Friday, April 04, 2008

Twin Otters in the Skies of Sarawak

"The Twin Otter is the safest plane in the world," Captain Yap told my children and I as we listened to him with rapt attention. Capt Yap had flown more than twenty years and thousands of hours in the skies of Sarawak. At a young age, he married a great Foochow girl from Sibu. And from Truth Lane* (Chin Li Duo in Foochow) too. How small our world can be.

Why Twin? This Canadian success has a twin engine and was a spin off from a bush plane. The two engines offer increased passenger safety and confidence.

De Havilland (Canadian company) had realized as early as the mid fifties that the Otter needed to be replaced by a twin engine craft for safety reasons and for payload increase, but they were reluctant to part with any of the STOL qualities that made the plane successful with bush operators. They had to wait for suitable engines to be developed, and with the appearance of the 500 shp Pratt and Whitney propeller turbine from United Aircraft of Canada in the late '50s, the idea became more feasible. The new Twin Otter was first test flown in 1965 on May 20th, 1965, by Robert Fowler and A. Saunders. Deliveries began in 1966, and production continued for 22 years and through three production versions.

The Twin Otter can be found around the world in jungles, deserts, mountains, the Arctic, and anywhere where rugged reliability and short-take-off-and-landing capability were required. Twin Otters could be fitted with wheels, skis or floats, and in the Arctic, they're sometimes flown on "tundra tires" -- huge, low-pressure balloon-tires that can operate on and off soft, boggy ground. Its versatility is demonstrated by the fact that the largest fleets assembled were in tropical Indonesia where 19 planes flew for the Merpati Nusantara Airlines, and in frigid Norway where 12 airplanes serviced remote strips on the North Coast. It was well liked both by operators and passengers, the former for the easy maintenance offered by its fixed undercarriage, and the latter with the short, easy and anxiety-free landings.

In a report, it is stated that the timeless Twin Otters continue to be bought and sold today, with resale values twentyfold that of their original price tags. It is not only a Canadian success story but an international one.

Today Sibu can be reached by land, sea and air and it is developing into quite a tourist centre, fifty years after Sarawak gained its independence from the British Rule. In order to fly to small towns, the Rural Air Service of Sarawak provides an important service to the rural people of the state and reduce some of their difficulties. The Twin Otters are their carriers for this significant and heart warming service.

If we fly for example from Sibu to Marudi, which is considered a rural air route, we will be flying alongside the amazing, attractive,smiling and friendly rural indigenous people of Sarawak who might be wearing their head bands with beads. Packed into the Twin Otter, which can deliver 19 people, the passengers can safely land in a small air strip like Ba Kelalan too, another rural air hub and tourist destination.

Furthermore it is good for short journeys. But I don't understand why it is only for the rural air service in Sarawak. I was once in a Twin Otter and I considered it my most romantic and beautiful air ride.The plane simply glided over (just barely inches actually) coconut palms and then all of a sudden the plane landed neatly at the Mukah airport. I saw the beautiful glittering sea and the lovely isolated kampong houses. The sago palms looked just so neat,green and pretty below! Life was full of simple fun at that time because we could just buy a ticket at the old Sibu airport and then fly to Mukah at a moment's notice.

What was really unique was that you have to be weighed too. A special scale was used for people and then your luggage would be weighed by another scale. I have even heard several years ago that a bag of sugar would go first to Bario, an important air strip, before a passenger. If there were no seat available, the passenger had to wait for the next flight. Sugar was an important commodity in those days to the rural people. I am wondering if this is still happening. Perhaps there should be a special cargo plane for Bario now that Datuk Idris Jala is CEO of MAS.

I was always impressed by the patience of the MAS counter attendants who took special care of their rural passengers,and they were indeed humourous about every item of the luggage of the passengers, including a few prized fighting cocks, a small monkey or even a goose. Most Foochows would travel with a bag of goodies pressed into their hands by warm hearted relatives. Inside the plane,w hich might be very hot, the passengers would take out their snacks, drinks and whatever, and might even share them with their fellow passengers!!

I have flown with an old illiterate Hakka woman who insisted that I must eat her dumplings,between hand gestures and the horrible Foochow - Hakka, if there is such a generic dialect, that I spoke. On another occasion I sat next to an old Iban soldier who showed me his tattoo and his new leather boots. In Marudi, in 1974, my friend from Sibu, waited for me right at the door of the plane!! It was such a warm welcome which I would never forget in my life. Taking a flight in a Twin Otter may give you a sense of a time warp. You might feel that you are frozen in a special time period in history. It could be just 1950 or 1960. So deja vu. Always on a Twin Otter.

