Hummingbird Island Airways


Part Two in a Series

The shape of the lagoons are important for float plane pilots as most landings, or water alighting as the Australians call it, take place inside the protection of the smaller lagoons. In most cases, the larger atolls are too large to provide ultimate protection from the winds and wind borne waves. In the strongest winds the inside of the large atolls, such as South Ari Atoll can blow up some very large swells. On the worst days, these swells are too large for any normal seaplane operation.
      The ancient and robust atoll reefs, however, do for the most part, protect the inner waters from the poundings of the real ocean swells and consequential surf. This reef break is world famous and creates some spectacular surfing at the openings of the reefs where the swells curl and break along the coralís edge into the inner atoll waters. Chickens, Colaís, Pasta Point, and Towns are a few of the surfing hot spots.

      There are two main types of inner lagoons. Boundary lagoons, some of which are 3-15 kms long, are formed just inside the outer ocean reef, with the large reef providing protection on the ocean side, and a smaller reef providing protection on the inside of the atoll. The other type is the smaller independent round lagoons that have formed from one or more single coral heads that have grown outwardly over the years until the center begins to erode leaving a sparkling blue/green shallow bowl of ocean water inside with a sandy white bottom. If the lagoon gets large enough the water inside the lagoon can get quite deep and turn azure blue in the sunlight.

The coral reefs were everywhere and seen through the azure blue waters were spectacular in their diversity of colors and marine life. Even from 1000 feet I could make out clouds of schooling yellow and blue fish, basking green turtles, cruising slim sharks, darting sliver predators, gliding manta rays, and multitudes of gem stone yellow, orange, and red unidentified life forms blooming out of the reef structure.

      Therefore there are two main types of islands as well. Many of the larger islands are formed along the rim of the atolls. Thus, Male, Fonadhoo (Gan), Kuramathi, Rashdoo, Maamigili and Holiday (Dhiffushi) islands are situated on the south or south eastern ends of their respective atolls. Large is a relative term, however, as my wife and I could walk, at a brisk pace, around the island of Male, the largest city in the Maldives, in about a hour.

       Then there are the smaller lagoon islands perched nicely on the edge of the small lagoons. These islands are usually round or crescent shaped with a ring of white sand all the way around. We could walk the circumference of most of the smaller islands in about 10-20 minutes. Pacing yourself for a leisurely stroll allowed for sightseeing the assortment of Europeans sunbathing in various stages of undress. 
      That western decadence is what the Muslim government of the Republic of Maldives, an elected body with a president, has been very careful to protect their people and environment against. They have attempted to prevent aggressive over-development by implementing a conservation ecology minded long-term plan. The plan is based on proper use of the islands by the proper factions. There is a definitive segregation between differing statuses of the islands.
      First are the traditional inhabited islands. These islands are where a majority of the population lives, Male being the biggest and most populated. Gan, Viligili, Thulusdhoo, and Eydhafushi are some of the others. Many of these populated islands, not including Male or recently opened up Viligili, are off limits to tourists or non-Maldivian visitors except with special permission, granted by either the Minister of Atolls, or by the island officials themselves. The idea of the regulated visits is to protect the islanders from an inundation of western cultures and values.

      Secondly, there are the government public islands. No one is allowed to inhabit these islands, but the locals are allowed to visit them for recreational use. Non-Maldivians are not generally allowed except with special permission. These islands, like Kudabados near Male, are used on weekends by the locals for daytime outings to go swimming and have a picnic. Hundreds of these islands, however, are so small they consist of only a sand cay and a few shrubs.
      Third, there are the privately controlled or leased islands that are used for agriculture and are controlled by the Minister of Agriculture. Many of the coconut, papaya, bananas, watermelons. and other fruits and vegetables grown on these islands are used locally or sold to the resorts.
      Finally, there were the islands, officially considered uninhabited, the government has designated to be leased for the tourist resorts. When I arrived in Male in February of 1997 there were about 82 resorts of various sizes and grades and most of them were serviced by boat. About 8 resorts were serviced by helicopter off 5 active helipads, and Maldivian Air Taxiís fleet of Twin Otters serviced about 20.

