Hummingbird Island Airways

Part Three in a Series

The next day I had the privilege to have a ride with Ian the other Aussie. He was young and in a hurry, but got all his checks in a row without fail. Ian was the kind of pilot that you could dispatch anywhere and anytime and the response would be “No, worries Mate.” And he meant it. If he had done it before then he was good at it, and if he had not done it before it was a challenge that he would soon be good at. He had worked a dream job of flying a float Beaver in the tourist mecca of Sydney Harbour and Palm Beach, and he knew how to fly floats.
       Luckily for me the wind had come up to almost 20 knots that day and Ian as able to refresh my memory on how to handle the rough water. We went into Ari Beach Resort and he did a technically perfect crosswind landing in open swells. The swells were wind borne from a long fetch inside a lagoon, but they were large enough. Plus, the freshening breeze was adding a secondary surface wave on top of the swell, but running inline. Ian placed the big wing of the Caravan down into the wind and flew a perfect alignment with the swells and the wind at 90 degrees to our right.

        He could have approach from either direction and put the crosswind at 90 degree to our left, but he knew better. Most floatplanes and tail draggers will weather cock to the left, which makes a left crosswind difficult anyway, but the additional culprit working your nose to the left is asymmetric thrust. The Caravan is especially difficult to control on take-off or landing with a strong left cross wind and most knowing pilots will avoid it when ever possible. The Caravan will control better with a right wind and you can use the power leverage to your advantage. In other words, when you add power for take-off or to get you out of a disintegrating situation by pushing the nose down, you want to be able have an effect that will lever you away from the crosswind.
       Ian kept the aircraft straight throughout the landing with the knowledge that a good approach makes for a good landing. That is not as easy as it sounds. When learning the finesse of flying floats a high time wheel driver will have the most difficulty time keeping a wing-down aircraft flying in a straight line without the runway center line in front of them as reference and with the waves and corresponding whitecaps rolling underneath them at an unknown speed. As we touched down the wing wagged and the floats rocked, but the touchdown was smooth in the heavy swells.
       This rough water landing technique can be used for take-off as well, and it served us well in the coming months. During the construction of one new resort at Dhunikolhu Island we consistently landed day after day with the Caravan in heavy rolling swell/wave combinations that would have sent shivers up the spine of any flat-water floatplane pilot. Ian was the first one to do it paralleling the beach and Rod and I followed suit. Often the swells were so large we could not beach the aircraft in the pounding surf and had to make the passengers wade into the shore. The Maldivian owners would thank us profusely each and every time, because they realized that they would never have gotten to the island if we had not made such a valiant effort. If flown properly the Caravans handled the rough water without a hitch.

       The first day in Ari Beach, however, I switch seats and flew the take-off. Although I could have duplicated Ian’s crosswind technique as I had used it frequently getting in and out of Forcados and Bonny Island on the Atlantic side of Africa, I wanted to show Ian how I would do a rough water take-off if I could not parallel or if the wind got too strong. The upper limit of the Caravan is at about 24 knots, and then you have to face the music. In this case the freshening wind had picked up considerable since we landed.
       I idled the Caravan until the wind blew me back slightly. I selected 20-degree flap, pulled the particle separator out and turned the ignition on in case of water ingestion, and then I eased ahead the power lever. I timed the power to coincide with a down ward slide of the floats on the backside of a swell, and watched the Np as I continued to add power. With the prop rpm at the stops you don’t get the prop surging when the prop governor kicks in. When the RPM hit 1900, I rushed in the rest of the power and surged up the following swell. I kept the nose high and the prop out of the water as much as possible until we started to gain some forward speed and some lift on the wings.
       Once I felt the wings coming to life I eased the nose forward and relaxed the control column letting the shape of the floats find their sweet spot. Once we got enough speed to gain the step, I then actually pushed the nose ahead to keep the aircraft flying into the oncoming swells. At that point the forward speed along with the 20+knot wind were producing sufficient lift to make the aircraft light enough that the swells felt soft and forgiving. We were cutting the tops of the swells with the V of the Wipaire floats. Just as we passed the minimum stall speed I hit full (30 degree) flaps and the electric motors moved the flaps down in a smooth transition that hit the sweet spot on the lift/drag ratio as she was ready to fly. We got off in two waves, slightly behind the power curve and hanging gently on the prop, but without so much as a bump. Fully loaded would have made the task harder, but we could have done it much the same.

The secret is to pull her free of the surface tension just below the stall speed and keep her airborne. Thrust rather than pure aerodynamics will be what gets you flying. My favorite trick is to launch off the last big swell and then dump the flaps to leave her "hanging on the prop!"

