For most of us, seaplanes seem an echo from the past, a remnant of times gone by, when travel was more adventurous, more glamorous. But they’re also visions of the future for Europe’s many islands and remote coastal areas – for example Scotland’s west coast, the Croatian islands, Italy and Greece. And around the rest of the world, too – for the Maldives, Canada, Alaska, Indonesia, the Caribbean, and India, seaplanes connect places that have no airfields.
This week, European Coastal Airlines adds an international flavour to its seaplane services for the Croatian coast & islands, with a crossing to Italy. You can now set off from downtown Split, and arrive in Ancona on a flight lasting just under an hour. What an exciting set of possibilities that opens up! We only recently took our first flight on ECA, going from Jelsa over to Split in 13 minutes or so. Not quite to the downtown seaport as expected, because of a bura and high waves that day, but still a speedy transfer compared to the ferry, and starting at a much more civilised time!
The Adriatic has a long history of seaplanes, going right back to the very first attempts to take off from water. In the early days of flight, it was tricky finding suitably flat, clear areas of land, so many early pioneers thought to add floats to their planes, making use of water as a runway.
In 1910, Frenchman Henri Fabre made the first successful take-off from water, flying his seaplane “Le Canard” for 500 metres near Marseilles. That same year, Josef Mickl was constructing his own version of a seaplane in Pula, on the Istrian coast. By the following year, the Austro-Hungarian authorities set up a naval aviation base on the island of Santa Catarina, off Pula for experimenting with these new seaplanes, and for training pilots. They were actually the first navy to use aircraft for military purposes – in April 1913, a second air station was set up in Boka Kotorska (a.k.a. Bocche di Cattaro). From there, three seaplanes started to fly reconnaissance missions, observing, taking aerial photographs, and delivering messages.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, the naval air station in Pula became fully operational, and a new permanent station was established in Boka Kotorska. In February a new naval aviation service was announced, and by the end of that year, twenty-five naval pilots were ready for combat operations in the Adriatic, with 287 seaplanes and flying boats of various types.
The world’s first commercial seaplane service was from St Petersburg to Tampa in Florida, begun in 1914. The “airboats” could carry only one passenger at a time, seated on a small wooden bench next to the pilot, with no protective windshield and flying just 5 feet above the water. On their inaugural flight, they had to set down briefly in the middle of the bay, where the passenger (a former mayor of St Petersburg) assisted the pilot with some adjustments to the plane. The cost of a one-way flight was $5 for the 18 miles across the bay.
Meanwhile, back in the Adriatic, after the First World War, Rudolf Fizir was designing and building planes, converting some landplanes into seaplanes. His planes were very successful in Germany and France during the 1920s to 40s, and he had a vision of connecting the Adriatic islands with a seaplane service, which is actually not a bad idea!
There were actually several attempts at a commercial seaplane service in the Adriatic, mostly connecting visitors with island hotels and resorts. Civilian flights in Istria began back in 1924, when an Austrian industrialist sought to enhance the offerings for visitors to Brijuni by buying a seaplane called “POLA 1” for connections with Trieste, Ancona and Opatija.
The golden age of travel by seaplane was in the 1930s, when commercial flying boats were the largest planes in the sky. Both the US and the UK ran long-distance flying boat services to Central and South America, across the Atlantic, to Africa. And Rijeka and Split had scheduled seaplane services to places as far away as Prague!
An echo of the romantic age of seaplane travel around the Adriatic shows in the animated film “Porco Rosso” by Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki. It’s an entertaining view of an ex-World War I seaplane pilot fighting pirates in and around the gorgeous scenery of the islands. Somewhat mysteriously the pilot has been turned into a talking pig, the reason for which escapes me! In the Disney version, Porco Rosso’s voice is provided by Michael Keaton.
Unfortunately seaplanes lost out to the more efficient jets after World War II. But they’re still very appropriate for remote areas. Loch Lomond Seaplanes in Scotland have been going since 2003, connecting Glasgow with the west coast and the Isle of Skye. I see also that in Greece, Hellenic Seaplanes are due to start operations in 2016.
The Adri-Seaplane project aims to connect places around the Adriatic basin – such as Italy, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and Greece. When transportation was mainly by boat, the connections across the sea were very strong, much more so than over the mountains to the interior countryside. These new seaplanes would revive some of the old maritime routes, giving fast and easy contact between seaports once more.
European Coastal Airlines is part of the Adri-Seaplanes initiative, with ports now in Pula, Rijeka, Split and Ancona. For the islands, it’s a great way to bring in more visitors, build businesses, and hopefully retain more of the young folks. It certainly makes life more convenient when we want to go into Split for the day – such a pleasant and very scenic way to travel! On the return flight, we were treated to a beautiful view of Vrboska in the soft evening light as the sun was setting.
How far we’ve come from that original seaplane flight in 1910!