      Hummingbird had no exclusive floatplane transfer contracts for tourists, but shared several resort transfers with the helicopters. This was the way they intended to get their feet wet in the transition from exclusively helicopter to exclusively day time seaplane transfers. The helicopter contract was going to be continued, however, for the nighttime transfers. Several of the largest airlines, specifically Singapore Airlines, and Malaysian Airlines arrived too late in the evening for using the seaplanes. The helicopters had special DCA permission to carry out night special-VFR transfers as long as they met certain criteria.

      There had been two previous major accidents with helicopters over the past five years with several fatalities, and many clients were losing faith in the safety of helicopters over the oft-times rough ocean journeys between atolls. Although the Mil-8ís are twin engine there always seemed to be some other problem that would bring them down. Hummingbird Helicopters had a serious accident in 1993 when a tail rotor gearbox had failed in a Mil-8 and 9 passengers had been killed. Hummingbird had barely survived the reconstruction period that followed.
      Rod flew over Nika Resort to scout out the reefs. The tiny island was set among several other islands and surrounded by irregular coral reefs. Rod picked his spot and landed in a long channel marked with only two difficult to see poles. He dropped the plane off the step early and taxied in cautiously. Once down, the reefs, so easy to see from above, disappeared. I could see no trace of where the ragged reefs lay below the calm ocean surface.
      Rod feathered the prop and glided in like making a regular Beaver approach to the dock. I could see the current swirling around under the aircraft and would have felt more comfortable using the beta approach just in case we had to make some last second adjustments. Rod, however, timed it perfectly and we tied up safely.
      Two young, fit, darkly tanned, and very excitable Italian hosts met our passengers. The resort, like many in the Maldives, was almost exclusively Italian. The hosts greeted us all with a cold white face cloth to cool our brows, and an icy fruit juice drink. Many of the resort would not bother to give the pilots such a welcome, but on Nika they did. We did not linger long, but turned ourselves loose to head back to the airport. Most of the trips were like this one: one-way out to the resort, one-way back to Male. As Rod pushed the Caravan up on the step I was glad he had memorized the reefs because I sure could not see them.

      The Caravan we flew, 8Q-HID, must have been the oldest amphib C208 in existence. It was originally bought by B.C. Tel in about 1985 and served them faithfully for many years. It was a good solid aircraft and I enjoyed flying it, but it eventually earned the nickname, Hotel, India, Dog. It still had the 600hp P&W, and compared to the 675hp installed in the factory new 8Q-HIC, she was hard work.
      The additional problem of having such an old Caravan was going to plague us in the months to come as well. You simply cannot bring an aircraft that has been used in marginally salty water, such as the West Coast, for many years and dump it into the extremely salty waters of the Indian Ocean without a major overhaul and expect it to survive. Within weeks the corrosion started to blossom and continued until we had to ground the aircraft months later for a complete de-corrosion and painting.
      This aircraft and the two Twin Otters were all bought by the non-aviation experienced Managing Director, because, as he readily admitted it, they were cheap. Both Twin Otters (a 100 series and a 200 series) were sorely underpowered and suffered maintenance problems from the very beginning. These two decrepit Twin Otters looked like they had been banished to the Maldives for sins of a past life.
      Thus, three of our original four aircraft were wholly inadequate for the job to come. Not that I was surprised or perturbed, but I can say that, like many of the other pilots, I was disappointed. Nevertheless, I was determined to help make a difference in making the company safe and efficient.
      I was not disappointed with the flying in the Maldives, however, as once airborne I was in my chosen element. Seeing the Maldives from above brought on an entire new perspective. Although the islands were flat unassuming and far between, the coral reefs were everywhere and seen through the aquamarine green and topaz blue waters were spectacular in their diversity of coral reefs and marine life.
      Even from 1000 feet I could make out clouds of schooling yellow and blue fish, basking green turtles, cruising slim sharks, darting sliver predators, gliding manta rays, and multitudes of gem stone yellow, orange, and red unidentified life forms blooming out of the reef structure. I knew, whatever obstacles were ahead in setting up this operation, that I was going to enjoy my time in the Maldives.

Article and Images by John S Goulet

Continue with Part Three

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 August 22, 2006 .
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