Island Life

A pilot's life flying the Caribbean

February 1, 2006

"Aim for that hill there. Keep it on your right."

"So, basically, go between those two hills?" I say this as the second hill is coming into sight.

"Yeah. Exactly. That will give you a headwind for the landing. And watch your speed. Seventy is perfect for final approach. Your power is set, and the before-landing checklist is complete."

As I make the turn for my final approach, the hills are where they are supposed to be, and in front of me, instead of a runway, is a shallow lagoon of shimmering blue-green water. To our left are the mountains, and to the right is the bright, turquoise blue of the Caribbean.

Maurice Kurg continues to talk: "The dark spots are the coral heads, and this is perfect. We'll land between those two, but get ready for some drift correction as we get over the water. This water is deeper than it looks, but better safe than sorry."

By now I am in a 4- to 5-degree nose-down pitch, power is set, and all I need to do is flare and fly the airplane onto the water between the dark spots representing coral reef. I start to level off, and I can tell I need to bring the nose up a bit more, but I don't want to overreact. I gently pull the control wheel to my chest and hold it. Kurg is quiet, which I take as a good sign, and I feel the big Wipline floats make contact with the water. Nose up some more, and I have found the sweet spot for taxiing on the step.

Kurg has me make a few turns with the ailerons — there are no water rudders on this airplane — and I place my left hand to the ceiling-mounted throttle quadrant and slowly add some torque as the airplane skips a bit on the step and then lifts off. I've lost track of my speed, and by the time I look at the airspeed indicator it is climbing past 60 knots. I level off at what I guess is 10 to 20 feet and begin accelerating to 70 knots (the designated V1 speed, which also is blue line). At 70 knots, I start our climb. I'm having the time of my life.

"Let's do another one," says Kurg.

Indeed, let's!

Maurice Kurg is the training captain for Seaborne Airlines, a company he once ran as the chief executive officer. Today, I am technically operating Sea-borne Trainer 1. In not so technical terms, we are doing some splash and goes, a sort of mini-familiarization flight. In short, we are just having fun, especially me. And even though he has done this a thousand times, the opportunity to basically play for a while is obviously giving Kurg a respite from his day-to-day duties.

Seaborne Airlines operates a fleet of three de Havilland Twin Otters on floats, and it does so as an FAR Part 121 airline, which means it operates under the same rules and regulations as Delta, American, Southwest, United, and all other major airlines. Based in Christiansted, St. Croix, the company flies more than 60 flights a day, the majority of which operate between St. Croix and St. Thomas. The rest operate between St. Thomas and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

From Alaska to the Virgin Islands

Seaborne has its roots as a sightseeing company in Alaska, where sightseeing rides were offered to the passengers of incoming cruise ships in the summer. In 1992 the company started offering the same service to the same cruise ships in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). In 1994, backed by encouragement from local businesses and government officials, it acquired an FAR Part 135 air taxi certificate to operate scheduled flights, and by 1995 the scheduled flights were operating year round. The 121 certificate was awarded in 1997. The sightseeing rides were suspended for the most part, but one airplane with oversize windows is maintained for the occasional sightseeing charter flight.

Today, Seaborne is a lifeline for the people of the USVI, offering lots of frequency and a reliable schedule for the communities it serves. Because Seaborne flies from harbor to harbor, it's the same as flying from downtown to downtown, a major consideration on St. Croix, St. Thomas, and Puerto Rico. St. Croix is the largest of the three USVI, and the only land-based airport is on the southwest side of the island, more than 20 road miles away. Christiansted, the heart of the St. Croix tourism industry and the largest of the two cities on the island, is on the northeast side of the island, so being able to take a Seaborne flight versus driving to the airport, checking in, going through security, making the flight, and deplaning is a huge draw to people who have a need to travel.

How big is that need? Using what most people think of as a general aviation bush turboprop that flies in Alaska, Seaborne carries more than 160,000 passengers a year, with an average load of 14. And contrary to the easy assumption that the majority of the passengers are tourists, more than 80 percent are people traveling on interisland business; the company offers interisland freight and cargo services as well.

Unique challenges

Omer ErSelcuk is vice president of sales and marketing for Seaborne. It's his job to make sure that the company is well known throughout the USVI community. To say he has succeeded would be an understatement: The Seaborne logo is all over the islands in the form of advertising, signs to the docks, corporate promotions, and promotion of the company's charitable works. Still, operating a seaplane airline with the boxy-looking Twin Otter poses unique challenges.

"Our number-one problem is that we don't have enough capacity. We need three more airplanes, and finding quality equipment that can be converted or salvaged is not easy. Beyond that, our biggest problem is finding qualified float drivers. Behind that is finding quality Twin Otter mechanics," says ErSelcuk.