A few years ago,I was on another rural air flight,when a student/friend waved good bye to me and tapped the window of the plane before the Twin Otter engine started!! I put my hand on the window pane and he humourously placed his hand there too.As our plane taxied away, I caught a glimpse of him cycling away and then giving me the last wave. I had mentored him well in the traits of a good hearted teacher. Very high EQ and SQ. But this kind of life experience can only happen in a small rural town, with people with golden hearts, and perhaps with a Twin Otter!

If all air travel can be as simple and interesting as the Twin Otter it can be really a dream! If I had a fortune, I would travel in the Twin Otter to the ends of the world.

Live simply, so others could simply live.

* Truth Road or Truth Lane used to be a lively road /lane(?) which was opposite the Sibu Post Office and sort of behind the Police Office along Kampong Nyabor Road. I have a feeling that it is all gone due to the development of big shop houses in that area. One of the first piano teachers of Sibu had her piano teaching classes in a wooden house there. The road was called Truth Road because a small Christian Church called the Truth Church was sited there. I often wonder what happened to that church.

12 memories:

Unknown said...

I like your article. Someitimes you can also find fighting cock, etc too in the plaane. The twin Otter fly to such famous place as Mulu as well. Places like Mukah, Mulu, Limbang, Lawas, Long Semado, Bario are service by the twin Otter. By the way, where is truth Road?

I would also be good to write something on air service or travel in bigger crafts such as between Kuching and Sibu as well as Kuching and Spore, etc in the past and how they evolve. also stories on air stewardess and food on plane.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Thank you for visiting again.

Did you ever fly in a Twin Pioneer? Early Sixties.I read that it was a good plane in a 1962 report. But no one has ever written about the early history of aviation in Sarawak. It should be an interesting read especially with old black and white photos.

Sometimes I feel that Sarawak does not have much written history before 1963.

Unknown said...

Perhaps Sarawakiana should also write about Fokker Friendship, Boeing, Air Bus, etc.

In the book, "Sarawak Long Ago", you can read about early Sarawak Aviation history. In fact, a biplane visited Sarawak befroe the 2nd war world. The plane was called "Spirit of Africa and Borneo".

Unknown said...


Perhaps you should sign up for a PhD degree on oral history in Sarawak, maybe with UNIMAS or Universiti Malaysia Sabah. That will be interesting. ou can make use of Sarawak Museum Archive, etc.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Thank you so much for your encouragement. I would really like to do a PhD...on genuine skills and work...However, I am just thinking how much it will cost me in terms of time and money.

PhD candidates need to be "referred" I believe and there are lots of terms and conditions.

Unknown said...


Doing PhD isnt that costly in government university, especially UNIMAS or UMS. Probably with a fee of RM1000 plus per year. You can also do it part time. I believe, there will be more time after retirement. With a PhD, you can still continue to work as lecturers in private institution of higher learning like Curtin or Swinburne or even govt uni like UNIMAS (of course on contact, especially when theya re short of lecturers). Maybe you want to do something specific such as Chinese history in the Rejang basin, etc. Reference can be flexible (from your employer, etc - you need two)important thing is to find a proper and good supervisor.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Thank you again. I should really give it a great thought. But at the moment I might be too far away from Kuching.

Unknown said...


Perhaps you might also want to write about sea transportation between Sibu and Kuching. I was told in the old days, they use the slow "tuk tuk tuk " boat and only later Rajah Mas and Pulau Kidjang came in. Next we now have the express boat. In fact, howercraft was also introduced at one stage in the 1980's but without success.

Unknown said...


Doing it part time also mean you can be away from the university. You only need to see the supervisor once in a while after you have results to show and discuss. also, nowadays you can easily communicate using email, etc.

Unknown said...

A lot will depend on who your supervisor is. Flexibility is one of the thing you should look for in a good supervisor.

I Am Sarawakiana said...

Who are the lecturers who might want to be supervisors ? Possible topics could be Immigrant Chinese History/ Impact on Local People/Factors creating peaceful co-existence/etc.

Just giving it a thought.

Unknown said...

Getting a suitable supervisor is the difficult part but you can try as there
is a Chair for Chinese Studies at UNIMAS.


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