       The only difference with a heavy load is that you have to milk or play the controls according to the incoming swells. As you will be on the water longer than when lightly loaded, you have to feel out each swell and ride them as clean as possible to prevent crashing into the big ones. This initially meant pulling back on the control column to go up rather than through the largest swells, minimizing drag and maximizing speed, and then pushing ahead during a periods of smaller swells to gain the air speed for creating lift. With greater lift the floats will rise in the water producing less surface drag and increasing the speed needed for lift-off.
       But, once you build up speed then you will have to push or cut your way through the big swells to minimize the impact and prevent getting launched prematurely, and then pull the nose up during the period of smaller swells in an attempt to minimize surface drag when you are just at or below the stall speed. Like I mentioned earlier, the secret is to pull her free of the surface tension just below the stall speed and relax on the control column just enough to keep her airborne. Thrust rather than pure aerodynamics will be what gets you flying. My favorite trick is to launch off the last big swell and then dump the flaps to leave her "hanging on the prop!"
       I have tried to analyze good heavy water pilots as they make these moves to visualize what they do, but to no avail. Although, I know there is a proper way to take off in heavy water, there does not appear to be any rhyme or reason that you can teach in a class room. It is rather “just a feelin” for flying that you have to learn by doing.
       The next two trips I flew and Ian sat in the right seat as a type of line check. I felt like I had not flown since my days in Fiji where in fact I had just been flying the same machine in Africa a few weeks before. The environment was so different from the muddy brown rivers of the tropical rainforests, however, I felt out of place for a few legs. Finally after a landing or two at Holiday Island and a trip to Gangehi, I felt more at ease. It is easy to look lost flying an aircraft you have several thousand hours in because of a new and foreign environment.
       The last trip of my line check, I accompanied Ian to the island of Kunfunadhoo. 30 minutes to the north of Male, Kunfunadhoo is the home to Soneva Fushi Resort, one of the most natural and ecological friendly developments in the Maldives. Sonu and Eva, who are both eccentric and genuine, own the resort. I have learned over the years that most resort owners are definitely eccentric and usually self-centered and miserly. Sonu and Eva are certainly prudent when it come down to business, but they were one of the few owners who regularly greeted all pilots and staff and guests alike with the same genuine warmth and aplomb, like you were a long lost cousin from Madrid.
      This philosophy showed in their management style where ideas or suggestions for improvement could come from anywhere. My son, who was about seven at the time, decided to attend a management meeting one morning. He was not only welcomed but was encouraged to make a presentation about how the island bicycles should have mounted lights so the guests could easily navigate at night. The next day the GM ordered a set of bicycle lights and thanked my son for his contributions. Their managerial style was not top down but radiated from the center. Sonu and Eva were known for doing things right and their resort is listed as one of the World's Top 100 Luxury Small Hotels.

       It was because of them Hummingbird had even one decent aircraft. Sonu was the younger brother of the new owner of Hummingbird, and he had requested a factory-fresh leather clad C208 amphib to be their exclusive guest transport. Sonu got his way and Hummingbird got a new Caravan. In fact, Sonu was the reason his industrial factory-owning brother, Azad, got into the airline business in the first place. In order to prop up the business that he relied upon to transfer his guests to the resort island, Sonu had bought into Hummingbird Helicopters when they were being financially drained by the MAT competition. When Sonu was in threat of being dragged down as well, he called upon his older brother to carry the day.
       Azad had the MD for his aluminum factory in Nigeria look at the feasibility of taking over Hummingbird and turning it into a competitive floatplane operation. The MD, luckily for us float plane pilots and unluckily for Azad, knew absolutely nothing about airlines or airplanes, let alone floatplanes, and came up with a positive, but badly underestimated assessment. That was the beginning of a heavy investment of money, aircraft, and experienced employees into the making of an airline. The dreams of Kit and Sonu become the reality for our employment.
       The factory new 675hp Caravan, however, was quite nice. Unfortunately the ferry company had done a wheels up landing at one of the airports enroute and forgot to mention it on delivery. I noticed on my first walk around that the skids were missing off the keels and the back keels near the wheels were worn down to metal mulch. One of the engineers told me that they cut the remainder of the protective strips off because they were hanging down and broken on arrival, and didn’t think to mention it to anyone either. Although that did not stop us from flying, it made me think of a famous Nigerian saying, "Things fall apart." It literally means that nothing last forever.

       As we approached Soneva Fushi, I could not see any specific area that I would consider a safe landing zone. The island was long and narrow and surrounded by relatively open seas. Although the island was inside the North Baa Atoll, there was really no barrier reef protecting it from the incoming swells. Moreover, the house reef was too tight around the island with no safe landing areas inside. To start operations several weeks before someone had placed a mooring buoy beside the island, but that had proved unusable in any kind of wind as the seas got too rough. So they had moved the buoy inside a nearby lagoon.

       The lagoon was large enough to operate out of, but the reef wasn't high enough to stop the large rolling swells during the high tides. This lagoon, although absolutely beautiful in color and form, became one of our most challenging areas to operate into during the monsoons. The first day Ian and I landed there was uneventful except that a family of dolphins had decided to play chicken with us as we lined up for final. They came on to us head on and only dove as the floats touched the water.
       Ian and I rode in on the dhoni to the island and were greeted with cold facecloths and cold drinks. We stayed long enough to enjoy lunch and then loaded our passengers and headed back to Male. The passengers were government representatives inspecting the resort after a major generator fire. Even with no power the guests had not wanted to leave the island, but Soneva Fushi was forced to shut down because the health department said so.
      Some of the guests had to literally be carried off the island, including Paul McCartney and his family. Ian had evacuated them in the new Caravan. Over the next two years Soneva Fushi definitely became my family's favorite island retreat. My wife casually remarks that we lived next door to the villa where Linda McCartney stayed "in the spring of her death."

End of Part Three

Article and Images by John S Goulet

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.

For maintenance concerns about operating your Caravan in saltwater, read
Seaplanes & Salt Water

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 Last modified on August 22, 2006 .
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