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To fly passengers from island to island, the Maldivian airline operates the world’s largest fleet of floatplanes—de Havilland Canada Twin Otters. (Robert Mcintyre)

Barefoot Pilots of the Maldives

A remote island nation becomes a finishing school for floatplane pilots.

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Only traces of the monsoon could be seen from the cockpit. At 4,500 feet, Captain Ulrik Nielsen shielded his eyes against the setting sun, then pointed to a stack of cumulus clouds hovering over the aquamarine Indian Ocean. Rather than slicing through the five-knot wind, the floatplane rocked gently with it like a kite on a blustery day. Nielsen’s cargo of tourists noticed only the doughnut-shaped array of coral islands that stretched below.

“Just a bit of local showers. You can go around them if you like,” Nielsen told Neil Travers, a trainee copilot who, like Nielsen, wore green cargo shorts and aviator sunglasses. Both men work for TMA, an island airline formed by joining Trans Maldivian Airways with another carrier, Maldivian Air Taxi. And both had jettisoned their flip-flops after boarding the floatplane and were flying with bare feet. “Looks kind of picturesque though,” Nielsen said.

That was an understatement. A remote island nation about 250 miles southwest of India in the Laccadive Sea, the Republic of the Maldives comprises nearly 1,200 islands, around 200 of which are inhabited. Many of the rest, which make up 26 atolls spread out over 35,000 square miles, are nothing more than rings of sand surrounding Tiffany-blue lagoons or bottle-green mini-jungles. The beauty of the Maldives—along with their remoteness—has made the islands a vacation spot for the affluent—and TMA a successful business. The reefs are among the most diverse marine habitats in the world, home to manta rays and giant turtles. And the skies are abuzz with Twin Otters, the floatplanes in the TMA fleet.

***

In India, there’s a lot of talk about Twin Otters: They are proposed for an air service that will link the beaches of the country’s west coast; they provide transportation around Sri Lanka or India’s Andaman Islands, and to the north, the Chinese knockoffs known as Twin Pandas ply the mountains of Nepal. The Maldivian service, however, has the biggest Twin Otter fleet in the world. Run by Trans Maldivian Airways, the 44-aircraft service links resorts spread across the atolls and supports the Maldives’ most profitable industry: tourism. As the service has grown, it has become the template for other seaplane operators worldwide, and among a globe-trotting breed of Twin Otter pilots, landing a flying job in the Maldives is a point of pride. Many pilots who want to try open-ocean flying come to the Maldives, and some stay for years.

Pilot Rob McIntyre spent two years in the Maldives. “I have great memories,” he says. ( Courtesy Robert Mcintyre)
After taking off from the seaplane terminal, a Maldivian Air Taxi DHC‑6 banks over Malé, the capital—and one of the world’s most densely populated islands. (Darren Wilson)
Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, above, built on Hulhule Island (adjacent to Malé), includes a seaplane base. (AIRBG)
Travelers catch floatplane flights to outlying atolls. Approximately 200 of the country’s 1,192 islands are inhabited. ( Darren Wilson)
Maldivian Air Taxi was established in 1993 with two Twin Otters. At the time, perhaps six resorts used seaplanes to transport guests. (Hussain Didi)
Today, Trans Maldivian Airways (pilot Ken Simkins) ferries visitors to more than 100 resorts. (Robert Mcintyre)
Airplanes dock at floating platforms; passengers then board a dhoni, a traditional Maldivian wooden boat, for the final leg of their journey. (Robert Mcintyre)
Tourism in the Maldives began in 1972 with just two resorts. Today, Ibrahim Nasir International AIrport handles two million passengers annually. (Hussain Didi)
Open-ocean flying has its own set of rules: Pilots may have to land in heavy crosswinds in ocean swells as high as three feet. Pilots experienced in such conditions are in demand, receiving job offers in places such as Southeast Asia and East Africa. (Stephan Kruse)
With a 65-foot wingspan, the Twin Otter (below) has a range of 1,100 miles. (Hussain Didi)

I was listening through a headset as the crew made a late loop, flying tourists to three luxury resorts—the vast majority of the Maldives’ resorts are high-end—in Alifu Atoll, about 50 miles southwest of the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport, which is little more than a runway on an island made of reclaimed sand adjacent to the capital island city of Malé. With me were 13 passengers from Russia, China, and Europe, who sat with faces or cameras pressed against the Otter’s windows.

