Air Maldives — The formative years

Chira Fernando

The Convair 440 shuddered and shook as we descended in the heavy Southwest monsoon rain. The white caps of the waves, whipped off by the 30-knot wind, were barely visible as we broke through the cloud base at 1500 feet. The now familiar line of reefs and islands were almost as good as a Localiser to guide us to the end of Runway 18. The wipers struggled valiantly against the streaming rain as the threshold came into view at about the correct place on the windshield.

A quick check of flaps and gear and a call to the Hulhule Tower — “Field in sight” and we were cleared to land. A gusty 30-knot wind, 60 degrees off the runway was quite normal so the problem was not the “20-knots, gusting 30” but the poor visibility because of the heavy rain and the not-so-efficient wipers. The 13 degrees of nose into wind helped me see the runway through the left side window. A firm touchdown, full reverse-pitch, and we cleared the runway at the intersection. So ended another flight at “Air Maldives…”

Recent picture of Hulhule airport Male, RWY 36 with control tower on far right

The story of Air Maldives — the first national airline of the Republic of the Maldives — dates back to a few years before it commenced its operations in 1974. In the early 1970s, the only regular air service to the Maldives Islands was an Air Ceylon HS 748 operation — several times a week. The resort hotels in the Maldives, although basic, were attracting an increasing number of European tourists. Apart from the tourist traffic, there were also many Maldivian nationals who were traveling to Sri Lanka for medical treatment or for education. These passengers would often have to face a two-day journey by boat due to the very limited seat availability on these aircraft.

Air Ceylon HS 748 parked at BIA Katunayake

Ceylon — [which was renamed as Sri Lanka in May 1972], went through a short-lived but bloody attempted insurrection in 1971 by ‘Che Guevara’ styled revolutionaries. The Royal Ceylon Air Force thus went through a sudden and unplanned expansion with the induction of several additional aircraft including Bell Jet Ranger helicopters and 4 Cessna 337 aircraft. The number of pilots also increased with the formation of a ‘Volunteer Air Force.’ However, with the efficient handling of the situation by the military, the insurrection was suppressed quite quickly.

The Bell 206 now painted in military colours… the original colour scheme was red and white
The Cessna 337 Skymaster

With the quick suppression of the insurgency, The Air Force Commander, Air Vice Marshall ‘Paddy’ Mendis was now faced with the problem of having to maintain pilot proficiency in a peacetime Air Force — with limited resources. Thus In 1972 he commenced a civilian tourist charter operation — ‘Helitours,’ — using Air Force aircraft and crew.

Air Vice Marshall Padman [Paddy] Mendis
A Helitours ad — courtesy Capt Noel Lokuge

The Helitours arm of the SLAF flew many charter flights, both locally within Sri Lanka and to the Hulhule Airport in the Maldive Islands since commencement of operations in 1972. The charter operation had the added benefit of attracting valuable ‘tourist dollars’ to the depleted foreign reserves of Sri Lanka. The DH Heron and the Cessna 337 ‘Skymaster’ were the main fleet for the Maldives operation while the Bell Jet Ranger was added to the fleet solely for the purpose of domestic operations of Helitours.

The De Havilland Heron — now the canteen at the SLAF museum
The cabin crew ladies of Helitours who were all ranked as pilot officers of the SLAF — courtesy Capt Lokuge
Helitours ad — courtesy Capt Noel Lokuge
Helitours ad — courtesy Capt Noel Lokuge

During this time, the expansion of the resorts in the Maldives with the increasing number of tourist from Europe placed a heavy demand on both Air Ceylon and Helitours. Air Ceylon was unable to increase its frequency into the Maldives due limited equipment. The Air Force was similarly restricted. Sometimes a part of a tour group would have to be accommodated at a hotel close to the Colombo airport until such time the fleet of aircraft returned from Male after dropping off the first group. The Heron’s low cruising speeds meant that this could take up to eight hours.

In 1972, the Air Force converted two of the DH Herons to “Riley- Herons” with the turbo-charged Lycoming conversion of Jack Riley. The aircraft now had a higher cruise speed with a slight increase in payload, but this was still insufficient to meet the demand. The increasing number of Sri Lankan teachers in Male also placed a heavy pressure on the available capacity. In 1973, the Air Force sourced an ex Eastern Airlines Convair 440 in the USA and this aircraft greatly increased the capacity for Heli tours between Colombo and the Maldives.

