The seaplane is poised to be this summer’s chicest mode of transportation for the gridlock-averse
t is a pity to lose the romantic side of flying and simply to accept it as a common means of transport,” Amy Johnson, a pilot who set long-distance aviation records in the 1930s and, apparently, had a prophetic sense of flight’s future, once said.
Today, thousands of planes crisscross the sky at every moment. But during the past century, as aviation technology has improved, oddly enough, traveling by air has become more burdensome: It is no longer a privilege of the jet set, and waiting for takeoff can be as frustrating as sitting in gridlock on a winding expressway. But far removed from the packed tarmacs of O’Hare and Heathrow, some lucky travelers have found a way around that. Enter the seaplane.
Seaplanes can take travelers to some of the world’s most remote places, such as this tiny island in the Maldives
During the early days of flight, runways were scarce, so the prospect of marine aviation was exceedingly attractive: With waterways in play, the number of takeoff and landing sites increased exponentially. In 1905, Gabriel Voisin completed the first successful water takeoff and landing, on the river Seine, in France, with a kite glider fitted with floats and towed by a boat. It would be several more years before Henri Fabre successfully tested his hydravion, an experimental floatplane with a 50-horsepower Gnome rotary engine. He did not go far, but he survived the trip. Thus aviation got its sea legs.
Henri Fabre, one of marine flight's earliest pioneers, examines the propeller of a seaplane on the French Riviera
Today, 103 years after Glenn Curtiss sold the US Navy two of its first three aircraft, including the amphibious A-1 Triad, the seaplane is rare and retains the romance that Johnson adored in the ’30s. Time-starved but otherwise fortunate travelers embrace its ability to go where jets, trains and SUVs can’t. Most commercial seaplanes hold fewer than 15 passengers, and in a place like New York City, where gridlock is the norm, it is the most luxurious “taxicab” money can buy.
“Our service has been popular because [the seaplane] is a novel, efficient way to travel during the summer months to nearby New York hot spots,” says Christina Daniels, a representative for the Standard Hotel’s StndAIR travel service. For $525 one way, anyone can fly from Manhattan to East Hampton (or vice versa). Designed to take the ennui out of the weekend-escape commute, StndAIR’s Cessna 208 Caravan Amphibian is equipped to seat eight passengers, each of whom may sip André Balazs Reserve Rosé, the wine named for the Standard Hotel’s founder, and snack on Swedish Fish. High-end cosmetic company Aesop offers complimentary beauty kits, and Standard Culture and Warby Parker have teamed up to provide the in-flight entertainment: a collection of short stories curated by the Paris Review, PEN American Center and author Hetti Jones.
Also in New York, Andrew Clark and Melissa Tomkiel founded seaplane charter service Fly the Whale in 2010 with one objective in mind: to maximize vacation time by reducing travel time. “Air travel is the quickest way to get from Point A to Point B, but it’s even more efficient when you can depart right from East 23rd Street and arrive at the dock at your house,” Tomkiel says. “Life’s too short for traffic!”
“Life’s too short for traffic!” —Tomkiel says.
ly the Whale owns a fleet of aircraft, but its crown jewel, says Tomkiel, is the Cessna Caravan, which was purchased from musician Jimmy Buffett, the patron saint of leisure living. Fondly referred to as Whale Force One, it can seat up to nine passengers. Much of Fly the Whale’s clientele regularly hops on flights through the company’s Ivory Card loyalty program or by private charter. In addition, Fly the Whale arranges car services and stocks its planes with its passengers’ favorite snacks.
Hotelier André Balazs arrives in the Hamptons, New York, via a seaplane flight offered through the Standard Hotel’s StndAIR travel service
Speed and convenience are not the only draws of amphibious flight. In fact, the seaplane’s small size and few runway restrictions make it able to reach far-flung locations inaccessible to the typical jumbo jet. That’s good news for today’s traveler, since some of the world’s most desirable destinations are also the hardest to reach. As long as you’re willing to stop and refuel, you can get to them in a seaplane.
Nora Hauserman, a first officer at ExpressJet Airlines, fell in love with seaplanes while visiting a friend in southeast Alaska. Then later, in 2012, she earned her seaplane qualification. “It is one of the only ways to fly where you can land and still be in a place virtually untouched by man,” she says. Of the floatplanes she's encountered, Hauserman says the de Havilland Otter (DHC-3, single engine) and Twin Otter (DHC-6) are the most advanced because of their ability to carry the heavy loads common for adventurous travelers and relatively quiet turbine engines.
The Conrad Maldives Rangali Island resort, in the South Ari Atoll region of the Maldives, is just one of the world’s many luxury destinations accessible only by seaplane
Nearly a century ago, traveling by plane was considered daring regardless of the destination. These days, almost every inch of earth is accessible, thanks in large part to the seaplane’s versatility—though it still remains the province of a select few. Pioneer pilot Johnson would be pleased to know that the glamour of air travel is not totally gone. It has just moved from land to sea.
Fly the Whale
- Photograph by Devon Stephens; Courtesy of Getty Images
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- Photograph by Kasia Wandycz; Courtesy of Paris Match via Getty Images
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