(click to watch in high definition at vimeo)

Sometimes you want to visit places a little off the regular route. The Kelabit Highlands, for example. You can get there by road, if you’re prepared for a minimum of eight hours in a bumpy jeep bouncing over logging trails, and longer still in the wet. Or you can fly by tiny Twin Otter – no inflight service, no cabin crew even, just a trusty, rugged little aeroplane and two guys up front who know what they are doing because they are actually from the place they’re flying to. Click through for a taste of why flying can still be lots of fun.

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Flying as it once was

The de Havilland Twin Otter is a great little plane, perfectly designed for flying into tricky places like Bario, a remote town in the rugged jungle highlands of Borneo. With two little Pratt & Whitney turboprops and a solid straight wing with plenty of flaps, it can turn on a dime and land or take off on very short strips. Just what you need to climb over a mountain range, then spiral down a tight valley to set down on a disconcertingly short looking runway (670 meters, which does seem short for those of us used to flying Airbuses out of places like Beijing Capital International with 3,800 meters of runway). The Twin Otter first flew in 1965 and at least 850 have been built. They’re used all around the world in places that are hard to fly to: Arctic regions, the South Pole, and remote “bush fields” like the Kelabit Highlands.

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So small it didn’t even have cabin crew, the plane’s cockpit was open to the main cabin – no bullet proof doors and air marshals on this thing. Flying as it was once, and still should be.

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On the way up from Miri, we sat in row one, Yon and Golda with a window seat and me in the middle, effectively in a jump seat in the cockpit itself. I was close enough to reach the pilot’s trim controls and maybe even the GPS console. I had a great time watching how they controlled this little plane. I also enjoyed seeing the co-pilot pull out his cellphone to snap the view from the cockpit, perhaps to impress a girlfriend back in Miri. The flight was very smooth, and the plane was well equipped with a glass cockpit (that is, colour multifunction displays rather than old-school dials and instruments). A big GPS display dominated the centre panel, and we could see the co-pilot dialing in the waypoints as we climbed up to over 7,000 feet to clear the mountains.

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Mr Pratt and Mr Whitney

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We saw the engines outside, whirring away, a sticker on each proclaiming “Pratt & Whitney – Dependable Engines”. My grandfather’s plane had them in the war, radials not turboprops, but made by Pratt & Whitney. He’d flown 62 combat missions over South East Asia (including Borneo) and the Pacific with a pair of them during World War II. I told Golda his war story of the fellow squadron pilot who was late back from a mission and assumed dead. He suddenly appeared on the horizon, trailing smoke from the motors, landed safely and entered the squadron bar. The fellow had a distinctive slur to his “s”, and reportedly announced: “Fellash, I got two friendsh in thish world. Mishter Pratt and Mishter Whitney”.

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Back in the present, the landing was skilful. Right after clearing the top of the range, the plane nosed down and flew parallel to the runway a kilometer away. I could see the plan on the GPS screen – a quick u-turn followed immediately by a landing.

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With both crew holding the overhead throttle controls, they pointed the plane downwards, directly at the end of the runway. As we got closer and closer, they finally edged the nose up a bit and touched us down perfectly, and very smoothly.

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Analogue is Warmer

A week later, waiting at Bario’s tiny airport (which, amazingly, has wi-fi), we weighed our luggage and then ourselves on a big scale. A man duly noted it all down on the manifest. Everyone knows everyone in a place like Bario, and all were shaking hands and greeting each other. They extended the same friendly courtesy to us, shaking our hands as they worked around the small waiting room, wishing us a safe trip and hoping to see us again soon. The morning flight from Miri landed, a little late as there had been a low fog sticking to the valley until about nine that morning.

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MAS Wings, Malaysian Airlines’ internal operation, is upgrading its fleet of Twin Otters.  We had a new one on the way up, but on the way down we went old-school. Our plane was equipped with GPS and radar, but the screens were tiny and lost amongst the sea of traditional dials and gauges arrayed across the instrument panel.

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“Analogue is warmer”

I felt perfectly safe, though I imagine the more modern glass cockpit plane is easier to fly and therefore safer. But there was something great about all those dials, the faded paint on the labels above switches, the signs of wear and tear of this plane’s long career. It reminded me of an old car I once owned, all mechanical and all analogue: a real plane from the days when flying was stick-and-rudder, and planes worked on pulleys and cables not wires and servos. Before long we were airborne and banking around towards the sea, still out of sight behind the mountains. The throttles were on full as the plane climbed, and the pilots flipped switches and turned knobs, both working the controls without getting in each other’s way.

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Outside we saw the two high, rocky spires of Batu Lawi, which Allied planes had used as landmarks to help the line up for parachute drops near Bario during the war. Everywhere below was green and mountainous and impossibly rugged.

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Piece of Cake

Coming into Miri, it was a bit harder to work out what was going on. Without the big screens of the other plane’s glass cockpit, I couldn’t see the flight path. Something called the DME came alive and indicated the airport was five miles away, and then I saw it out the right window. We were heading directly perpendicular to the runway and a little to one end. At the exact moment, the co-pilot swung the plane around to the right and lined us up perfectly on the runway.

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Another very gentle landing followed, and as we completed the landing roll and taxied towards the terminal, the two pilots raced to flick switches and adjust controls. I spared a thought for my late grandfather. Except for the hard to see GPS and tiny radar, the cockpit in this little Twin Otter wasn’t too far removed from the one in his old PBY-5 flying boat. I’d once seen him take the controls of a De Havilland Beaver (an older, single engined floatplane from the same stable) and fly it around Sydney Harbour. He hadn’t piloted any aircraft since the war, but after take-off the pilot handed him the wheel of this one. Was it hard, I’d asked him, after they returned to Rose Bay. After all, the war was fifty years ago. He just smiled and said, “Piece of cake”.

I felt sure we’d have been in safe hands had he been in Bario that day. But our two pilots had done a fine job too. As we arrived at our parking spot, they efficiently shut down the motors and turned off everything else. The right-seater – the co-pilot – turned around as Yon called out our thanks for a smooth flight, and gave me a big grin and quintessential Asian V sign. He was a Kelabit, I learned from a fellow passenger as we waited for our bags. Another local kid to be proud of, and another pilot who made it look “a piece of cake”.

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—– MAS Wings flies 6 Twin Otters – some new, some old – around Sabah and Sarawak out of Kota Kinabalu and Miri respectively.