The converted Heron — now the Riley Heron
In 1967 Jack Riley upgraded the De Havilland Heron with IO-540s
The very smart and chique Helitours crew — courtesy Capt Noel Lokuge
The Convair 440

Mr. Ali Manicu, the Shipping Minister of the Maldives, by now realized that a lucrative source of revenue was being ‘given away’ to Air Ceylon and Helitours due to the lack of its own national carrier. The Commander of the SLAF, AVM ‘Paddy’ Mendis was requested to help the Maldivian Government in setting up a national airline. AVM Paddy recommended the purchase of CV 440’s for the fleet, as the SLAF was already familiar with its operation and maintenance. Two of these aircraft (9Y–TDX and 9Y–TDY) were purchased in Trinidad from the Trinidad and Tobago Air Services.

The two CV 440’s were registered in the Maldives as AM101 and AM102 and ferried by Captain Don Bullock (an American ferry pilot) and Squadron Leader Noel Lokuge. AVM ‘Paddy’ Mendis and Squadron Leader Sakyasena Athukorale- an SLAF engineering officer with some flying experience, were co-pilots of the flight.

The late Mr Ali Maniku — the shipping minister of Maldives at the time
8Q — AM101
The aviation legend Capt Noel Lokuge

According to International aviation regulations a pilot had to possess an ATPL to fly the CV440 in command on commercial operations due to the weight category of the aircraft. In order to fulfill this requirement, Captain Johnny Parkes and Captain Hosie were thus recruited to Air Maldives as its first two Commanders. In the meantime AVM Mendis persuaded the Department of Civil Aviation Sri Lanka to grant a Commercial Pilots License to the SLAF pilots who were already qualified on the CV 440 and possessed an Air Force ‘Master Green’ instrument rating. These SLAF pilots were then seconded as co-pilots to Air Maldives. Flight engineers already qualified on the Air Force CV 440 were also seconded to Air Maldives to keep the operating costs low.

Air Maldives commenced operations in 1974 with AM 101 and AM 102. The aircraft were based at Hulule and the crews slipped in the Maldives. The maintenance base was the SLAF Base situated at the Colombo International Airport, Katunayaka. In the early years, the Maldives tourist resorts worked seasonally and catered mainly to Europeans escaping winter. Thus the Air Maldives flights usually commenced in October and were wound down by May of the following year, at which time the aircraft were taken in for heavy maintenance.

Attached is an interesting link to an audio clip of an SLBC interview on Helitours by the then Air Commodore Paddy Mendis and Capt Noel Lokuge and an announcement by a Helitours cabin crew member: https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B1wFMhkNP7_rLWIwRjlGSUxaanc/view

In early 1975 an ICAO expert had arrived in the Maldives to audit the Maldivian Civil Aviation Department in order to bring it up to ICAO standards. The Republic of Maldives was given “8Q” as its country registration mark and the two CV440 aircraft now sported “8Q-AM101” and “8Q-AM102.” One of the observations that the ICAO Officer made was the undesirability of SLAF pilots with a CPL, issued on the basis of their air force experience, operating the Air Maldives aircraft. Air Maldives was instructed to crew the aircraft with pilots holding ‘regular’ civil licenses. The Air Maldives ‘permanent’ flight crew at this time was Capt Johnny Parkes and Capt Phil Schneider, who had replaced Capt Hosie. All the first officers from the air force had to be discontinued. First Officer Edward Robichaud was recruited to replace one of the SLAF first officers while one seat was still vacant.

This is where I came into the operation.

In between the infrequent flights on MiG 15 and 17 aircraft in the Air Force, I had completed my Airline Transport Pilots License examination and was looking around for an SLAF aircraft on which I can do my flight test. AVM Mendis earnestly recommended that I do my flight test on the CV 440. Of course I knew why! Thus after obtaining my ATPL license I filled the remaining seat in the second CV 440. The Sri Lanka DCA placed a restriction of 200 hours under check prior to my being released on the line as a captain. This made perfect sense as I had only 12 hours on type and the heaviest aircraft that I had flown before this was the de Havilland Heron!

A page from the log book of Capt N Lokuge showing entries of my conversion training. The final check ride was carried out with Capt Lokuge as PIC and Capt Punchi Banda Mawalagedara as the examiner appointed by CAA

On 1st October 1975, I was issued the bright purple (it really was purple) trousers and white shirt with four gold bars of an Air Maldives captain and asked to report for my first flight under the supervision of Capt Johnny Parkes. Nobody had bothered to brief Parkes of my arrival. To say that I got a cool reception would be an understatement! “So you are supposed to fly with me, eh?” These were the only words that I heard from him for the next few hours.

That is me in my purple pants and white shirt and epaulets standing by the flying fish!

I struggled with the pre departure procedures as best as I could. There were no written standard operating [SOP] or Company procedures. The experienced SLAF flight engineer was a great help. I was not sure whether I had to do the duties of ‘pilot flying’ or ‘pilot non-flying.’ This was resolved when the door was closed and Parkes glared at me, waiting for me to get the ATC clearance!

