Hummingbird Island Airways

The Rise and Fall of a Dream
You have not lived unless you have flown
Seaplanes in the Maldives.

Part One in a Series

A young pilot, David, sent me a long and memorable email. It wasn't just addressed to me, but to all those he considered e-friends. The idea of the email was to present a personal questionnaire that everyone was supposed to fill out and then email to a number of his or her friends. The sharing or baring of these intimate details of our lives was to bring us all closer together as friends in that seeing more of each person as an unique individual would make us more tolerant and understanding.
      I enjoyed his email and laughed and was touched by some of his answers, but I did not, regretfully, return the courtesy. Maybe someday I will, especially now that I can appreciate the humanism in what he was attempting to accomplish, answer his email questionnaire and return to sender.
       What really touched me, however, was the answer to one question that related to memorable moments in his flying travels. I can't remember the question, but the answer was similar to what I would have written despite our difference of years; him as a young co-pilot just going Captain, and me after 24 years of flying experience. 

Standing on the top of the Twin Otter watching the whales surfacing. Flying over the mountains newly covered in snow. Listening to the sounds of the evening prayer call as you prepare to leave the Maldives, possibly for the last time.

Mosque in Male, Republic of Maldives     That is not how he phrased his answers, but that is how I remember the common ground. We had shared experiences as bush pilots and as such had found a bond, especially so after having both flown in the Maldives. David flew for the floatplane operator Maldivian Air Taxi, and I flew for the upstart Hummingbird Island Airways. It did not matter who we flew for the experiences were the same and we both remember our time in the Maldives with special heart felt warmth.
      Kit Chambers would not have described the air service he started as an upstart company, but when he first turned a blade it was a rotor blade and the idea of flying floatplanes had not yet been introduced. Kit Chambers started a helicopter transfer service to a few select islands within the tourist-designated areas that were considered too far or uncomfortable for regular sea-going boat transfer.

Mil-8  Russian Helicopter      In fact, Chambers was the first pilot to start island transfers in the Maldives. His innovative idea, that came to fruit, was to move incoming tourists from the International Airport to the resort islands by helicopter. Thus Hummingbird Helicopters was born. As with any good idea they had imitators and had to battle an idea stealing Seagull Helicopters. Eventually Hummingbird won, but at a financial drain to the company.
      The next company battle Hummingbird Helicopters fought and eventually lost was with Maldivian Air Taxi. MAT, as they are known locally, had the idea of bringing floatplanes or seaplanes into the Maldives. The helicopters offered the hub and spoke concept of transfers where they brought the tourists to the nearest licenced helipad and the resorts would send out their dhonis, local wooden boats, to pick up the passengers. MAT bettered that by offering "door to door" service where they could land the floatplanes right into the individual lagoons of each resort, thus eliminating the often long and trying boat rides from the helipads.

