2017-06-22 / Outdoors

In praise of seaplanes

If you every get a chance to take an airplane ride over Southwest Florida — particularly Charlotte Harbor — you will be amazed at not only the scenery but also the wildlife: birds, fish, dolphins, manatees, sharks, spotted eagle rays and frigate birds.

I am lucky enough to live the dream. We have a successful place on the Peace River, great customers, great staff and access to great fishing. Going out in a boat and exploring this area for the past 40 years has taught me a lot. Each day is different and — even though I average more than 300 days a year on the water — each day I learn something new.

My dream has always been to combine my love of boating, fishing, sailing, traveling and flying. This combination became possible with a seaplane. There are many types that are used for many purposes. In the old days of flying, passenger aircraft were set up for comfort and convenience of passengers — lots of legroom, good food and beverages and comfortable cabins. Since other countries did not have concrete runway facilities, seaplanes were used.

These first transports weren’t just average. They were called flying boats for a reason. The large hull of the Martin M-130 four-engine aircraft could accommodate 36 passengers, and flights across the Pacific were routine. Pan American World Airways flew from San Francisco to Manila, stopping at Honolulu, Midway, Wake and Guam. These aircraft used the longest runway in the world — the water.

These were the classic days of air travel. It would be like cruising to the local drive in with our ’57 Chevy or ’46 Ford with our friends. These large flying boats faded out with the construction of modern airports throughout the world. However, in places such as the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, seaplanes are a main mode of transportation still today.

Here is an interesting fact: If you’ve been to Tampa International Airport, you may already know the world’s first commercial flight took place on Jan. 1, 1914. Pilot Tony Jannus flew the very first scheduled airline passenger, Abram C. Pheil (former mayor of St. Petersburg), across Tampa Bay. The aircraft was a seaplane designed by Thomas Benoist, and the distance was 21 miles. This flight was about 20 minutes long. If that seems on the slow side, consider that the same trip by ferryboat was 2 hours and by railroad it was 4 to 12 hours, depending on the stops. Driving a car took about 20 hours around the bay. So airline travel looked really good. (By the way, there is a ground terminal named after Jannus at Tampa International.)

Many of the large flying boats have disappeared, but there are a few still used for fighting fires. They are specially designed to pick up water and then dump their payload on a forest fire to extinguish it. They hold 60,000 pounds of water and have a wingspan of 200 feet.

The Martin Mars used to be the classic passenger flying boat. All through Third World countries, seaplanes are used as medical transports and to bring supplies to secluded villages that are accessible by no other means of travel. Lakes, rivers and oceans are used as landing strips. Throughout the Caribbean, island hopping is done by seaplane.

Most of us think of flying as crowding into the terminal, going through TSA security, waiting to board, jamming our carry-on into the overhead compartment and then cramming into a small seat. Private flying is much different. In commercial airliners, your view of the Earth is from 30,000 feet and up. Private planes — and especially seaplanes — fly as low as 500 feet. I get to see a lot as I fly over ––our harbor. Call your local airport to schedule a flight. You will be amazed at the view you get of our great outdoors.

Fair winds; calm seas. ¦

— Capt. Dennis Kirk has been traveling the Peace River since 1979. His life adventures are written from various chapters in his three decades of experience in Southwest Florida. He is part owner of the Nav- A- Gator, a riverfront restaurant and marina in Lake Suzy, just off Kings Highway. 

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