The first sector was quite uneventful. The route was familiar; having flown several flights for Helitours on the DH Heron and Cessna 337 aircraft and as an observer on a few Air Maldives flights. The aircraft was hand flown, unpressurised, at 10,000 feet all the way as the autopilot and pressurization did not function. Both systems never worked in my two years with the airline!

I observed that in the cruise, Johnny Parkes never allowed the aircraft to deviate more than 20 to 30 feet from the assigned altitude. He constantly trimmed the aircraft to compensate for the cabin crew and passengers walking up and down the aisle. The approach and landing was strange, in that no words were exchanged. [These were Pre CRM days] He reached over and selected whatever he wanted.

On parking and securing the aircraft, once the flight engineer opened the air-stair door, Johnny Parkes was the first out. He walked across the ramp, towards the nearby house — ‘The Blue Lagoon’, which was the crew slip ‘hotel’, — totally disregarding the Customs and Immigration officials. He did not carry anything with him except a small notebook, and everyone at the airport was obviously quite used to this procedure!

I flew every sector except one for the next two hundred hours and Parkes never interfered with or took over the controls. All the flights originated and terminated in the Maldives and we had a two-hour stop in Colombo. The enroute weather during the October/May period is usually good as it is the dry North East monsoon. I got plenty of crosswind-landing practice as the North-South Hulule runway was always across the Easterly or Westerly trade winds.

The evening ‘sessions’ at the Blue Lagoon became a debriefing of sorts, although Johnny Parkes spoke very little and hardly ever about the actual flight that day. The only exception was when I was nearing the end of my 200 hours under check. That evening I noticed Parkes seated in the lounge, sipping coffee. I decided to join him in what was to become a routine. He would chain smoke all evening and make himself endless cups of Nescafe, the jug of hot water being regularly replenished by the houseboy. I would sip a glass of arrack and coke, the Sri Lankan arrack was being smuggled into the Maldives as hydraulic fluid by the flight engineers! We established some sort of rapport that evening and just before we went to our own bedrooms he said, “You can fly it back tomorrow.”

Log book entry of the IR test carried out for Capt Parkes by Capt N Lokuge

Towards the end of the season, by mid-February 1976, the Convairs were having reliability problems. My logbook records several ‘returns to base’ with engine problems with two in February and March, three in April and one in May. Most of these problems were related to a cracked cylinder head — where the only indication was a power loss. During such power losses, the procedure was to simply throttle back — as the engine was quite happy to continue with the remaining 17 cylinders.

The fire risk associated with the cracked cylinder head necessitated a return to the airfield ASAP. The Air Force technicians became very good at the messy process of changing a cylinder on the hot and humid ramp at Hulule. I had to feather a propeller on an engine only twice that season. The first was when a bearing failed and the other time was when the supercharger gears decided to grind themselves to metal filings. On both occasions, it became obvious that the single engine performance of the CV 440 left a lot to be desired.

At the end of the 1975/76 season the Maldivian government severed ties with the SLAF and contracted a Singapore based company — The Tri-9 Corporation — to manage Air Maldives. Tri-9 operated Convair 440’s on oilrig support and other charters in South-East Asia and planned to refurbish the Air Maldives CV 440’s in Singapore. Capt Phil Schneider and Ed Robichaud ferried AM 102 to Singapore and returned with a Tri-9 CV 440 [N90907] — in time for the 1976/77 season. I assumed that I was now out of the operation but Tri-9 had indicated that they would like to continue with my services. The Air Force seconded me to Air Maldives “on loan” for an undisclosed amount while I continued to draw my Air Force salary!

The refurbishment of AM 102 was slightly behind schedule. Thus N90907 with the newly promoted Ed Robichaud in command together with an unreliable AM 101 began the season in October 1976. In mid-November 1976 the refurbishment of AM 102 in Singapore was complete. By this time AM 101 was badly in need of an overhaul and was nearing its C of A (Certificate of Airworthiness) renewal.

On November 21 1976, Johnny Parkes and I took off from Katunayake, Sri Lanka, in AM 101 and aimed for Phuket in Thailand. I use the word ‘aimed’ quite deliberately as our only navigation aid was a very weak ADF set. The VOR receiver was unserviceable. The generator of the left engine failed as we were climbing through 7000 feet but we could not turn back as the C of A was expiring the next day!

Six hours later, we made landfall but could not get a lock on the ADF needle. Johnny Parkes had been able to scrounge some charts of the coastline of Thailand. After some discussion, we agreed that the coastline seems to show that we were south of Phuket. Five minutes later we got an NDB signal and three minutes after that we saw the field. We were only 35 nautical miles off track after an 1100 nautical mile trip, which was not too bad for a flight on dead reckoning without any landmarks for track correction!