Ken Borek's Twin Otter fleet in the Maldives       It wasn't long before MAT started taking the majority of the air transfer business in the Maldives and Hummingbird Helicopters was again being taxed financially. The reason I called Hummingbird the upstart airline earlier was because at this point, in order to survive, Hummingbird had to reinvent itself as a seaplane operation and phase out the expensive daytime helicopter transfers.
      That is where I came in. Hummingbird was going to make a new start with two amphibious Caravans and two float Twin Otters, as well as keeping the Bulgarian run contact for the three Mil-8 helicopters and crew. I had been offered the position of Chief Pilot Fixed Wing for Hummingbird, but by the time I made up my mind the position was taken. I settled for Training Captain on the Caravans and was actually relieved because secretly I was longing to live the simple life in the tropical Maldives.
       My wife and I had looked up the images on the internet, and the blue waters, green palm trees, and soft white sand beaches reminded us of our days in Fiji. That was the idyllic life we were longing for and wished to go back to. As Training Captain my life would be simple and uncomplicated leaving me time for my family. Or that is what we thought.
      In the middle of the cold Canadian winter, when the snow was drifting over the driveway, my wife, my nine-year-old son, and myself made it over to the Winnipeg airport to board Air Canada enroute to Male the capital of the Republic of Maldives. Our connection was through Los Angeles and then on to Kuala Lumpur with Malaysian Airlines.
      The rest-break in Malaysia was planned to relieve the jet lag as we were circumnavigating the long way round. The Maldives was over halfway around the globe from Winnipeg, and precisely halfway from Vancouver, including 12 hours time difference on the clock. When we travelled home we went through Europe and could truthfully say, “We had been around the world.”
      We thoroughly enjoyed our stopover in the Southeast Asian city, and did all the touristy things that tourists do. We were not made to feel like foreigners at all. Our gentle introduction to Asia did not, however, prepare us for the Maldivian way of doing things.
       We arrived in Male late in the evening and the confusion started. First of all, the immigration ignored my attempt to explain that I have come in to work for a local company. They stamped me as a tourist with only a 30-day stay. Customs then insisted on x-raying our entire luggage of which we had lots having come to live there. The customs asked why, if we were tourist, did we have so much luggage? I explained that I have come to work, but immigration wouldn’t listen to me. Customs then led me back to immigration where we finally straightened out my passport when the officer realized that he had a prearranged visa waiting for me from Hummingbird Island Airways.
      That settled, the customs officials then x-rayed our luggage and the real Maldivian character emerged. The Maldives Republic is Muslim and in order to protect their peoples they search all suspect imports for booze, pornography, and pork products. It was obvious to everyone there, except to myself, my wife, and my young son, that we were likely suspects for being smugglers. They tore apart every one of our nine suitcases and of course could not find anything. In their zealousness they eventually confiscated my son’s 20 plus videos tapes. These tapes were my son’s personal collection from his life in theater-less Nigeria, and included classics such as "Winnie the Pooh", "Aladdin", and "Honey I Shrunk the Kids."
      Neither my son nor my wife had ever been subjected to this kind of single-minded censorship that led them to declare my son’s Disney videos as possible pornography. As they filed away my son’s videos one by one my son went from friendly persuasion to logical arguments to frustrated crying, but to no avail. They ignored him and my wife and set the tone of our next two years in the Maldives. Quiet dogmatic bureaucracy prevailed. They never argued, they never angered; they just followed the rules. That dogma permeated throughout the society and coloured everything we did in introducing floatplanes to Hummingbird Island Airways.
      The next morning the sun was shining and the sky was blue, and the enormous Flame trees were heavy with bright red flowers. We were in the obviously tropical Maldives and the previous night’s theft of our possessions was not going to damper our spirits. The Chief Pilot, Jimbo, came to show us around. The yellow warm morning light filtered in through the heavy green leaves of the mango trees, and streamed in around the tightly packed buildings crowded along the narrow interlocking brick streets. White taxis and skinny men on bicycles hurried along as the city came alive.

"Jimbo" Experienced Twin Otter Pilot       Jimbo, with an disarming smile and a friendly demeanor, led myself and my family through the crowded dusty streets to visit the tailor for my uniforms, the photographer for my pictures, and the hospital for my immigration required work medical in order to get the entire procedure under way toward getting me licenced and flying. The GM who hired me had initially promised me two weeks off when I arrived in order to get oriented and get my family settled, but things had changed between the time we left home until the time we arrived. Even when the promise was made, my wife rolled her eyes and laughed, saying “yeah, right.” We had been in the business too long to think that promise would ever be kept. We both just shrugged our collective shoulders when Jimbo announced that I was needed online as soon as bureaucratically possible.
      As I had worked overseas for many years, I had a good handle on what was expected of me for the licencing. Although the Maldivian department of the DCA, or Director of Civil Aviation, had a very complicated licencing procedure, I managed to have the right documents at the right time to speed up the process. First of all, they had already, long before my arrival, gotten a photocopy of my Canadian ATPL so that they could physically contact Transport Canada and verify the validity of my licence. Transport Canada had faxed back to them that yes indeed my licence was valid and they had no violations or suspensions on record. In essence they verified my ATPL was real.
      Thus, with a valid verified ATPL, a valid medical within 6 months, a C208 type rating on my Cdn licence, a 6 month current PPC ride on my ICAO Nigerian licence, and two stamp size photographs, I was ready to fly only 2 days after my arrival in the Maldives. The department of the Director of Civil Aviation issued me what they call an Authorization permit. That means I can fly legally within the Maldives based on my Cdn licence that has been so authorized. That would give me 90 days in which to obtain my DCA medical and write the Air Laws after which they would issue me a real Maldivian Pilot Licence. Next, however, would come the familiarization flights.
      Jimbo, being the Chief Pilot had the duty of bringing me to the airport and introduced me to the pilots who had preceded me into the floatplane operation. Jimbo himself was ex-Ken Borek and was one of the most experienced and qualified Twin Otter pilots in the business. Jimbo was a wealth of Twin Otter tales of woe that he was happy to regale you with especially over the business of a beer. He introduced me to the two new-to-the-Caravan pilots who were to become the backbone of the single engine operation.
       Rod and Ian were both Aussies from widely diverse backgrounds and experience, but both were excellent floatplane pilots in their own right. The third pilot, George, who was away at the moment, was ex-Maldivian Air Taxi, and was only here with Hummingbird for the short introductory period. He had been in the Maldives before and had only agreed to come over from the U.S. to help start the Caravan operation. He would soon be leaving now that I had finally arrived.

