Almost heaven

Philadelphia
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In the spring of 1979, a newspaper reporter asked legendary screen actress Maureen O'Hara if she missed acting. "I'm too busy. I work from six in the morning to 10 at night. You can't miss anything when you're that busy," replied O'Hara in her customary straightforward manner.

At that time O'Hara had been running Antilles Air Boats for six months, following the death of her husband Charles Blair, famed aviator and founder of the St Croix, US Virgin Islands-based seaplane operator, who was killed when the Grumman Goose he was piloting developed engine trouble and crashed near St Thomas.

Known as "The Streetcar Line of the Virgin Islands" because of its ultra-convenient downtown-to-downtown seaplane service between St Croix and St Thomas, Antilles Air Boats billed itself as the largest seaplane operator in the world and, by the time O'Hara took its helm, boasted a fleet of 25 aircraft.

Still grieving for the man whom she would later write made her "happier than anyone or anything ever had", O'Hara was determined to keep Antilles Air Boats going strong. "Hopefully, we'll get bigger," she told the reporter, whose article ran on 29 April 1979 in Ohio's Blade Toledo. "We'd like to go into St Maarten and we've been invited to fly into Antigua."

used with permission from stars & stripes. 1969-2009 stars & stripes
 Used with permission from Stars & Stripes. © 1969-2009 Stars & Stripes

The same gumption that drove O'Hara to follow Blair's dream is now evident at Seaborne Airlines, the latest carrier to fill the shoes of Antilles Air Boats and keep the history of seaplane operations alive in the US Virgin Islands.

FLOATING A PLAN

Seaborne began by flying cruise line sightseeing tours over Alaska's stunning Misty Fjords in 1992. A year later the company duplicated its business model in the US Virgin Islands and did not look back, opting to stay all year round and begin scheduled flights on the path blazed by Blair and O'Hara.

Some locals still refer to Seaborne as the "Goose", the name affectionately bestowed upon Antilles Air Boats and its successors, Resorts International and later VI Seaplane Shuttle, which went out of business after Hurricane Hugo caused extensive damage to its seaplane fleet in 1989.

But traditional flying boats no longer operate scheduled services between the US Virgin Islands. Instead, Seaborne uses de Havilland Canada Twin Otter 300s, which it has had transformed into amphibious workhorses.

chris boizel
 © Chris Boizel

Its wheels removed and substituted with Wipline floats, the Twin Otter looks somewhat cartoonish when soaring against the backdrop of Caribbean blue skies.

Bearing the moniker of Seaborne sponsor Scotiabank, the large floats, Wipaire's Model 13000, decrease directional stability, as they place a large amount of vertical surface area forward of the yaw rotation axis. Sea fins are on the horizontal stabilisers to bring directional stability to an acceptable level.

An elevator downspring is added to the conventional flight controls to remedy the degradation to longitudinal stability caused by the floats. Finally, rudder travel is reduced to the left as float hydrodynamic drag increases directional stability on the water. So astute are the changes to the wheeled version, however, that when a Twin Otter lands with a flourish on Caribbean seas, the turboprop's lack of sensual curves is forgotten and it becomes a vision of majestic form and function.

Among the advantages of using Twin Otters in seaplane service is the aircraft's high wing, which allows Seaborne to board and deplane passengers at a dock. By contrast, a typical flying boat, such as the Grumman Albatross, Mallard or Goose, takes off from and lands on water using its fuselage as a floating hull, while underwing floats keep the aircraft steady in the water.

"The [underwing] floats of a flying boat make it almost impossible to come to the dock unless the dock was made for that type of aircraft. So an operator either has to have a ramp for the aircraft to put its wheels down and drive up on dry land or it has to send out a dinghy to pick the passengers up," says James McManus, executive director of the Seaplane Pilots Association.

While the 50-year-old ramp at Seaborne's St Croix base could accommodate flying boats, the carrier relies on the sturdy Twin Otter instead. "In my opinion, no other equipment can operate in these types of conditions as well as the Twin Otter. It's built like a truck," says Seaborne president and chief executive Omer ErSelcuk, who is among a consortium of investors that own the carrier.

REDEFINING HIGH FREQUENCY

Seaborne operates four 17-seat Twin Otter seaplanes on high-frequency, scheduled service between St Croix's Christiansted Harbor and St Thomas's Charlotte Amalie Harbor.