A quick refueling from barrels placed in Phuket by Tri-9 and we were airborne again, navigating visually along the airways to Seletar in Singapore; making all the correct radio calls over the navigation reporting points by either identifying them visually or guessing their positions! 8Q-AM 102 was ready for an air test and looked great in the new ‘Flying Fish’ colour scheme. I was hoping that the avionics would work well as I was not looking forward to a repeat of the ferry from Colombo. The air tests and the return ferry went off without a hitch and we returned to Katunayake, in Sri Lanka, on 25 November 1976. AM 102 went back to work on 5th December 1976.

CV440 cockpit — Courtesy Andy Graf-VAP
Ronnie Pereira and Noel Lokuge inside the CV440 cockpit

One day during this season, we had arrived in Colombo at mid-day in AM 101 which had just come out of maintenance, and were informed that the aircraft had to go into the Air Force hangar for some further maintenance. The return flight to Male thus was delayed until evening and finally we took off from Colombo at 1900 hrs local.

During the take-off, on rotation, I felt that the controls were heavier than normal but put it down to an improperly loaded aircraft with an incorrect trim position.

On arrival at Hulule it was raining, and the cloud base was around 1100 feet. The weather radar on board was never any good for detecting weather except to turn bright green when we were well and truly inside a Cb but it was quite effective in locating the distinctive shape of the outlying islands of the Male Atoll, thus guiding us to Hulule. The NDB (ML-252Khz) was worse than useless on most days. We descended using the Radar and broke cloud with Hulule airport straight ahead.

I turned north for a left downwind for Runway 18 and called for flaps. (Yes, by now we were talking and there was an iota of CRM in the flight deck). As the flaps extended the aircraft pitch control became so difficult that I could barely control the aircraft. I attempted to counteract the change in trim but the aircraft became almost uncontrollable in pitch and promptly shot back up into the clouds. With the greatest difficulty and effort I managed to descend below cloud and decided that the flap I had selected was all I needed and landed the aircraft, rather firmly, I might add.

There was no comment from Johnny Parkes regarding my heavy landing. As usual, he was the first out. That evening, his first words as I sat down with my drink was, “What the hell were you doing this evening?” My suggestion that “something was wrong with the aircraft” was not very well received during the evening debrief and I suspect that he thought that I was disorientated due to the rain. He did however ask the engineer to do a control check. They could find nothing wrong with the controls during the pre-flight inspection. Parkes affirmed that he would fly the aircraft back to Colombo the next day.

Capt Parkes flew the next sector. The return flight was quite normal until flap selection on approach. The all hell broke loose! Parkes’s landing was not much different to mine — much to his chagrin, and I was highly chuffed about that! During taxying when a ‘full and free’ control check was done, the elevators jammed in the full up position resisting our combined efforts to move it! A detailed inspection of the control system revealed a large Snap-On screwdriver (the largest in the set) jammed in an elevator cable pulley in the aft section of the aircraft!

The 1976/77 season was a very busy one. My logbook records 119 hrs and 20 minutes of flying for December ’76 with a day off for Christmas and 120 hrs 10 minutes in January ’77 with only two off days; these were obviously pre-flight time limitation days!

AM 102 proved to be very reliable and withstood the relatively high utilization. Air Maldives continued to use N90907 and AM 102 until the end of April 1976. On 1st May ’76, I flew AM 102 to Hulule with Squadron Leader Edgar Cooray, an SLAF pilot with a ‘regular’ CPL who was also seconded to Air Maldives. On arrival, we were informed that Air Maldives had ceased operations. We returned to Sri Lanka on a Helitours flight.

The late Edgar Cooray
Sinhala newspaper cutting on the Air Maldives-Helitours operation
Left: Paddy Mendis, Center: Sakyasena Atukorale, 2nd from right: Noel Lokuge posing by AM102

This was the first of several re-organizations of Air Maldives that took place in the next few years. I returned to my air force flying and continued to fly to the Maldives on the Helitours operations. AM 101 never returned to the Maldives. The Air Maldives operation was a high point in my flying career and the icing on the cake was when I went to the Habib Bank in Male to close my bank account, expecting to collect a few hundred dollars. To my surprise Air Maldives had paid all my flying allowances, and I flew back several thousand dollars richer!

Tour operators found Helitours to be a very attractive option as the Air Force was willing to give immediate connections with tarmac transfers to tour groups arriving from Europe. The aircraft flew in any weather, day or night, with only a very weak and intermittent NDB (Non Directional Beacon) to guide them to Hulule.