Hopping the Virgin Islands by Seaplane

taking wing
Aviation plays an integral role in the everyday life of the Caribbean.Sam Weigel

Sometimes the urge to fly strikes when I least expect it. It’s always there, mind you, but sometimes it lies dormant while my attention is elsewhere, only to suddenly resurface. Take yesterday morning, for example. I was lounging in Windbird’s cockpit, sipping coffee and enjoying the warm Caribbean breeze while planning an upcoming sail to Vieques, when an unmistakable sound reverberated across Christiansted Harbor and set my heart aflutter. A de Havilland Twin Otter on floats raced across the old schooner channel, skipping across the waves, then lifted into the trade winds and banked to the north. Just like that, I had to fly! Alas, I didn’t know anybody on St. Croix whom I might talk into lending me a light plane, but I nevertheless worked up a plan to get into the air. I threw on some long pants and shoes for the first time in a month, grabbed my airline badge and motored our dinghy across the harbor to Seaborne Airlines’ historic seaplane base.

For most people, “the Caribbean” conjures up a slew of images long fixed in the public imagination: pirates, rum, white-sand beaches, turquoise water, swaying palm trees and sleepy, sun-baked villages of cobblestone and crumbling terra cotta. But the Caribbean is a real place with real people, with all the necessary accouterments of modern civilization and all the vitality, complexity and occasional ugliness that come with it. Encounters with “the real Caribbean” have yielded both highlights and lowlights of our cruise through the region. One pleasant reality has been seeing what an integral role aviation plays in everyday life here. Most tourists arrive via cruise ship or one of the handful of large airports serviced by major airlines, but the locals and expats depend on an extensive network of commuter airlines, air-taxi operators and general aviation aircraft that crisscross the Caribbean in a mirror image of the myriad political, business and family ties up and down the island chain. Nearly every island we’ve been to has an airport — many of them with very interesting approaches and runways due to the scarcity of level terrain and proximity of the serrated coastline (Google “Saba Airport” for an eye-popping example). Each features a steady parade of single- and twin-engine piston aircraft, turboprops and small corporate jets.

The flying boat is indubitably another of those iconic images of the Caribbean, from the Pan Am Clippers of the 1930s to Jimmy Buffett’s celebrated adventures with his Grumman Albatross, Hemisphere Dancer. Sadly, the flying boats are mostly a thing of the past, but in the U.S. Virgin Islands there is still one route on which one can relive the golden age. Seaborne Airlines, the nation’s only Part 121 seaplane operator, uses a DHC-6 Twin Otter on straight floats to connect St. Croix’s historical Danish outpost of Christiansted with St. Thomas’ bustling port of Charlotte Amalie. It takes only 20 minutes to cross the 40-mile stretch of open and frequently rough water, versus two and a half hours on the once-a-day ferry.

At the seaplane base, I presented my airline badge, and Seaborne’s friendly agent checked me in; the Twin Otter soon returned from St. Thomas and splashed down in front of the base, once headquarters to the famed Antilles Air Boats line and its fleet of 20 Grumman Gooses and two Short Sandringhams. Hurricane Maria destroyed two of the docks last year, but the third survived; 14 other passengers and I soon filed down it and up a gangplank to the bobbing floatplane. Both pilots — dressed in tropical uniforms of khaki shorts, pilot shirt with epaulets and ball caps — were standing outside, greeting the passengers. It was a quick turn, 15 minutes scheduled, but with plenty of fuel, beautiful weather and a usually VFR operation, there’s not too much to be done between flights. I chatted with them briefly and discovered that the captain, Dennis, is a sailor, has a 35-foot Ericson in a slip down the road and wants to start cruising soon. He’s clearly in the right place.

taking wing
The flying boat is indubitably one of those iconic images of the Caribbean, from the Pan Am Clippers of the 1930s to Jimmy Buffett’s celebrated adventures with his Grumman Albatross, Hemisphere Dancer.Sam Weigel

The Twin Otter, like the Beaver and Otter before it, is a stout airplane designed and built for bush operations. On wheels, tundra tires, skis or floats, Twin Otters can be found in just about every remote corner of the planet — and with quite a few busy skydiving outfits besides. Entering from the rear door, the plane’s utilitarian origins are apparent in the fuselage’s boxy shape. A narrow aisle splits the five rows, each with one seat on the left and two on the right. Although I was traveling on a jumpseat pass, there’s no actual jumpseat — but no cockpit door either, so from seat 1A, I had a great view of the proceedings. I didn’t find too many similarities with the Bombardier (nee de Havilland Canada) DHC-8s I used to fly, save for a few knobs and switches that were recycled in the later design.

