It was a beautiful day over Loch Lomond when pilot and businessman David West asked himself a question: why are there no seaplanes in Scotland, a rugged land over which airstrips are few, placid lakes plentiful and island communities many? So he looked into the market and was at least convinced by the spirit of adventure as he was the business potential for aircraft that land and take-off on water.
We live in a world in which Jumbo Jet pilots look down on passing seaplanes and think, ‘I wish I was flying that’,” says West. “And they’d be right. The sensation I had with my first flight in a seaplane was much the same as my very first flying lesson - it was that exciting, for passengers too.” The result of that excitement is the new company Loch Lomond Seaplanes, running a service from the heart of Glasgow out to the islands of Tobermory, Oban Bay and, from this July, Skye. And not just any service. It is, currently, the UK’s only seaplane service.
That West is not short of passengers is not merely down to convenience (the journey to Skye, for example, takes six hours by car ferry or 45 minutes by seaplane), nor to the attraction of its destinations, though the service is already helping to boost tourism to the west coast of Scotland. Rather it is the romance of travel by an aircraft that takes off an lands on water, combining touches of the the elegance of travel by cruise liner with that of the speed of flight. After all, the idea of ‘flying ships’ has long been a staple both of science fiction and fantasy, from Peter Pan to Baron Munchausen, but has also captured the imagination of more grounded engineers, among them the ever-inventive Leonardo Da Vinci, who envisaged a rowing boat with giant fly’s wings attached. “Veritable flying ships... flotillas of seaplanes relying wholly upon their own power for transportation on the surface of in the air...” is how the New York Times of 1919 imagines the future following the first trans-Atlantic flight.
Indeed, the simple thrill of flying a light aircraft is now being enhanced by a new generation of Heath Robinson-style contraptions that see rubber inflatable boats, known as RIBs, attached to micro-light wings for conversion into an FIB - its flying cousin able to cruise at 10,000ft for three hours at a stately 50mph, with craft costing around £15,000 each. FIBs are now especially popular across the Everglades in Florida, where the vast expanses of calm water are making them popular both among amateur flyers and tourists keen to view the more dangerous wildlife at an intimate but still safe distance.
“There has been regulatory resistance to re-establishing seaplane services because there is so little knowledge of them, given that they haven’t been mainstream since the 1940s,” says West. “But that is changing and the appeal of the seaplane is once again evident. It may be cheaper to fly Easyjet. But Easyjet can’t land on water and few flights can beat that convenience or that experience.”