Cast off the cables, and up and away over the Ionian

At the end of the beach at Gouvies, on the island of Corfu, you turn right onto the narrow wooden marina separating the offices of the new Air Sea Lines from its «Seabirds,» the two DHC-6 Twin Otter planes that have been running regular flights between Corfu and the neighboring island of Paxos for the past few months. «Before, it wasn’t easy to travel between these islands in the winter months. The ship schedules have been designed to suit tourists, not the permanent residents. Now we don’t need to worry about the weather or travel to Corfu the long way via Igoumenitsa on the mainland,» says one of the 19 passengers waiting to take off on flight 406. «For 60 euros we are on the other shore in just 10 minutes.» Some of the passengers have been to Corfu for some Christmas shopping, others for a doctor’s appointment, still others for work. There is an air of excitement in the group. «It’s a great experience to take off into the air from the sea,» laughs one passenger. It’s just like any other regular flight, from the check-in desk to the no-smoking sign and restrictions on hand luggage. A few minutes before departure time, the doors of the aircraft open and passengers board. As the engines roar, ground crews untie the cables at the dockside. The narrow door separating the cabin from the cockpit will stay open throughout the flight. «There is so little room and the flight is so short, there is no reason not to leave it open,» say Dave and Katerina, two of the four pilots on duty at Gouvies. «Anyhow, people feel more comfortable if they can see us, particularly on takeoff. And since there are no air stewards, we can keep a better eye on what is happening in the cabin.» Slowly and surely the aircraft cruises out of the port to its takeoff position, led by a small motorboat which ensures there are no other craft in the way. «When taking off and landing on the water, you have to take many factors into account: the wind, the waves and currents, and to find the most protected place,» said the Canadian pilot Dave Mathison who came to Corfu from the Maldives, where he flew the same type of aircraft. «You have to be able to read the water from a height of 500 feet, there are no instruments to help you do that. Everything is a matter of experience, which makes the flight even more exciting for the pilot. You can’t put the plane on automatic pilot and expect everything to happen by itself. It is you who must decide.» The seaplane does not fly very high, only at about 1,500 feet, so the passengers get a good view of the the sea and islands. «We ourselves choose to fly at lower altitude, the passengers enjoy the view and we gain time that we would have lost if we flew higher,» said Katerina, who is eager to fly on the next routes being planned by Air Sea Lines. By the end of January, bases will open on the lake at Ioannina, on Patras, Ithaca, Cephalonia and Zakynthos, and by summer a flight will link Brindisi in Italy with the Ionian islands. Hopefully, within the next five years the seaplanes will be flying to any destination in Greece with a port. After the aircraft returns to Gouvies, it will be checked by an engineer and hosed down carefully, particularly its engines, which can be corroded by salt water. The next day the crew will be in the cockpit at 6.30 a.m. again for the first flight of the day. «Till now I have been flying mainly because I enjoyed the experience,» says Katerina. «In Canada, seaplanes are a way of life for many people. Here I feel as if I am doing something important. People come up to us after having traveled with us to Corfu hospital and they thank us in a way that makes us feel needed, that our work is appreciated. After that, what else can one ask for?» This article appeared in the December 25-26 issue of «K,» Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement. Sea planes from the past Air travel by sea plane in the Ionian Islands is not new. During the 1930s, the Italians had constructed the «idrovolanti» for commercial and military purposes. So when Italy seized the Ionian islands in 1941, cutting them off both administratively and economically from occupied mainland Greece, it developed a transport network between the islands and the Italian mainland. The sea planes of the old Ala Littoria airline linked Corfu, Cephalonia and Zakynthos with Brindisi and from there by rail with Rome. A propaganda piece in the Greek-language Italian newspaper of Zakynthos of the time praises the new order in the «Isole Ionie,» and suggests short trips to Rome for well-off gentlemen. Flights were reasonably cheap, allowing passengers to buy gifts for their wives, visit a decent Italian restaurant and spend some time with a pretty woman.