The sun is setting peacefully over the Indian Ocean, just as the water bungalows come into view. The Twin Otter circles gracefully above the ultramarine blue lagoon and white coral beaches. Below, there are manta rays, stingrays, eagle rays, whale sharks, reef sharks and dolphins. Fish of all shapes, colours, and sizes are visible through the crystal clear water. The beauty is mesmerizing. And then the captain yells: Flaps full, props forward, is the landing checklist complete? It back to reality; there still work to do.
The Republic of Maldives (pronounced maal-deeves) is an island nation comprised of a double chain of 26 atolls in the Laccadive Sea, 700 kilometres southwest of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Atolls are coral islands that encircle a lagoon, either partially or completely. The official website of the Maldives Marketing & Public Relations Corporation notes the population of the country is about 350,000, most of whom live in the capital of Male (pronounced maal-ee), which had a population of 103,693 as of 2006.
Male is the second-most-densely-populated island worldwide, with a landmass of 5.8 square kilometres. It is said that if there were an emergency, and all of the citizens had to evacuate their homes at one time, there would not be enough room on the streets to accommodate everyone.
There are only two seaplane operators in the Maldives. Maldivian Air Taxi (MAT) and Trans Maldivian Airways (TMA) are the two airlines that service the thriving and ever-expanding tourism industry. Together, they operate more than 40 de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters, employ 180 aircrew, service more than 60 resorts, and move 5,000 passengers a day.
Both MAT and TMA fly the Twin Otter exclusively. Both have tried a variety of other aircraft, but the robustness, reliability, and STOL (short takeoff and landing) capabilities of the Twin Otter continue to surpass any other aircraft on the market. The Twin Otter was originally introduced in Canada in 1964 as a replacement for the DHC-3 Otter, and quickly became the global aircraft of choice for operators needing STOL performance on wheels, skis and floats. Production of the Twin Otter stopped in 1988 at around 850 deliveries; but with the aging fleet, demand rose. Viking Air in Victoria, B.C., purchased the rights and tools to re-start production. The new Twin Otter, designated the DHC-6 Series 400, has been vastly improved with a new avionics package, updated engines, and carbon fibre parts to reduce weight. Today, with a production backlog of $300 million, there seems to be no end in sight for this versatile Canadian aircraft.
The Maldives is a great place to visit, and an outstanding place for a seaplane pilot to work. The MAT and TMA pilots who fly in this tropical paradise hail from around the world. Although the majority of pilots are now Maldivian, there is still a requirement for expat pilots during the high season. A lot of the Maldives’ experienced expat pilots used to come from Canada, but that market has started to dry up because many Canadian companies have moved away from float operations. There is a much larger mix within the pilot community now, consisting of Europeans, Australians and Americans, as well as Canadians.
I’m a professional pilot and photographer, born and raised in the Northwest Territories, although I have lived on Vancouver Island, B.C., for the majority of my adult life.
As a pilot with more than 10,000 flight hours, and nearly half of those on floats, I can tell you that the Maldives presents great challenges that a pilot normally doesn’t find anywhere else in the world. Among these: open ocean water landings and takeoffs, where one can see for miles into the distance; lagoons filled with beautiful coral reefs; 40-knot winds; congested docks; and confused dhoni (local water taxi) captains. The Maldives is the ideal destination for anyone with float time in their log book, not only for the challenges, but for the many experiences and the magnificent beauty as well.
Flying in Paradise
The daily grind begins for the aircrews of MAT and TMA as the first prayers ring out in this Muslim country. The day starts very early at 04:45, as the first dhoni takes its passengers from the capital, Male, to Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, one mile away. Each dhoni is packed with airline staff and flight crews, on their way to work to pre-flight 30 or so Twin Otters for the first flights of the day. There are also a few aircraft that are on overnights at five-star resorts, and will be bringing passengers in early to meet the never-ending stream of Asian, European, Russian, and African airliners landing at the airport. An average duty day is 14 hours, including eight flight hours and 15 to 22 sectors [a sector is equal to one leg of a journey, from takeoff to landing]. Flying below 10,000 feet, without air conditioning, makes flying in paradise more like work than a holiday, and reinforces the term air taxi. Working here is compared to being a bird in a golden cage; the cage may be golden, but one is still in a cage.
During the west monsoon, from March to October, the rains are heavy and the winds are very strong. In the east monsoon, from October to March, the winds shift to the east and bring fair skies, calmer seas, and vast quantities of excited tourists. The east monsoon can bring the air pollution from India and Malaysia, which reduces visibility to near zero, but most days the weather is spectacular, especially after a big rainstorm; those days, the water becomes placid and reflects the blue skies above. Following a rainstorm, the island coral sand beaches glow a beautiful white, and the visibility is so clear you can see the slight curvature of the earth. Extra crews are needed during the east monsoon, as this is the high season for tourism. Most days are busy, but there are occasions when lucky aircrews get a few hours in the day to relax at a five-star resort and indulge in a spectacular multi-course meal fit for a sheik. When aircraft shut down early, the crews are able to enjoy an Indian Ocean sunset, followed by an evening in a water bungalow or beach villa. Most days, however, crews are busy from daylight to dusk with only 20 minutes to spare for a lunch break at the seaplane base. Crews who are not lucky enough to be at a resort for the night must fight the traffic and vehicle pollution with the rest of the throngs who live in Male, as they navigate their way back to their apartments through the maze of streets and alleyways. There are no street numbers, only house names this is not a problem if you are a local, but for expat pilots it a new concept.
Densely-populated Male is full of construction, vehicle and human noise. Unless I close the door to my bedroom and put earplugs in, there is no such thing as peace and quiet. When I first arrived in the Maldives in September of 1999, I had no idea what to expect. I thought the heat and humidity would be the hardest to acclimatize to; but in actual fact, it was the living conditions, lack of North American luxuries, and the population density that were the largest challenges. The most amazing things I discovered about living and working in the Maldives were the characteristics of its people: friendly, welcoming, open and warm.
There are a few things a pilot can do on days off in Male: scuba diving, surfing, snorkeling, resort excursions, or short trips to Colombo, Sri Lanka, to name a few. But most pilots will spend their days off relaxing, doing laundry, replying to emails, and socializing with colleagues. For those who have families here, it is a time to catch up on the week events, and maybe take the children for a visit to the Sultan Park. A large majority of expat pilots are on a rotation of three months on, one month off.
A local Maldivian barefoot pilot once told me that, although he may be biased, the beauty of the Maldives from the air always mesmerizes him. There isn’t another country in the world that even comes close to the majestic pearls of the Indian Ocean. The water shimmering shades of blue and aquamarine capture the heart of anyone gazing upon them. Those who are lucky enough to work in the Maldives are spoiled by beauty, fattened by the buffets, and exhausted from the schedule but most will want to return.
Neil Walton is a Prince George, B.C.-based freelance photojournalist and professional fixed-wing pilot. His more than 10,000 hours of flying experience includes Arctic, desert, and mountain operations, from the far North to the southern hemisphere, across Canada, Afghanistan, the Maldives, and Africa. As a professional photographer, he has been published in several aviation magazines and in-flight periodicals, and has sold photos worldwide.