Unlike western Canada and Alaska, where many of the Maldives’ floatplane pilots (and airplanes) got their start, the Maldives has no thick fog clinging to glassy water surfaces or mountains to navigate around—its highest elevation is only 26 feet. Seaplane pilots fly according to Visual Flight Rules. But open-ocean flying in a tourism-dependent resort nation has another set of challenges.When the monsoon is robust, pilots may have to land in heavy crosswinds with the floats straddling swells that can reach three feet. Were a pilot to land into the wind, on the crest of a wave, the airplane, if unable to stop fast enough, could be pitched back into the air by the next wave, which could cause it to stall at a very low altitude.

Nielsen advised Travers to keep clear of a jet-skier who is straying near the landing zone and to radio Dispatch to request a dhoni, the traditional Maldivian wooden boat that meets passengers at the floating platform where the airplane will dock. Travers made a steep, nose-first descent and set the airplane down just outside the coral reef that rings the resort island, the boundary of which he judges from the change in the water’s color.

***

In the Maldives I met Ken Simkins, who has been training Twin Otter pilots since 1983 and became the chief pilot for Maldivian Air Taxi shortly after the airline began in 1993. At that time, says Simkins, most of the airplanes, pilots, and engineers were supplied by the Calgary-based charter Kenn Borek Air, which leases aircraft for polar scientific expeditions, U.N. missions, and oil exploration support.

The Portuguese and Dutch had settlements in the Maldives before it became a British protectorate, in 1887. In 1965 it gained independence from the United Kingdom, which retained use of the base at Gan in the southernmost Seenu Atoll. Simkins, who served in the Royal Air Force and the Canadian Air Force from 1970 until he joined KBA in 1993, had visited Gan in the mid-1970s. Recently, its airstrip was developed as another base for tourist flights, including flights in seaplanes.

Simkins first met Maldivian Air Taxi owner Lars Erik Nielsen in the summer of 1993, when Nielsen was in Vancouver looking to rent or buy a seaplane to bring to the Maldives. “Nielsen had come out here as a diver, and his thinking was: ‘People want to go to these islands, but after they’ve been traveling for 16, 18 hours, they don’t want to do another three and a half hours [in a boat] in the open ocean, getting seasick.’ He thought seaplanes might be the answer. When we started, there were maybe half a dozen resorts served by seaplanes; now there are a hundred or so.”

Flight operations manager Ulrik Nielsen (no relation to Lars Erik) is also one of the airline’s longest-serving employees, having joined in 1997. The Maldives first appeared on Nielsen’s radar when his brother moved there in the late 1980s to work as a diving instructor after seeing the stunning landscape through the window of a Thai Airways 747 on a refueling stop. On a visit, Nielsen, who was floatplane-certified, met some of the seaplane pilots. Six months later, when he was in his native Denmark flying corporate charters in Beechcraft King Air turboprops, Nielsen received a call from a Maldivian Air Taxi recruiter, who asked if he could be in Malé the next day. “I could literally leave my job at the time and just go, so I did,” Nielsen tells me during a visit to the air taxi’s dockside terminal, set in a man-made lagoon.

Floatplane pilots, says Nielsen, are a small, itinerant community. Many in the Maldives hail from other floatplane environments, where there are few roads but lakes and rivers abound. Other Twin Otter pilots flew with wheels in Australia, and some have flown with skis in Antarctica. “Everybody knows everybody,” Nielsen says. “It’s a very international group [because] floatplane flying is seasonal work. In the northern hemisphere, when it is winter and there are no jobs, they come here. Then they go back home during the [summer] low season here. Some are doing firefighting in North America, and they come here in the winter when there are no fires. It is a very natural rotation.”

About David Shaftel

David Shaftel lives in New York and London. His stories for Air & Space have covered Air-India, the restoration of Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, and Hubert Julian, the Black Eagle of Harlem.

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