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Slipping the sandals in the Maldives page 4

Story and photos by Robert S. Grant

Hummingbird’s Twin Otters were far from new, but cabin attendants and other ground staff kept the interiors spotless and life jackets neatly stowed. No aircraft came with air conditioning, mainly because of extra maintenance and reduced payload. Taxiing with front side windows open allowed fuel fumes to enter, and cabin gas­pers did nothing to cool the interior until airborne. At times, perspiration became so heavy that reaching for the power levers caused drips to run down my arms and turn flight manifests to mush. Worse, my David Clarks often slid from my head, and moist fingers slipped on power levers, while behind us, passengers frantically fanned themselves with safety briefing cards.

Every takeoff required 20 degrees of flap, unlike wheeled Twin Otters, which need 10. With water obstacles in mind as well as a strong desire to reduce airplane exposure to stress, pilots became airborne as quickly as possible. With average OATs and winds, Series 300s usually left the surface before the approved 64-knot Vmc. Malfunction or power loss meant straight-ahead landings; otherwise, SOPs stressed no turns below 400 feet after departure from the Bowling Alley. Cruise climbs at 100-knots IAS worked well with the Wipline-equipped Twin Otters.

Before each takeoff, the first officer or cabin attendant briefed passengers. Unfortunately, few understood English. Whenever possible, the tour guides who sometimes travelled on the aircraft would interpret. Usually, these women, aged 25 to 35 from European or Far East countries, were selected for their abilities to speak more than one language. They also needed man­agement and supervisory skills for dealing daily with hun­­d­reds of guests and, 10 days to two weeks later, moving on to a new inbound group while saying goodbye to the old.

During dry season, turbulence was rare, although brisk winds often inundated the area. During my two-month Maldives sojourn, only one passenger became airsick. Most kept their faces and cameras pressed to the Twin Otter’s windows watching and photographing almost every passing atoll washed by sparkling waves. Depending on the owner’s nationality, luggage could be any size, shape or weight. We noticed that Chinese carried little, but German bags always stretched our arms. At Male pilots occasionally helped load, but on the resort platforms all flight crew worked together for quick turnarounds.

Twin Otter-size airplanes did not land in the open sea because of gigantic swells and rollers. Resort operators–the first opened for business in 1972–depended on what brochures described as an “enclosed interior sea”, or lagoon surrounded by coral reefs. The first look from a few hundred feet would unsettle the most experienced Canad­ian float pilot. Canadian Frank Allard described an approach to Angaga in the South Ari Atoll southwest of Male as “landing in a bottle of Win­dex” and another said that the silvery blue water and bleached shorelines reminded him of northern Ontario trout lakes in the spring when water covered the ice.

The crystal clear liquid mottled with col­oured coral formations made every hazard appear to be on the surface or slightly below, ready to shred the floats. “Usually, if you see brown, whether it’s reefs or coral heads, they’re the shallow ones, so stay clear,” said Hennessey, who later became Hummingbird’s chief pilot. Resort man­agers rarely placed platforms close to jetties or docks and some courteously marked shallow areas with buoys. In smaller lagoons like Angaga, the shortest serviced by Hummingbird, scuba divers sometimes popped up close to taxiing airplanes.

For landings, most pilots called for 30 deg­rees flap, and some preferred full every time. Getting down and stopped as quickly as possible demanded concentrated approaches with the slowest attainable forward speed followed by maximum reverse at contact. On the water, each pilot guided the other clear of hazards while slow taxiing. More than one person relaxed prematurely, but with the strongly built Wiplines, punctures rarely occurred.

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