The majority of passengers are local business men and women. It is common to see government workers, hospital staffers and executives from US Virgin Islands distributor Premier Wines and Spirits aboard a single flight. Frequent sporting events, festivals in the region, and roundtrip fares under $200 also contribute to a steady flow of origination and destination traffic.

So too does the lack of security checkpoints. Seaborne's seaplane bases fall outside the scope of US Transportation Security Administration screening rules since there are no secure perimeters at the water. This means that while the carrier is subject to random security checks, passengers and their accompanying baggage are not regularly screened, which facilitates rapid turnaround times.

Seaplane operations at night are classified by the US Federal Aviation Administration as extremely hazardous. Therefore, Seaborne's seaplanes alight before the end of civil twilight. At the carrier's base in Christiansted, overnighting Twin Otter seaplanes are taken by trailer out of the water. After leaving the trailer in the morning, several operational checks are carried out before the aircraft is docked for passenger loading.

OPERATIONAL SAFETY

The seaplane overnighting in St Thomas, however, remains docked. Compared with wheeled Twin Otters, the seaplanes have a reduced centre of gravity envelope. As such, Seaborne uses passenger weights to ensure operational safety.

In addition to its four Twin Otter seaplanes, which are being reconfigured to seat 15 passengers, Seaborne flies two-wheeled Twin Otters on a newly launched air shuttle service that lets the carrier fly from St Croix Henry E Rohlsen airport and St Thomas Cyril E King airport to Puerto Rico's San Juan Isla Grade airport under a supplemental licence.

With this combined fleet, 26 line pilots fly an average of 38 seaplane legs and 24 wheeled legs a day. "We redefine short haul and high frequency," says Seaborne director of operations Wayne D'Amico.

The hard and fast pace of this operation does not happen by itself. D'Amico and chief pilot Shawn Lewis provide a sound structure around which individual crews can exercise judgement while safely and efficiently flying the schedule. Seaborne's safety record is clean. "We've had no engine failures. We're blemish free," says D'Amico.

The carrier also happens to be the only Part 121 seaplane operator serving the Caribbean, after Chalk's Ocean Airways was forced to ground its seaplane fleet following the 19 December 2005 break-up of a 1947-manufactured Grumman G-73T Turbo Mallard.

Fortunately for Seaborne, the Chalk's crash did not have a negative impact on the St Croix-based carrier. Ladd Lewis, a former FAA inspector who assists airlines with regulatory compliance, says he does not believe the public correlated Chalk's operations with those of Seaborne. "I don't think there is a perception that seaplanes are inherently dangerous. If you talk to most people, they can't wait to ride on them," he says.

That includes pilots. If flying is a passion, seaplane flying must be an addiction, and pilots from all walks of life venture to the US Virgin Islands to feed the need. At Seaborne, they enjoy a casual professionalism, permitted to wear shorts and open-necked shirts.

Seaborne's pilots train to the same demanding FAA Part 121 standards adhered to by conventional carriers. A brief seaplane flight under Capt Lewis's tutelage shows how demanding seaplane operations can be (see P29).

Maintaining a fleet of seaplanes requires a near obsessive dedication to safety. While "everyone gets enthralled with the romance of the seaplane, they don't understand the cost of doing it safely", says ErSelcuk. Of paramount consideration is the constant battle of operating "multi-million dollar equipment in the most corrosive element on the planet - warm salt water".

Prop wash and sea spray ensures the seaplanes are soaked in salt water. Seaborne mechanic Steve McCurry says: "We fight corrosion every day. Salt is being blown all over the plane. It gets a good salt bath every flight."

Each aircraft is washed down with detergent and fresh water at the end of the day. But rust never sleeps and despite Seaborne's efforts, salt water gets into everything.

Compounding the challenge is the fact that Seaborne's Caribbean home is more humid than places like Canada or Alaska, where seaplanes are common. "The aircraft corrode there, just not at the same rate as in the Caribbean," says D'Amico.

The expense of keeping the seaplane fleet properly maintained is staggering. Operating solely as a seaplane in warm salt water, a Seaborne Twin Otter must undergo a major overhaul every three years at a cost of about $1.5 million. The overhaul process takes up to two years for a single seaplane. At any given time Seaborne has one seaplane in major overhaul and another undergoing regular checks designed to keep corrosion at bay.

