Editor's Pick

The Seabird

The seaplane—a somewhat forgotten relic of Philippine aviation—is making a comeback.

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You don’t hear it coming until it’s right above the water. In the first of many clear mornings, we watch it grow bigger and bigger; from something that seemed like an insect hovering over the horizon to something awesome straight out of the picture books—an epic ride harkening back to the golden days of aviation touching down and cutting through the water, gliding elegantly along Manila Bay. It’s a boat, it’s a plane—no, it’s a seaplane. And it’ll get you almost anywhere in the Philippines.
 
She is what most would call a beaut: confidently poised while the calm waters of the bay gently lapped at her floats. Watching her stand on the surface feels somewhat like seeing an anomaly of time. It’s the uncanny combination of parts: the wings mounted atop the craft, the relatively compact size of the fuselage, the pontoons—all of it superimposed against the background of Manila give the Cessna Grand Caravan Ex Amphibian a retro quality that make the prospect of boarding it completely surreal.
 
And exciting.
Joining Air Juan crew for pre-departure checks at the Subic hangar before heading out to Manila for their first flight.
“All aboard!” Captain John Goulet bellows, standing tall outside the seaplane’s door. I can already tell we’re in capable hands. He gives us the rundown:
 
Four doors in the plane, two in the rear, two in the front… The rear is a twopart door… To open it… Life jackets are in the seat pocket in front of you… There are two components to the seat belts… You may unbuckle it after takeoff and run around the cockpit, I don’t care.
 
The spiel, very much like the sort of thing one would hear from flight attendants on bigger airlines, is refreshingly delivered a little more casually than us budget carrier-flying commoners are used to. And there are no flight attendants here—just the captain, the co-pilot, and that’s about it. Ian, the 25-year old first officer (and co-pilot for the trip) gunning to be the company’s first Filipino seaplane captain, hauls our luggage inside the cabin. Fantasies are let loose in the presence of a seaplane. We could be a ragtag bunch of misfits commandeering an aircraft. Or a jet-setting star from the 50s, cue headscarf trailing in the wind. The whole thing smells of adventure.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP:

The Cessna Grand Caravan’s flight deck, the Garmin 1000 avionic’s suite;

Air Juan’s airport crew at Subic International Airport;

Captain John Goulet and First Pilot Ian Patrick Delos Reyes at the CCP Air Juan dock.

We file in, buckle up, and go. The whole process, from the security check to boarding to takeoff, takes about 15 minutes, tops. A hint of trepidation briefly clouds the adrenaline rush as the seaplane pulls out of the harbor, a pinch in the gut to remind me that we are in a small aircraft hurtling across the water and into the air. But as the craft picks up speed, lost in a state of awe and anxiety, the engine roaring in my ears, I hardly realize that we’re in fact already airborne. One second you’re on the water, and the next you’re hovering over it, getting higher and higher. Outside, the ships dotting Manila Bay start to look like ants, and the coast of Cavite eventually gives way to Batangas, the fingers of Nasugbu trailing beautiful white sand beaches into the blue.

We are at once high up and flying low; low enough for one to make out the patterns of the land, the distinct characteristics of each province separating it from another. The forgotten wilderness of our cities, growing right beside shining rows of cars, houses, and other markers of urban spaces. We haven’t even gotten to the good parts yet, the water landing, even more sweeping views of our islands, but I am already in love.

This is purely speculation on my part, but I imagine pilots’—specifically seaplane pilots, bush pilots, or other pilots who aren’t tethered to the limit of the bigger carriers (runways, fixed flight plans, etc.)—concept of place as being different to that of land people’s, and city dwellers most especially. Whereas we on the land are frequently bogged down by thoughts of roads and corners and traffic, I imagine it to be more immediate for pilots; of them having a more accurate sense of the size and distances of and between places. “Your whole goal is to go from A to B in a straight line. The only time you go around is if there’s a mountain and you can’t go over it, or there’s a big thunderstorm in between,” Captain John tells me. Obviously, we don’t have that kind of luxury down there.

It’s constantly surprising to realize that a resort in Palawan is only actually a little over an hour away via seaplane. Baler is only 30 minutes away; Boracay, 75 minutes. The windows of the Cessna Grand Caravan were designed for passengers to take in the view. It’s almost twice as large as that of bigger airplanes and, by virtue of the craft’s size, give off the appearance of there being a glass band wrapped around the cabin. You see everything around you. You also feel its movements more, too; its various tiny shifts and drops—a slightly scarier byproduct of the whole experience. So one isn’t just on a flight, one is experiencing it in a way that you can’t ignore; the car like plushy interiors, large leather seats, and cockpit in full view, are just cherries on the top.
 