      Rod was a veteran of PNG and anyone who knows anything about the conditions of flying in the mountain regions of Papua New Guinea would know that Rod had to be a better than average aviator. He was definitely a survivor and knew how to calculate the inherent risks in any new venture. He was both cautious and deliberate and his decision making process was hard to fault.
      Unfortunately, within his first two weeks of flying the Caravan he had been the one to leave the water rudders down for take-off and discover that can’t be done on the Wipaire floats. Like he pointed out, it says right in the Wipaire manual that for crosswind take-offs it is advisable to leave the rudders down for better control. What it doesn’t say is that the water rudders are one of the weak links in the otherwise excellent amphib floats. You only cautiously leave the water rudders down for the initial part of the take-off run, and you never leave them down for landings or during backing up, but it was a common mistake for floatplane pilots transitioning from Beavers.
      Any one of these operations can rip the rudder assembly right off the heel of the aircraft leaving a hole large enough to sink the aircraft - given time. Because the control wires run internally, if the back float compartment gets holed, the water will eventually force itself through the access holes in the bulkheads and, like the Titanic, fill each compartment along the way. Although I don't believe it has ever happened, it is possible and a few pilots have come very close to sinking their Caravans. As the Edo’s don’t have the same such problems, the worst that will usually happen to Beaver pilots is that they will have to buy the boys a case of beer if caught with their water rudders down.

"Ian" Caravan Pilot       Ian, on the other hand, was relatively inexperienced although he had accumulated over 5000 hours on floats. Most of his time was on the Beaver flying the Australian East Coast, and on the C185 up the rivers of Tasmania. With the glorious sunshine and clear skies in the Land of Oz, Ian confessed that he had never flown IMC. He had basically never flown through a rainstorm or gone zero/zero in cloud or fog. That did not detract from his floatplane skills that were superb. In Fiji, 15 years before, I had checked out several Aussie pilots on floats and, at the time, they were somewhat awkward in technique. Ian wasn’t and could finesse his way in and out of some frightfully restricted coral reef channels or awfully large and tumultuous seas.
      As Jimbo wasn’t checked out on the Caravan, he delegated my area check out to Rod and Ian. Ian had been in country for some time and had been originally checked out on the Caravan 6 weeks before by George. Rod had come later and had only started on the Caravan less than two weeks ago.
      As it turned out the small world syndrome was in play here as George had flown the original MAT straight float Caravan that had sunk in the Maldives, been salvaged and rebuilt by Ken Borek, painted orange, and sold to Slate Falls Airways. That was the aircraft that I had flown several years before when I checked out the Slate Falls pilots on their newly acquired Caravan.
      I never did get the story straight however on how the Caravan sunk in the first place. Most accounts have it sinking at the dock because someone left the fuel selectors on and the fuel all flowed to one wing causing the wing to catch the water and turn turtle. The other version is that the floats were so badly beat up from the rough water and the aircraft was so neglected as the orphan of the fleet that the floats filled up with water over night at the dock and the aircraft sunk. Dave, the diver who salvaged the plane, says it was the former I believed him. One Hummingbird pilot left his fuel selectors on during a 30-minute shutdown and had a 300 lb imbalance. When I witnessed him taxing out, luckily empty, he was very near to disaster. I can see if the plane were left overnight with the selectors on the imbalance difference would be too much for the floats to handle.
      As for the other Hummingbird Caravan, someone made the wing ropes too long and consequently one caught in the tracks during flap retraction. The out of place rope had severely bent the tracks and cracked the flap hangers. Making the wing ropes too long was another common mistake Beaver pilots make when converting onto the Caravans. Thus, both Hummingbird Caravans were effectively grounded when I arrived in country on Feb 01st.
      The solution to get one airborne was to take parts off one and make whole the other Caravan, and that is what Ken, the Canadian Chief Engineer, did. He had taken the rudder assembly off the new Caravan, 8Q-HIC, and placed it on the other Caravan, 8Q-HID, to make one aircraft out of two. This necessity to resort to cannibalization so early in the airlines’ operational life was disconcerting to me. The MD and GM had at least 6 months to prepare for the arrival of the aircraft and yet there was not a spare part in country. That was a sign of times to come, but right now I put those thoughts aside as I climbed aboard for my first flight in the Maldives.

