Wednesday 30 April 2014

The Twin Otter and Me

Organising a trip at short notice can sometimes create unexpected outcomes. This week I found out I was travelling to Kota Kinabalu again, so as usual I book myself a flight online with MAS wings, the local subsidiary of Malaysian airlines.

Because it was so late, I found that the only available flight departed at 11.40 am from Sandakan and it was rather inexpensive. "Hmmm why so," I thought to myself. I noticed almost immediately the flight took over 2 hours.  Usually it varies between 45 and 50 minutes depending on the aircraft type.  Obviously a stop along the way, though it wasn't indicated on the booking page.  I was not in a hurry, the extra hours flight time didn't concern me,  so proceeded to book. Seat 4C came up upon completion. (I had not bothered to preselect my own seat.) I assumed I was on the aisle. 

Being the curious beast I am, I searched for the aircraft type expecting it to be the usual ATR 72 500, a twin turbo prop French/Italian built plane that carries 68 passengers.  I have flown on this aircraft numerous times and found it comfortable enough though a little noisy.

To my surprise, it wasn't. This flight was going via Kudat on the northern most point of Borneo in a much smaller, Twin Otter DHC-6  400 series.
Really flying I thought to myself.  These aircraft have a fixed undercarriage and are unpressurised.  Meaning to say they can't fly very high, so in theory lots more to see.  The downside, of course, is that they must fly through more weather.  They can fly around, not over the numerous thunderstorms in this region.  Since the plane can only accommodate 3 seats across, my 4C was in actual fact a window seat.  "Great!" I thought.  I used to fly small aircraft myself ( Cessna 172 and Grumman Cheetah ) in what seems another lifetime ago and consequently started to really look forward to this trip.

Twin Otter 400

Further investigation dampened my enthusiasm somewhat.

Mas Wings has had 4 accidents since 2008, all  involving the Twin Otter (previous series) with the last one at Kudat air-field killing 2 including the co- pilot.  It appeared from the reports I read all involved pilot error and occurred during landing.  My wife immediately told me not to go.  "Lightning couldn't possibly strike twice, could it?" flashed through my head.  Anyway, it guaranteed this flight wasn't going to be boring. And it wasn't.

The flight was scheduled to depart during the quiet part of the day.  Sandakan airport is no KLIA, so after the early morning flights, there is virtually no one around. 
I had checked in online but was concerned about whether I could take my backpack on board.  I went to the checking counter and to my surprise, they wanted to weigh me!   I had to stand up onto where they weigh the bags on the conveyor belt,  much to the amusement of a group of Australians and British. They too went through the process and started to chatter to each other, a little nervously after being told the plane was small and that weight was critical. 

Through customs and into departure hall, empty apart from the 19 passengers for flight MH3005. 

Time for departure arrived, on schedule and proceeded to march over the tarmac to the aircraft.  It looked very new which was comforting, the refurbishment programme between the 300 series and the newer 400 was obviously well underway.  Maybe because of the previous years' mishaps, they were running out of aircraft.  Anyway, any doubts about the viability of the aircraft were now dispelled in my mind. 

For those who haven't flown in smaller prop aircraft, there are a number of differences immediately apparent.  The Twin Otter carries its own set of stairs forming part of the fuselage which are lowered by two cables at the rear of the aircraft.  I painfully discovered the door well is not very high.  My head came in contact with the top of the door frame even though I'm not a tall man. The interior is less than 5 feet in height, so you have to bend down appreciably as you walk along the short aisle. 

Though I had a designated seat number I was told by one of the ground crew to sit anywhere I felt.  First come, first serve.  How refreshing!  No such luxury of air hotties on this flight.  As it turned out, I chose the same seat next to the window under the wing.  The seats themselves a very rudimentary, light frame with minimal padding.  Only just ok for a short flight with a bad back and arthritic knees.

The small interior brings you close to all the occupants, therefore the plane was full of banter, nervous  laughter and we quickly introduced each other. Most were holiday travellers with I think one local who was flying home. Almost all the occupants had never flown in such a small plane before and were looking forward to the adventure, some with more than a little 
apprehension on their faces.

 Cockpit door wide open to let in some air 

The first thing you notice when the engines are turned on is the level of interior sound. It's noisy, still possible to talk, but with my hearing, I find it difficult.  