Crossing Mindoro and passing over the Mindoro Strait, water and sky stretch out far into the horizon until the two lines blur into the other—that is, until the islands of Palawan come into view. And goddamn, what a view. I take in all this space in between, reminded that the Philippines is small and vast at the same time. Over Coron, I pull up a map on my phone and trace the edges of the islands, match the lifeless shapes on the screen with the abundance below; mountains and coasts close enough it almost seems as if you could bungee jump from the plane and graze the hills with your fingers. To experience Palawan from below is enjoyable enough already, but to behold its scattered islands from up high is a pleasure all onto itself. It’s a perfect scene, one of the many times we catch ourselves holding our breath at the view.

The Caravan takes the long way around, circling around Coron—a treat from the pilots— until Busuanga Bay comes into view. We buckle up our seat belts and prepare for a water landing. The plane starts to lower, heading towards the mouth of the bay; gradually at first until it feels like it’s barreling down fast, a carpet of blue whipping out from underneath us. Finally, the floats touch the water and I find that the sensation isn’t unlike landing on a runway. It could be just as rough or smooth, depending on the state of the weather, the water, or the skill of the pilot. We pull up to a mini dock beside a beautiful resort seemingly embedded into the hill. No van transfers from the airport, no additional boat rides, just the literal distance from A to B. The seaplane experience eliminates the indignities, the inconveniences of travel. If I were a passenger on vacation, I’d have arrived. And it only took us an hour.

TOP:
Elizabeth’s Hideaway, one of Air Juan’s partners in Puerto Galera. Only a 30-minute plane ride away, passengers will be flown right to the resort’s shore from Manila Bay.

BOTTOM RIGHT:
Jim Champlin, an American seaplane pilot, one of Air Juan’s newest recruits.

It’s a shame that seaplanes aren’t a part of the general public’s lexicon, given that they’ve played such a significant role in the country’s aviation history. Of course, there is the storied China Clipper, a Martin M7130 flying boat from Pan American Airways, the first craft to complete a transcontinental flight from San Francisco to Manila back in November 1935. But over a decade before that, seaplanes have already become one of the backbones to the industry.
 
The first Filipino aviator earned his pilot’s license on a seaplane: one Alfredo Carmelo, who became the first local to fly solo after training with the Curtiss School of Aviation. He held the first pilot’s certificate in the country’s first aviation school. The date was January 9, 1920 and he flew a Curtiss Sea Gull flying boat, docking at the Parañaque side of Manila Bay where the school used to be located. He was 24. The plane, a US Navy surplus bought by the two Americans who started the school, was to become iconic. Among other things, it flew the first sightseeing trip over Manila Bay on November 12, 1919. The journey lasted five minutes. Ninety-seven years after that historic trip, I too was flying high on a seaplane over Manila Bay. Only this time, I went a little past the parameters of the bay, with the only airline in the country currently making a real bid to revive the reputation of the aircraft.

It was a random comment made by former DOT Secretary Ramon Jimenez that sparked Air Juan’s interest in seaplanes. At that point, apart from the helicopter and jet charter service that they started back in 2011, the company was already providing connecting routes between Cuyo, Puerto Princesa, Busuanga, and Kalibo Via its land planes.
 
“[He] had seen that operation and had mentioned to us that [the Cessna Grand Caravan] had a seaplane configuration, and that it would be a very good alternative here in the Philippines,” says Yael Ledesma, Air Juan’s president. They subsequently brought in Captain John, a Canadian seaplane pilot and aviation consultant who was, at the time, based in Africa, to perform an operational assessment. They flew him to tourist destinations like Boracay to gauge the potential of the seaplane in our islands. The verdict? Unlimited.
“I was surprised that [the Philippines] wasn’t crawling with seaplanes,” says Scott, another one of Air Juan’s pilots. Both John and Scott, and in fact most of the company’s pilots, come from Canada, a country with a remarkably robust seaplane industry.
 
