Floats & Frangipani!

          Life of a Bush Pilot in the Fiji Islands

       Most Canadians still stereotype a bush pilot as a rugged, grizzled individual in a plaid shirt and faded work pants, flying Indian trappers in a shabby but reliable old Beaver, or hauling fish in a venerable Noorduyn Norseman off Canada's northern lakes. Similarly, they might picture a weathered northern denizen in a down-filled parka, his face hidden by a fur-trimmed hood, using a Herman Nelson heater on a bitterly cold winter morning to warm a ski-equipped single Otter, or a stripped out DC-3.
Not many people, however, would imagine a bush pilot in short-sleeved shirt, shorts, and well-tanned bare feet, flying floatplanes - in the middle of winter - off coconut palm-lined beaches in the tropical South Pacific.
Finding Canadian multi-IFR pilots in different parts of the world is not unusual. Twin Otter jobs can be found in North Africa, Asia, or South America, but VFR floatpilots get few international job choices. So when I was offered a job in January of 1983, flying a Cessna 206 floatplane for Turtle Airways in Fiji, I packed my toothbrush and sunglasses, and caught the next CP Air flight south.
I first glimpsed the Fiji archipelago in April of 1971, from an American Airlines Boeing 707 flight to Australia. The captain called our attention, about six hours out of Honolulu, to a group of over 330 dormant volcanic islands far below. Wandering coral reefs, second in total area only to Australia's Great Barrier Reef, surround practically all of Fiji's islands, forming many protected lagoons and bays. Mountainous Viti Levu (Mount Victoria the highest peak at 1302m), with deep ravines worn into the hillsides by a millennium of tropical rains, is the group's largest island. The prevailing southeast trade winds dump their abundant moisture on Viti Levu's upwind slopes to sustain lush rain forests and leaving the lee wind side, where the Nadi International Airport is located, to enjoy dryer, more predictable weather almost all year.
On that flight over Fiji, I also remember the flight attendants passing around certificates testifying that we had just flown across the International Date Line. In fact, the majority of Fiji's islands lie just west of 180 longitude. So I journeyed into "tomorrow" with Fiji impressed in my memory.

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Mana Island Beach Stop

     Now that I am flying for Turtle Airways many of my Australian passengers exclaim, "Fair dinkum, mate, do you really get paid for doing this? How did you manage to get such a fabulous job?"
"By being in the right place at the right time," I always say. When my wife and I were on holidays in Fiji in November of 1981, I met the Turtle Airways' Chief Pilot. Ian Burgin. We got together one evening and swapped flying stories over a fruit punch at Nadi's Gateway Hotel. Remembering our conversation, the Chief Pilot 'phoned one cold winter night 16 months later, to offer me a newly-opened position. The only convincing I needed was to look out my window.
Turtle Airways' domain includes the most picturesque sun-washed tropical islands imaginable: graceful palm trees, soft white coral beaches, and exceptionally clear aquamarine waters. Lying off Viti Levu's west coast, the Mamanuca Islands swing outward from Nadi towards the sunset, the resulting curve half encircling Nadi Bay. The Yasawa Islands continue from there northeasterly in an asymmetrical 80km line. Together, the islands dot the waters like corks in a fisherman's net, trapping inside numerous coral islands and scatterings of coral reefs and cays, with the net's mouth finally spilling open and taking in the northern Bligh Waters.

 Mana Island Landing

       Captain Bligh and his faithful crew sailed through these waters after being set adrift by the Bounty's infamous mutineers. He did not stop, however, because he was chased from the islands by the then-fierce and cannibalistic Fijian warriors. Today the big dark Fijian people are friendly, genuine, and open. They smile and wave at every opportunity, meeting everyone with the native greeting, "Bula."
A small, but busy, airline flying tourists to and from the various island resorts, Turtle Airways maintains three Cessna 206s on C3500 PK floats, and two or three pilots, depending on the workload. The Stationairs are kept in excellent shape considering the high salt density in the 27C-plus tropical waters. They keep corrosion to a minimum by dollying the planes out of the "salt chuck" every night and washing them inside and out with fresh water. Because of the inexpensive labor on Fiji, they can also afford to completely de-corrode and paint the aircraft at least once a year: a distinctive two-tone blue, with a bright read and green "Tui the Turtle" painted boldly on the tail and floats.
Nevertheless, after working here for nearly a year, I must admit that paradise does not have utopia-like flying conditions at all times. Somehow, despite the exotic surroundings, the problems all sound vaguely familiar. Ocean swells big enough to surf on are as hard as a brick wall if you don't handle them right. Fully loaded glassy water take-offs on a muggy 35C afternoon, with only two kilometers of lagoon before reaching the unyielding shark-tooth reefs, are enough work to make even the coolest professional perspire. In addition, there are isolated coral heads scattered everywhere that can be disastrous if you misjudge or forget their position.Turtle Island Floatplane Jetty

Therefore, the sturdy PK floats are essential to the company's (and the pilot's) well-being because, as experience has proven, normally constructed floats are annihilated in a period of months. The extra thick aluminum, heavy metal skegs, and deep V design are ideal for cutting through kidney-jarring rough water and ocean swells, and bumping across the occasional misplaced coral reef. The only change, I believe, that would improve the PK floats would be installing a good old Canadian Beaver on them.
Despite all that, things still do break. Ravi, who once worked as an engineer for Turtle Airways, recalled: "We used to change broken flying wires at least once a week. One time, a float strut broke on a rough water take-off; the pilot continued on and flew his passengers over to Mana Island where he knew he could land safely in the calm lagoon. The right front strut was bent 90 degrees in the middle, and the airplane knelt forward like a horse with a broken leg. There was no way he could fly the plane back like that. There was a danger the other strut might collapse, and we had no way to change the strut in Mana. But luckily, Dave was a Canadian bush pilot and they know how to fix those things. He placed several two-by-fours under the broken strut, cinched the whole thing together with rope, and flew it back home. The splint was so sturdy, he could have flown all day the way it was."Beachcomber Island

Then, even in paradise, there are those inevitable days when you spend all afternoon dodging black monsoon downpours like a running-back dodging tackles; or you suddenly develop hydrophobia as a flight takes you across 100 nautical miles of frothing, seething, open ocean blown wild by 35 knot winds. At the half-way point, a nervous passenger taps you on the shoulder and asks, "Is that a shark I see down there, mate?" "Are you sure we have enough petro'? That gauge reads empty." Those are the days when you love the guys on Continental's engine assembly line, but hate whoever makes those damn fuel gauges, and when you hate your dispatcher for sending you on such a haywire flight, but because you love flying you would rather be here than anywhere else.
Most of the time, however, the pace in Fiji, as well as the flying, is typically South Pacific: slow, even tempered, and down-right drowsy. When you land at reef-encircled Beachcomber or Treasure Island, for instance, the Fijian who boats your passengers to shore might promptly scramble out to meet the plane; but then again, he might be napping.
To solve that problem, I asked our dispatcher, Olaf, to 'phone ahead so that the boat could be prepared to meet the plane. "Yes," Treasure Island's receptionist said, "not to worry." But when I landed again, there was no boat. Half an hour later, the boat finally showed up.
"Right on time," I said sarcastically.
With a toothy grin, the Fijian boat boy laughed, "lo, Fiji time."
When I returned to base, our dispatcher smiled and slowly shook his head. "That doesn't give them more time to prepare, it only gives them more time to forget."

Yasawa Island Medical Evacuation

Article and Images by John S Goulet

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Last modified on October 29, 2006 .
           Virtual Horizons, 1996.