorts orbited in nearby airspace containing several geographical markers.

On the sixth day after leaving Canada’s snowstorms, I climbed into Twin Otter 8Q-HII, an aircraft once owned by Zimex Aviation in Zurich. With training pilot Frank Hennessey, a Canadian well respected for his expertise on wheels, skis and floats, we fired up and taxied toward the Bowling Alley in a 28-knot wind through a channel barely wide enough for the flat-topped floats. At one point and for several days later until the winds slowed, we needed nearly full reverse on the left engine and almost full forward on the right to pivot 90 degrees to make a turn from our taxi channel to the takeoff position. Non-reversing twin-engine airplanes could never work in the same environment.

“You really get used to crosswinds here,” said Hennessey. “Always taxi with your right hand on the power lever or the airplane’ll bump a coral head or run aground, and it’s rare when you aren’t in reverse or beta.”

With several hours’ training completed, Hennessey recommended a flight test, and Sun Express check pilot Larry Zurloff soon arrived at Hummingbird’s crew room. After leaving the Bowling Alley, we pointed 8Q-HII south across Vaadhoo Kanda (channel) toward South Male Atoll to an oval body of water that looked much like a Canadian lake except that the sides had no landforms holding back the ocean rollers, only reefs. From the cockpit, we weren’t looking down at a typical tea-coloured lake or soupy green Canadian bog. The water had such a silvery clarity and cleanness it looked as if someone had dropped a sheet of plastic wrap over the whole panorama. After 90 minutes of the same airwork we would have flown in Port Hardy or Pickle Lake, Zurloff suggested returning to Male, and, fortunately, I managed not to destroy the costly Wiplines during my first “solo” docking.

Three days of line indoctrination with Twin Otter veteran William Wood followed. Immediately, he pointed out that each Hummingbird aircraft utilized a different make of GPS; one had none. Topical charts (8 miles = 1 inch) did not exist, but a confusing, 29-page Maldives Island Directory helped with limited map reading. Luckily, most first officers knew the area and eagerly assisted newcomers when possible.

Navigation had to be exact, considering the multiplicity of similar islands and featureless ocean. Nothing compared to the feeling in the pit of the stomach when we were totally beyond sight of any land and hoping to God the GPS had been programmed properly or we’d correctly guessed our dead reckoning heading. The sen­sation intensified when low on fuel and resorts stocked nothing burnable except perhaps vodka or brandy, which might provide a spark or two in our PT6-27s. In one case, a first officer inser­ted “DUNN” into the GPS, which then indicated an incorrect 341° heading from a resort we departed in the Baa Atoll called Sonevafushi to another named Dhunikolu. Luckily, Wood and I had previously flown the same trip with “DUN” correctly punched in and the GPS displaying a westerly heading. This time, the first officer’s 341° did not seem plausible, and a quick recheck of the GPS prevented the aircraft from contin­uing over open ocean and running out of fuel. Swimming back to Male was not in the picture.

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