The vastness of Canada and its tens of thousands of lakes make the seaplane—or float plane—an efficient way of getting around. There, families have their own planes to get in and out of their properties for groceries or what-have-you. Or hunting parties will book a charter to drop them off in the middle of a forest and then pick them up a week later with deer as additional luggage. It isn’t a function of tourism, it’s as much a part of their regular commute as buses and taxis are for us. Juxtapose that with the Maldives, a tropical, archipelagic country swarming with seaplanes to support their tourism industry, and you can comfortably imagine the Philippines benefiting from an arrangement that has the mark of both. Air Juan hopes to do just that. 
Over the ridges of Mindoro, a curtain of clouds part to reveal a stunning valley below, with dry, empty streams ribboning in the middle of rice paddies. I hear Ian’s voice on the radio, “I love this place, sir. Absolutely beautiful,” as both him and Captain John pull us in closer for the descent. We’re on another one of the many trips spent getting to know the seaplane. This time, we’re fast approaching Mamburao.
 
It will take you at least 4 hours (if you’re lucky) to get to Mindoro Occidental’s provincial capital. You fly to San Jose airport and then travel by land for three hours or so to Mamburao. The trip is 13 hours if you aren’t traveling by plane. We cover the trip in 30 minutes, point to point, landing at the unused Mamburao Airport, its under-maintained runway sounding like it could do some serious damage to the Caravan’s wheels. 
 
Mamburao is a first class municipality with a regular flow of business owners going back and forth to Manila, yet its airport hasn’t been in use since the early 2000s. It’s Air Juan’s latest addition to their growing list of regular routes flying in and out of Manila Bay. “We’re looking at commuter routes, not just tourism routes; routes that would be best served by providing an air transport link, such as what we’ve opened at Mamburao, that have no link to Manila other than by boat. The key is that you’re not dependent on the airport,” says Mr. Ledesma.
Approaching Subic International Airport with Captain Roy McKee during Air Juan’s last flight of the day.
It’s considered an “experimental area,” part of an effort to serve potential commuters in MIMAROPA that could hugely benefit from the convenience of a direct flight to Manila. Because while tourist routes on a seaplane are novel and the perfect bookends to any holiday, commuter routes might just be the thing to boost the seaplane out of relative obscurity here in the Philippines. It’s a statement: the seaplane isn’t just about luxury travel; it’s an additional link to a country that needs more efficient ways of getting around. 
 
As booming as the air travel industry has been, there are still places that can’t be served directly due to the absence of airports or proper roads. And tourists heading to known spots like Boracay and Palawan will still take hours to get to their intended destinations through connecting rides via land or sea. Of course, building more airports isn’t necessarily the answer, what with the environmental cost and the financial viability of any given route. Plus, enough airstrips, like the ones in Baler and Mamburao, sit unused as it is. That isn’t a deterrent for seaplanes, however. They can fly in and out of old airstrips, or land on the water if there isn’t one. Seaplanes, while admittedly a sizable investment, are wonderfully no-frills.
 
The considerations, according to Captain John, now Air Juan’s Director of Seaplane Operations, are fairly straightforward: “You pick a point in a map, you look at it and go ‘wow, can we land there? Is it possible? In a country of over 7,000 islands, the possibilities sound absolutely delectable. The idea of the Philippines being an archipelago is all the more tangible when you’re on the seaplane; no island isn’t within reach, provided you have enough to foot the gas bill. The case for the seaplane is strong and Air Juan is very much about being the company to establish the seaplane industry in the Philippines. It’s a game without competitors.
It might have been the proliferation of airports, as well as an alleged ban on seaplanes during the Marcos era to combat the smuggling of arms, that evaporated seaplanes from the Filipino awareness. But even with its potential, setting up a tight operation is still constantly proving to be a challenge—not that John Goulet or Air Juan’s owners would ever back down from one.
 
“The Philippines is tough but it’s been phenomenally amazingly beautiful, too. That’s probably why there’s never been a seaplane operation here that’s sustained,” John says. When you’re running an airline, you can’t wait for good weather. There hasn’t been a big development like in the Maldives because it is so tough to operate here. Even though there are a lot of islands to offer protection, the wind can come from all different directions. You’ve got your trade wins, but they can also curl around the islands and create different directions. So we end up facing rough water conditions, different water conditions, almost every day. At the same time, we’ve proven that we can fly and go to certain locations all year round. That’s part of my job; to find locations that are safe all year round—Puerto Galera, for example. We found areas in Busuanga, Coron, and Linapakan, El Nido.”
 
That Air Juan is even operating out of the CCP dock is the silver lining to the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP) decision in mid-2016 to kick general aviation out of NAIA in an effort to decongest the airport. They moved their planes and their pilots to Subic International Airport, from where they fly to Manila Bay everyday, a mere 207minute flight away—really, the ideal way to commute to and from work everyday. Plus, it’s definitely worked to the company’s advantage. What better way to board a seaplane flight than by the sea? 
 

Originally published in Volume 1.