Amphibious Cessna Caravan        February 03rd, 1997, Rod lifted 8Q-HID smoothly off the runway of the Male International Airport northwest bound for Kudafolhudhoo Island, or Nika Resort, which is a tiny coral island on the north tip of South Ari Atoll. Hummingbird at that time had no floatplane contracts, but they still had the 3 Mil-8’s and the helicopter transfer contracts. Although not always strictly contract legal, whenever the dispatchers could, in an attempt to start introducing the floatplanes to the operation and to lower the cost of passenger transfer, they would send the smaller loads on either the Twin Otters or the Caravans.
      Nika Resort had agreed to utilize the floatplanes, however, as the helipad was a short distance away on another island. With the floatplanes we could land and tie up right on their island jetty making passenger transfer a simple business. Nika had almost given up their business to MAT, but agreed to stay with Hummingbird when they said they were switching to floatplanes. On this trip to Nika we were only to drop off two and pick up five. That load was definitely a money loser for the 22 passenger Mil-8 helicopter and anything else, except the Caravan.
      Rod climbed to 2000 feet enroute to the South Ari Atoll. As he leveled off I got to see the Indian Ocean in all its glory. The day was slightly hazy, but the landscape or should I say seascape was indistinguishably Maldivian. I was not expecting a “Fiji”, but certainly the Maldives is of another world. A thousand low lying islands in a picture perfect setting of about 8 double strings of pearls on a velvet azure backdrop, strung out for a thousand miles north to south, is the best way to visualize the island country.

Maldivian Children       In fact, it is really hard to understand the Maldives as a country unless you think of it as a Republic of Island Peoples. The people are most likely a collection of Indian, Sri-Lankan, and Arabic descent, who mixed to become distinctively Maldivian. Despite their similarities, the northern islanders distinguished themselves from the southerners. The indigenous inhabitants of Male, for example, claim that it is the southern islanders who are the go-getters of their society and who have taken over the northern capital with their industry and commerce.
      The lands they inhabit are coral islands formed around ancient volcanoes that sunk into the ocean millions of years ago. At one time there must have been a pair of volcanic hot spots that would push up one molten island after another as the Sub- Continental Indian plate plowed northward. It was as if a fixed position sewing machine was poking holes in the plate from below as the fabric of plate material swept along. From each hole bled the molten lava making mountains and islands that for many millenniums must have resembled the Hawaiian Islands. Coral grew around the base of the islands, and when the heavy islands sunk they left the living coral reefs behind, in somewhat irregular circles, to continue struggling to find a balance between staying near the sunlit surface and yet staying submerged enough to sustain oceanic life.
      The elongated geological shape of the main coral reef atolls that remain are positioned north to south according to the movement of the tectonic geological plates. But, the smaller and newer coral lagoons and cays are elongated according to the prevailing winds of the strongest monsoon, the northwest monsoon that blows from about mid-April to November. That does not mean, however, that the lagoons are elongated SE to NW. The strongest winds of the northwest monsoon actually occur when the winds swing around to the west and northwest. Believe me, learning the seasonal winds were very difficult.

Male International Airport, Republic of Maldives      The worst part of the phenomena is that the international airport’s only runway is situated north to south to follow the lie of the Huhule Island it is built on. That means that when the winds are light and variable they are right down the runway. As the winds increase, during the northwest monsoon, they will swing westerly and consequently dead across the runway. When the winds reach their peak at 35 – 45 knots they are 270 degrees and a perfect 90-degree crosswind.
      One of the Aussies pilots who came later, Robbie, who is without doubt one of the best natural born pilot I have ever met, showed me, (as I was checking him out!) how to land the Caravan amphib in a 30 knot 90 degree crosswind. I had seen enough of his flying to know he could do it, but to sit in the front right seat and watch him do it took a lot of control on my part not to wave him off for a go around. It was like watching a bald eagle hovering over a naked branch in a ferocious wind. He worked the controls like muscles working feathers and wings, and perched her down, always on the edge, but perfectly in control.
      We had an easier time with the Twin Otters, based out of the eastern floatplane base, when the winds came up, simply because we could land them into the west wind. The east west water landing area was awfully short, but of course the stronger the wind the less room we needed.
      December to mid-April are considered the tourist months as they coincide with the gentler winds and lesser rains of the south-easterly monsoon,. The amazing part about the Maldives is that there is no real absolute dry season and that fact is reflected in the palm trees and bushes staying green all year round. The islands stay lush, tropical, and inviting throughout the seasons.

Article and Images by John S Goulet

Continue with Part Two

Note from the Editor. Hummingbird Helicopters became Hummingbird Island Airways, and Hummingbird Island Airways no longer exists. It has been sold out, and reincarnated as Trans Maldivian Airways. This story is about the two years it was HIA.

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Last modified on March 05, 2006 .
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