The Maldives Hold
by Thierry Pouille, Air Journey
Since 1998, Air Journey has been touring the world. The fall of 2017 marks our first “Around the World Westbound Journey” with a circumnavigation of Australia departing from Seattle and returning to Goose Bay.
Since the journey was a first, regardless of our 20 years of experience, we had to be ready for the unexpected. In this case many “unexpected” happenings caught us throughout the journey. The reporting below is what happened during our arrival and landing in Male (VRMM) in the Maldives.
By the time we embarked on our flight to the Maldives, we’d already circumnavigated half of the world. We’d been through the Far East, explored the beautiful sight of Australia, a little bit of Singapore, and we were leaving Mattala in Sri Lanka on our way to the ocean paradise in the Maldives. Both Sri Lanka and the Maldives were firsts for Air Journey.
On the day of our flight we were blessed with beautiful weather. Twenty-four knot tail wind at altitude, with the route only 484 nautical miles through the airways waypoint and we were only going to be talking to the Centers of Sri Lanka and the Maldives – no communication with India which was a welcome relief.
Since the leg was short, we didn’t stagger the planes based on their speed but based on their cruising altitude, and I ended up being number four in the Citation CJ3. Takeoff was uneventful, climbing to our flight level of 430 without any issues, very clear transmission, and wherever we could get shortcuts, we got them. We were on our way to Male – a place I always dreamed of visiting.
Where the arrival starts on the route is a waypoint called DOPDO (see photo). It is the first waypoint on the arrival at about 25 miles from touchdown, but since we were number four we got a hold to let the three airplanes in front of us get the proper spacing for landing. We had the proper direction for the hold with an expected time of departure which was about 17 minutes after entering the hold. So we leisurely entered the hold, reduced power, enjoyed the magnificent scenery and waited to be clear for the approach.
When the word came, we are ready, the plane is configured for the approach, with flaps and “V speeds” set. First, we are cleared for clear to the initial approach fix URDIV on what was then the RNAV for Runway 18, with again a hold. At the time Male only had one runway and no taxiway so with rather heavy commercial traffic plus our group, so the airspace was crowded.
As a habit, while flying the Air Journey group, I have “Com 2” set to tower frequency to monitor the arrivals and to transmit additional details for the rest of the group. Two TBM’s were following us.
With this configuration, I heard Male tower ordering a Thai Airliner to stop their takeoff roll now. Approach cleared us for the RNVA Approach, but kept us on frequency. Soon we started the descent, as we passed 1,700 feet, beautiful blue sky over beautiful scenery, we are told by the Approach to maintain 3,000 feet to which I answered, “We are already on the RNAV passing 1,700.”
“Climb back up 3,000,” came the reply.
Acknowledged the clearance, RNAV approach is canceled. After a couple of minutes, I asked for any additional instructions which came as: “Heading 090 left, maintain 3,000.”
Again, after a couple of minutes of going in and out of small, puffy clouds, I asked if we could climb to 5,000, as well as what were the instructions and the guy gave us a heading towards the airport: “Clear to 5,000, heading 360.”
Then we proceeded north, time again to call them, “What do you want us to do? We have no intention to go to India.”
“Well, clear to URDIV and hold as publish.”
”OK, clearance acknowledged and we hold at 5000.”
We did about seven turns to finally be ready for the RNAV approach again. We were number one on the approach, nobody in front of us, nobody above us, but we still had two additional TBM holding on our first waypoint and we are clear and landed.
All of the above occurred without any explanation of the “why the hold,” or “how long the hold will last.”
Marshaled to the parking area where we shut down and meet part of the Air Journey flyers who were waiting for us. Total time between entering the first hold and landing was 1:22 minutes.
As the door opened, we were asked, “Did you see? Did you see?” “No we didn’t see anything, what happen? Why the hold?”
Simple answer: “One of their tethered weather balloons got loose, and since there was absolutely no wind over the atoll, the balloon leisurely was crossing the runway back and forth and it took a lot of effort trying to bring the balloon under control.”
The CJ3 was topped off on departure, more than enough for our 484 nm route. Same was true for the two TBM behind us.
During our extended briefing the night before our flight , we reviewed the route, the airways, the centers, the approaches and in details the approach expected based on the forecasted winds. We also review the alternate. In this case it was Maafaru (VRDA) about 100 nm to the north of Male, with a 7,200 feet at sea level. While this is an uncontrolled field, the runway is paved.
But honestly, as soon as we entered the hold without any more details of the reason about the why and length, we started to go back to our briefing and see what would be our Plan B and to find the ground safely.
Nevertheless, the airport of Male doesn’t see a lot of general aviation airplanes and even less owner-flown. The stop itself is amazing, offering hotels and luxury of no equals in the rest of the world. Our home away from home is the one and only Reeti Rah. For the first time we elected to stay four whole nights. A fifth one would have even been welcome.