Gan - the air force island
Today, the island of Gan hosts the second biggest airport in the country. The island now includes an international pilot school, Asian Academy of Aeronautics, as well as a base of operations for the Maldives Defense Force (including sea rescue helicopters). The island’s genesis as an air hub began during the Second World War.
The UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) built the Gan airstrip back in 1941 and operated a base there until 1976. While initially a logistic stop over route to the Far East, the base grew in importance in 1960 when the RAF built a set of radio towers to support communication between air traffic control and airplanes flying over the Indian Ocean. As British bases were being handed over to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) following its independence, the British faced a major communications gap to the Pacific. High-frequency radio signals from the UK could only reach as far as the Maldives so building a relay station there was critical.
(Picture hanging in the Equator Village reception presented as a gift to the resort by visiting RAF airmen – photo by Bruce Lynn)
“All new comers to Gan were known as ‘moonies’ and we received the traditional wolf whistle from all and sundry as we entered the sea. I suppose we did look little anaemic… Villingili was uninhabited but sometimes used as a base for local fishing operations. Some of the sunsets on Gan were real ‘chocolate box’ pictures and many evenings were spent with the camera sitting on a tripod waiting for just the right moment to release the shutter… The fish, oh the fish, there were hundreds of them, every colour and shape you could possibly imagine, all swimming in and out of the coral trees. It really was a wonderland. In the coral, there were deep narrow channels and it was these that were most interesting. Each was the oceanic equivalent of Oxford Street in the rush hour with brilliantly coloured fish swimming in all directions. Words are totally inadequate to do justice to such a beautiful site. It just has to be seen.”
- Michael Butler -
(“Return to Gan” by Micheal Butler – photo by Bruce Lynn)
One of the young airmen deployed to this project was Michael Butler who later published an illuminating chronicle of RAF life on Gan in his book “Return to Gan – An illustrated diary 1960 and 1998”. In those days just arriving on Gan was something of an odyssey. His RAF flight from London took 22 hours to arrive in Gan with refueling stops at Cyprus, Karachi and Sri Lanka.
“[Taking off from Ceylon] we missed the palms by a whisker. The engine sounded much sweeter as we gained height. We, on the other hand felt very much colder as we flew between 2,500 and 3,000 feet. No frills on this aircraft like pressurization or heating, and what a noisy aircraft the Bristol Freighter was. Conversation was virtually impossible.”
The RAF legacy lives on today in the form of Equator Village Resort. Although Kurumba was the first resort, the Equator Village can claim to be the first resort structure as the whole property consists of re-purposed RAF buildings.
(Photo from Ex-RAF Aerial Erectors Association website – http://www.hariggers.co.uk/places.htm )
The villas are the bedrooms the airmen lived in and the main building (housing the restaurant, reception and bar) was originally the Officer’s Mess and Officer’s Club. RAF veterans still hold reunions at the resort (one of which prompted Butler’s book).
The base also built the first golf course in the Maldives, a tradition carried on by Shangri-la Villingili resort with its world class 9 holes. Villingili also features a number of historical artefacts including pill boxes and bunkers which are featured on the resorts historical walk.Per Addu ad Astra!
(RAF “pill box” on Shagri-La Villingili featured on the resort’s historical walking tour – photo by Bruce Lynn)
(Photo from Micheal Butler’s “Return to Gan”)
Ever since the times of RAF and the many endeavors of the airmen that resided in Gan, the airport has remained just like the headquarters as Equator Village. It has since then improved its services which includes playing host to Sri Lanka’s national flag carrier – Sri Lankan Airlines. They commenced their scheduled flights from Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo to Gan International Airport at the beginning of this December. Gan International Airport recently went through a significant re-development which involved the expansion of their runway and facilities.
Gan International Airport is located in Addu Atoll, the southernmost part of the archipelago. There are two luxury island resorts, which are Shangri-la’s Villingili Resort & Spa and Canareef Resort Maldives. Furthermore, there are a number of guesthouses within Addu, one of the most prominent being Fehi Inn. There are also other resorts in the surrounding islands. This service opens up new possibilities for properties in that region to reach out more tourists and use the service to their advantage.
The service is operated four days a week from Bandaranaike International Airport in Colombo to Gan International Airport in Addu City. Flight operations are scheduled on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. This flight service would be the first scheduled international flight to the airport. Ticket prices start from USD 330 for a round trip.
(Photo from Michael Butler’s “Return to Gan” – on icon)
The article was written by Bruce Lynn and was originally published in Maldivian Holidays Magazine Issue 03.
(Bruce Lynn founded and operates one of the leading websites about Maldives resorts, Maldives Complete ( www.maldivescomplete.com ))
Photo: Page 22-23 of Maldiivan Holidays - Issue 03 ( Published by MVHOTELS )
Photo: Page 24-25 of Maldiivan Holidays - Issue 03 ( Published by MVHOTELS )