The whirring of a propeller teamed with the rumble of an engine prompted everyone assembled at the hangar of the Cochin International Airport Limited’s Maintenance Overhaul and Repair facility to gaze at the low flying aircraft that whizzed about overhead.
The occasion on Thursday afternoon was the customary water cannon salute to the six-seater Cessna 206 amphibian. Kerala Tourism will soon deploy the aircraft for its seaplane service linking airports and backwaters.
Photographers and cameramen of television channels, with their lenses focused on the sky, waited for almost two hours to capture the touchdown.
In the end, it was worth the wait as the amphibian flew past them in alignment with the runway and landed safely. The shutterbugs clicked away at will as the aircraft rolled past the runway in to the taxi link connected to the hangar.
As the aircraft approached the hangar, it was greeted with the customary water cannon salute. A fire fighting engine on either side of the runway gushed out jets of water and the amphibian slid under the arch of water.
The aircraft was received by a contingent including Tourism Minister A.P. Anil Kumar, State Planning Board Vice-Chairman K.M. Chandrasekhar, Tourism Secretary Suman Billa, Kerala Tourism Infrastructure Limited managing director Anil Kumar S., Airport Director A.C.K. Nair, and Kairali Aviation managing director K.R. Sasikumar.
Michael Fabry, the Belgian who piloted the aircraft from Mangalore, was given a warm reception and was presented with a bouquet of flowers.
When the seaplane operations are officially inaugurated by Chief Minister Oommen Chandy in Kollam on June 2, it will be the first commercial seaplane service to be launched in the country. Though the amphibian is widely used in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, they are restricted to relief and rescue operations.
The inaugural service is likely to ply between Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam district and Punnamada Lake in Alappuzha district.
Speaking at the function organised at the airport, Mr. Anil Kumar said it was a matter of pride that the seaplane project took off within one-and-a-half years. He said more rides were likely after monsoon.
Allaying fears of the fishing community and environmentalists, the Minister said the seaplane operations would not in any way affect the livelihood and the ecological balance of water bodies. “It will become clear to the public once the seaplane operations start next month,” he said.
Mr. Chandrasekhar hoped the project would not only improve connectivity within the State but also encourage neighbouring States to take up similar projects to increase connectivity to tourist destinations in south India. He expected north Indian States to follow suit, resulting in increased tourist flow to the country.
The government has already set up four water-dromes at an investment of Rs.12 crore in the State. It is learned that one water drome, proposed near Bolgatty island, will be set up after the Navy gives its clearance. The government has waived water-drome usage charges for operators signing up for the service before June.
Already five operators, including the public sector Pawan Hans, have registered for the service. An average flight of 30-40 minutes’ duration is likely to cost about Rs.4,000.
Seaplane operations will have airports in Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Kozhikode, and Mangalore as its base stations.
Water-dromes have been readied at Ashtamudi, Punnamada, Kumarakom, and Bekal. Mangalore airport had been chosen as a base because of its proximity to Bekal.
The water-dromes will have floating jetties and houseboats apart from facilities for screening baggage. A contingent of Kerala Police cleared by the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security will be posted at water-dromes to ensure security.
Shortage of pilots
K.R. Sasikumar, managing director of Kairali Aviation which has leased the amphibian aircraft, said the acute shortage of native pilots with experience in operating seaplanes posed a big challenge. “It’s a unique experience to pilot a seaplane. A lot different from piloting a normal aircraft and so pilots will have to undergo training.”
He said a pilot would have to pass a 10-hour syllabus of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation. Once the test is cleared, the pilot’s licence would be endorsed to operate the seaplane. However, the pilot would still have to log 100 hours of co-piloting before he could be allowed to pilot aircraft alone, Mr. Sasikumar said.