So here we are in the domestic air terminal at Fua'amotu Airport in Nuku'alofa, The Kingdom of Tonga.
Now how many people do you know that can say that with a straight face? We have been told to sit and wait for our plane to be called for the trip to Vava'u, which should leave in about a half hour. Mrs Wilderness gets a little concerned when they weigh each of us as well as our luggage. I must admit this is the very first time in my life they weighed me before getting on the airplane! What would have happened if I weighed too much? Would I have been forced to take a boat?
After going through the 'weigh-in' we are both afraid to eat anything, reasoning that it just might affect the plane's ability to stay in the air. I am pleased to note that the other passengers who seem to be waiting for the same flight are all rather thin. As one woman starts to head for the snack counter I show her my fiercest 'don't even think about getting a hot dog' look and she sits back down immediately.
My ticket for the weight-challenged plane assigns me to seat 2D and Mrs Wilderness to 2F! Now why the heck aren't we sitting together, are they trying to balance the plane with us? Just before we trade our tickets in on a car rental, and right on time, an airline employee walks in and says something that sounds like it just may be Vava'u. We follow her out the door and get our first look at the two engine DeHavilland DHC-6 Twin Otter that will carry(?) us to Vava'u. Now I know why they weighed us, the passengers going on this trip must surely weigh more than the airplane!
Both pilots are already seated when we board at the back of the plane so I figure they are there to keep the nose down, otherwise we would tip the tail down and the plane would be pointed straight up at the clouds. There is one row of seats on the left and two on the right. The left row is A and the right rows are DF. I don't know who did the lettering but at least we are sitting together. The plane is not very new but looks in relatively good condition. No parachutes are in sight and I can't figure out if that's good or bad news. One of the pilots tries to shut the door to the cockpit and it won't work so we are right there, up close and personal, with the pilots.
In the cockpit, the man in the right seat is a mature, grey haired European and the left seater is a young Tongan. They are both busy reading instructions manuals and I hope they are just check-off lists. The European guy seems to be instructing the Tongan but if so, why is the Tongan in the driver's seat? I suspect the older guy is the only one of the two that knows how to fly but can't get a licence. Owning a business in Tonga is very similar, foreigners can invest in and run a business but a Tongan must own it.
The plane is full (9 thin passengers and me) so they close the door and the pilots start turning the instruction manual pages in earnest. I suspect they are trying to find out if they are supposed to have seats B, C and E or if they were taken out to save weight. They start the right engine and Mrs Wilderness, using her highly calibrated ears, says it sounds very sick to her and she grabs my arm. I act calm and explain to her it's only her imagination. After the left engine starts I look on the instrument panel, which is right in front of me and notice the right one is running much hotter than the left … how does she do that?
We taxi out onto the runway and the engines are run up in a threatening manner. This is where I begin to think the pilot is pretty new to his job. His pre-flight announcement is; "We're going to be taking off in a few...Whoa, here we go!" All of a sudden we're rushing full speed ahead and both pilots are still reading instruction manuals and flipping pages like they want to finish the book before we get into the air.
On the way into Nuku'alofa on the jet from Auckland, we got a brief glimpse of the island but now, after we start breathing again, we can get a close look at this beautiful island as we fly by much lower and slower. I simply cannot describe the brilliance of the colours we see below us. The lush tropical bush is a dark emerald green, the surrounding coral reef and ocean mixes brilliant blues with white surf linked to the golden sand by turquoise coral dotted with brown coral heads.
Soon we lose sight of land and the pilots start playing with the navigation radio like they just discovered it was there. We sit back, try to relax in moderate terror and must succeed because Mrs W almost falls asleep and her death grip on my arm, which started at the same time as the right engine, eases. I notice that we maintain an altitude of 9000 feet and realize it is because the cabin could not hold pressure any higher even if we could get the windows shut.
About one hour later the old guy punches the young guy, points out the window and they both nod their heads in agreement and begin to smile. Obviously they have spotted our destination and both are supremely glad they found it. As you know, most planes glide onto the runway at the end of a gentle slope. This one seems to use the "L" approach method. Straight down then a sharp turn onto the dirt runway. Gravitation inevitably wins the battle with our two intrepid warriors, no matter how much they fight it, and we finally bounce down in a cloud of dust (with a hardy hi ho Silver). After all the passengers and the pilots let go of each other's hands, we taxi towards the airport building and a stuttering stop. The props stop turning and we see the pilots hug and pat each other on the back. We look out the window and observe a luggage cart being pulled out to the plane by two men, I guess it gets the job done and is much more environmentally friendly than the donkey engines they use at most airports. We claim our luggage, it's hard to get it mixed up when there are only 10 passengers, and look for our ride which is supposed to take us to the Tongan Beach Resort.
Note: Regardless of my somewhat 'slanted' observations of incidents concerning Royal Tongan Airways, throughout the entire trip we experienced nothing but quality, pleasant, and professional service from their staff. Some major airlines would do well to study their methods and learn from them. So maybe the pilots didn't hug when we arrived in Vava'u. So maybe they just walked off hand in hand. They did get us there and, in one piece.
To Be Continued
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