The runway in Sandakan is over 2000 metres, so the 'Otter' had little difficulty in getting airborne in well less than half the length.  The throttle is above the pilots head like sea planes and for some reason required the use of both pilots' hands. There was no door separating the pilots from the passengers and I had an excellent view of the GPS map in the centre of the cockpit showing our route.

The sudden lifting into the air and the rapid rate of ascend surprise most on board. I think it was more perceived than real, being a small plane. 
It's worth noting that most people have never flown in small aircraft, so the sensation of flying is very different than in a larger heavier plane. Weather affects smaller aircraft a lot more.  They move around more in the air currents and tend to give the feeling of floating and drifting along. The best way I can describe it is that feeling you get on a large Ferris wheel just before and after reaching the highest point except you have to add the lateral movement.  It's all a bit dreamy, like floating on cloud, or after having a few vodka and tonics, if you enjoy that sort of thing. 
The flight turned left after a few minutes and travelled north west along the east coast. The weather was clear and because of the lower altitude, you could see a lot more detail.  To the east many small islands dotted the sea, some in Malaysia, those further out the Philippines.  Rivers large and small, fill the land like a meandering network of roads which of course they are to the local Sungai.  The banks are predominately mangrove until they give away to firmer ground inland, then the manmade transformation of the land becomes evident.  Oil Palm dominates all that is not mangrove nor mountain and what jungle left is mainly secondary growth from the logging days. 

Midway through the flight to Kudat, the passengers had relaxed and everyone on the plane was enjoying conversing to each other by yelling above the engine din. 

I found myself constantly looking at the pilots doing their thing.  The captain in particular was a little fidgety, unable to keep his hands of the throttle as if it wasn't set right. 

As we approached Kudat, everyone peered out looking for the runway.  It was spotted early but disregarded for being too short. It wasn't until final approach that it became obvious that we were going to land on what looked every bit a paved footpath.  I'm sure there're shorter runways in the world but from the air, this one looked woefully inadequate.  Images of the previous years' fatal accident did cross my mind, but after all this was a short takeoff and landing aircraft.  Two or three of the other passengers were not quite so reassured.  The descend was steep and because we couldn't see out the front at this stage, one of the women screamed out,  "We're going to land in the swamp," at the top of her voice. 

Needless to say, we didn't.  It wasn't a copybook landing though.  We did bounce and float down the runway a tad. The roar of the engines peaked as the props were put into negative pitch to pull us up. 
Smiles returned to all and 17 of the 19 passengers disembarked. 
Myself and one other were going onto KK. 

Me trying to look intelligent. Notice the stairs.

It wasn't long before we were left to our own devices.  The plane got very hot on the tarmac, so we jumped out and wandered around the aircraft taking photos of each other.  No one seem to care, in fact there was no one there to care except us.  Everyone else had disappeared into the green nondescript terminal building.

The Green House. Notice Air traffic Control Tower

This wouldn't happen in too many airports around the world.
Twenty minutes passed and the flight crew returned to the aircraft.
This runway is only 700 metres long less than a third of Sandakan's.
The aircraft taxied to the end of the runway, lined up and gunned the engines with the brakes on.  After what seemed an eternity they were released and we screamed down the tarmac and was airborne in no time.  The lack of passengers helped whereas a full plane must use every last inche.

The 40 minute flight flew south along Sabah's west coast. I couldn't help but feel a little privileged having the aircraft to myself bar one. 
The flight was enjoyable and I looked out the window for most of it.  This part of the west coast is much more built up with numerous small and medium towns to observe along the way.  We did encounter a few thunderstorm cells but easily flew around them.  The site of Kota Kinabalu's long runway was very reassuring. 
The total travel time was a touch over two hours. 
Would I do it again?  The short answer is yes if time is not an issue. 

I have flown a lot over the past decade and have to a certain extent become jaded with air travel.  The little Twin Otter brought back memories of the first time I flew all those years ago.  Not quite flying by the seat of your pants, but close.  


  1. Well, it sure beats cattle class, doesn't it?..... you know, you choosing your own seat and all. How was the caviar? :-)

  2. If they served caviar I must have missed it.


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