Dennis briefed the passengers and quickly spooled up the twin PT6s, and with the right propeller in beta, the plane easily powered off the dock. Having two reversible props makes the Twin Otter considerably more maneuverable in tight quarters than most floatplanes, even without water rudders. One unique, immediately noticeable feature of the Twin Otter is that the throttles, condition levers and fuel levers all hang from the overhead panel, along with the flaps and several other controls more traditionally mounted on the instrument panel or center pedestal. As Dennis pushed the throttles forward for takeoff, the first officer reached over and backed him up — in case a hard wave should knock his hand away. This time the chop was manageable, and the plane quickly got on the step and lifted off despite a full load of passengers. The stall warning chirped once as the heavy seaplane accelerated in ground effect, then climbed steeply; leftover spray streamed from the big Edo floats as the harbor and its fringing reef smoothly dropped away.

The flight lasted only 19 minutes. A few days earlier, Dawn and I had sailed nearly the same route from St. John and had been happy to cross in just under six hours. Even at 2,000 feet, the steep-looking swells, frequent white horses and long streams of spume made me thankful I wasn’t at sea today. The pilots soon started their descent, calling St. Thomas’ control tower and crossing Buck Island at under 1,000 feet to stay clear of departing traffic at the busy airport. Water Island and its crowded lee anchorages appeared under the left float, then the plane banked hard around Haulover Cut, descended steeply over the masts at Frenchtown Marina — no 3-degree glideslope here! — and smoothly splashed into Charlotte Amalie Harbor. The landing “roll” was shockingly short, and the plane was almost stopped before the props were even in beta.

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On the rare occasions that Seaborne is hiring into the Twin Otter, candidates must already have their ATP multiengine seaplane rating and 50 hours of float time.Sam Weigel

The St. Thomas seaplane base is right in the thick of things, which is the whole point. I can think of a few North American waterfront cities that enjoy regular seaplane service — namely Seattle, Vancouver and Victoria — but it is surprising that it’s not more common in places like New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Miami, of course, was long served by the venerable Chalk’s Ocean Airways; we lost a piece of living aviation history when it ceased operations following a tragic airframe failure in 2005.

I walked along the seawall, watched the Twin Otter take off again and stopped for lunch near Fort Christian. I’ll admit that St. Thomas is one of my least favorite islands in the Caribbean — it suffers from most of the region’s flaws while retaining few of its charms — but having only one cruise ship in port rendered it fairly tolerable. All of the U.S. Virgin Islands, the British Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico got hammered last year by two of the strongest hurricanes in Caribbean history, Irma and Maria, only two weeks apart. Everyone is busy rebuilding, with St. Thomas and St. Croix in better shape than most, but the dip in tourism has hurt a region dependent on it. Seaborne Airlines, for one, recently filed for bankruptcy and was subsequently purchased by Silver Airways. Their respective Saab 340 fleets are compatible, but it remains to be seen what will happen to the seaplane service. I hope it survives. The demand is clearly there.

A different crew was piloting the Twin Otter for my return leg. This captain, too, is a sailor, and has a 36-foot Beneteau in the same marina as Dennis. The following evening, Dawn and I invited Dennis and his wife Melissa out to Windbird. We mostly chatted about sailing and boats and the recovery of the Virgin Islands, but eventually talk turned to the seaplane operation. There are 10 pilots assigned to the Twin Otter, Dennis said, adding that “it’s a really good group right now. Everyone is here because they want to be in St. Croix.” I asked about his schedule, and he said he has 13 hard days off per month. His working days are split between morning shift (eight legs), afternoon shift (six legs) or reserve. Dennis is home every night, a true rarity among airline pilots.

“I love this job. I hope to retire from it,” he said. “It’s just a great quality of life, both at work and living in St. Croix. There’s a great community here — everyone is family.” It sounds like a pretty fantastic gig, albeit a tough one to get into. On the rare occasions that Seaborne is hiring into the Twin Otter, candidates must already have their ATP multiengine seaplane rating and 50 hours of float time.

Listening to Dennis talk about life flying floatplanes in the Virgin Islands reminded me of what I really love about being a professional pilot. There are so many neat things you can do if you stay flexible and work hard to make yourself competitive. You can chase the money if you choose, or you can go for maximum quality of life if that’s more your speed. Keep your options open, and you might find that rare gig that’s a perfect balance between the two. That is what Dennis and his fellow Seaborne pilots appear to have found flying the Twin Otter out of Christiansted Harbor, and I salute them for it.