Compare that cycle with the 10-year major overhaul cycle of Twin Otters that operate on wheels and it is easy to see why Seaborne added a wheeled element to its operation in November 2008. The carrier expects the wheeled division to help spread the high cost of operating seaplanes in the Caribbean.

"As things exist, the business model for seaplanes does not work. But if you can balance out your business, stretch out the cost, and stretch the usable life of aircraft to 10 years, you can make it work," says ErSelcuk.

EXTENDING SEAPLANE LIFE

Aiding Seaborne's efforts in the near term is a new maintenance programme that will see the carrier use a different rotation aimed at extending the life of the seaplanes to 4½ years before major overhaul, a full 1½ years more than the current cycle.

As it stands today, an aircraft is taken out of service for four days every four weeks. "But if you take the aircraft out for seven days every three weeks that gives us more time to do the work and [corrosion] prevention procedures. It takes the aircraft out longer to extend the life. So the aircraft is out nine days a month instead of four days. We're doubling the time out of service," says ErSelcuk.

This procedure will begin with the next fresh seaplane that comes to Seaborne.

Another means of extending aircraft life is to move a seaplane over to wheeled service. ErSelcuk says the company can take an aircraft out of seaplane service early, invest $300,000 into work and fly it from airports. "That includes taking the floats off and putting wheels on," he says.

"When one seaplane is taken out, and the wheels added, the fleet will be three seaplanes and three wheeled," says ErSelcuk.

USED TWIN OTTER MARKET

Seaborne is also seeking to acquire at least two more Twin Otters, one on wheels and another for floats. This would enable the carrier to bring a Twin Otter out of seaplane service sooner, and put another into major overhaul.

The market for used Twin Otters has expanded from about four worldwide to more than 30. "We're looking for any type of aircraft that would be a relative bargain, at the $1.5 million level," says ErSelcuk. A further $500,000 per aircraft would be required to upgrade the avionics and add safety equipment.

At some point, Seaborne will "probably start looking at different equipment" for the airport side of the operation, says ErSelcuk. "It needs to be something that brings the seat mile cost down. If I had my dithers, a Bombardier Q200 would be awesome".

But for now, the current Twin Otter juggling act is worth the effort. Seaplane travel "is sexy", says ErSelcuk.

That is not to discount the wheeled division's importance. While seaplane service keeps a certain romance alive in the US Virgin Islands, a cornerstone of Seaborne's strategy is to expand the wheeled business.

The carrier intends to seek a federal waiver to operate scheduled flights to Isla Grande. This would enable Seaborne to publish its schedule and fares to the Puerto Rican facility, which serves as a reliever to San Juan's Munoz Marin International airport.

Seaborne is also keen to participate in the US government's essential air service programme. EAS does not address seaplane operations, but Seaborne "intends to apply for EAS for the wheel plane operation", says D'Amico.

In terms of distance, Isla Grande is on the edge of what Seaborne can operate after it takes into consideration fuel, reserves and seating capacity. But D'Amico believes there "is still a lot of growth in the Caribbean" such as to nearby Vieques and Culebra.

Seaborne is uninterested in serving Munoz Marin, however. Codeshares and international service "is too much hassle for us" and entails significant start-up cost, says ErSelcuk.

As such, Seaborne does not view American Eagle Airlines and Cape Air as direct rivals. The latter carrier serves St Thomas and St Croix with nine-seat Cessna 402 piston twins. Cape Air's mainstay is not the traffic running between the US Virgin Islands, says D'Amico. "It's international because Cape Air is a Continental Connection carrier. They know that their niche is terminal to terminal for international services."

SEABORNE'S FUTURE

While the US Virgin Islands has its own micro-economy, the region is heavily affected by what happens in the continental USA. With the USA suffering an economic slump of epic propositions, Seaborne has started to see traffic soften, albeit at a relatively small route-specific rate of 5-7%.

Yet, 30 years after the Blade Toledo reported that "Maureen O'Hara Blair hopes to take [Antilles Air Boats] higher in the Caribbean skies", Seaborne has adopted the same wish for its seaplane operation.

Conveying both his enthusiasm for the company's success as well as the obstacles it combats on a daily basis, ErSelcuk says: "I commend anyone who wants to get into the airline business, but I really commend someone who wants to try and fly seaplanes."

  • Additional reporting by Michael Gerzanics in St Croix