I point out that these are good problems to have, especially in the current airline environment. ErSelcuk responds with a smile. "Good problems, yes, but still problems. There is a market to fill, and without capacity, we can't fill it." Like other airlines that fly a fleet made up of one aircraft type, Seaborne has a reason for flying the Twin Otter. "The Twin Otter has the best performance, durability, acquisition cost, efficiency, and maintenance reliability of any currently available aircraft to put on floats." The company currently operates seven Twin Otters on Wipline floats.

But does a company like Seaborne have any real competition? After all, you can fly on Seaborne without the hassles of a big airport (the flights do not operate on an airport, and do not connect to any other carriers), and it would be nearly impossible for someone else to start up a similar operation, in part because of the expense and in part because there isn't much docking space left in either St. Croix or St. Thomas. As for the ferry, it takes more than an hour to ride from St. Croix to St. Thomas, and if the water is rough, well, imagine the results of ferrying 400 seasick passengers.

The fact is that Seaborne, like Southwest and JetBlue, fills a niche, a unique market that varies considerably from the norm. The closest thing in the USVI is Cape Air with its fleet of Cessna 402s. One distinct difference between the two is that Cape Air offers connections to the major carriers, while Seaborne does not have any code-sharing arrangements. If you want to get from the harbor of St. Thomas to the Cyril E. King Airport in Charlotte-Amalie, you need to take a 10-minute taxi ride, and cabs are in such abundance that the inconvenience almost doesn't exist. But ErSelcuk, a native of Indiana, is not willing to rest on his laurels. There is a market to be served between the USVI and some of the British Virgin Islands (BVI). "What we really need is six full-time planes flying. With a fleet that size, we could dramatically lower our per-seat operating costs while absorbing the costs of converting other planes to the job we do while we grow. We recently had to add TCAS [traffic alert and collision avoidance system] and ground prox warning to our planes, and it was an enormous investment." It's also one that does not add a financial return.

On an operational level, the biggest challenge is the annual hurricane season. The company dispatchers and managers keep a close eye on every storm that develops off the coast of Africa, and as a storm nears the Caribbean, selective cancellation of flights will begin. Once the storm reaches a certain point on its westward track, Seaborne has a pretty good idea of whether it will strike the USVI or turn to the north toward the Bahamas, and it's at that point that an evacuation decision is made.

When the decision is made, the docks are pulled from the water, the buildings are secured, employees are taken care of, and the planes are flown to Bonaire, an island 50 miles north of Venezuela and outside of the Carib-bean hurricane belt, to ride out the storm. Once the storm passes, Sea-borne can be operating some of the schedule again within 24 hours. Unfortunately, it takes about two weeks after a storm for traffic to return to normal levels.

The pilots

Last summer, Seaborne had only 19 pilots on its roster, but even finding enough qualified pilots to fill those spots is a challenge. A lot of the pilots come from Alaska, where they have accumulated a lot of Twin Otter time on floats. While it isn't necessary to have any seaplane time, it is a big benefit. At the time of my visit, the company was actively seeking pilots for the anticipated growth.

"This kind of flying is not as easy as it looks, so we treasure pilots who have some float time. But even if they have limited float time, we can train them as first officers and bring them up to speed on this type of operation," says John Dorward, former director of operations.

Once a pilot gets through the interview process, which is similar to that at other carriers, he goes into an intense period of training rivaling that of any Part 121 airline. There is a two- to three-week ground school, followed by a trip to Toronto, where FlightSafety International operates the only Twin Otter sim in the world. Once the pilots get back to the islands, they fly under the tutelage of an initial-operating-experience captain before being sent to fly the line.

Seaborne also participates in a regular recurrent training program, and it is here that the company works on keeping the pilots current and proficient in IFR operations. The day-to-day operation is purely day VFR, so staying sharp on instruments is a challenge: There is no flying through clouds and there are no approaches. A typical cruise altitude is only 2,000 to 3,000 feet on flights that spend only 20 minutes in the air.

Once on line, a pilot has a decent lifestyle. A typical pilot flies around 80 to 85 hours a month, works about 17 days a month, has few if any over-nights, and has access to a quality health insurance plan and a 401(k) with a company match, and the pilots have jump-seat privileges on other carriers. Because the flights are so short — it isn't unusual for a pilot to fly 12 or 13 flights a day — pay is a straight salary, not an hourly wage. New hires are paid $26,700 annually, and a five-year captain can make $70,000 a year — not bad at all for a regional carrier. Upgrades to captain are generally available after a year or so, but Kurg and Dorward emphasize that the decision to apply for an upgrade must be made carefully.

"Even though we have good weather year round, we still have four seasons," says Dorward. "The winds change, and that has a huge impact on how we have to operate. We have to be sensitive to the noise we create, and the pilots have to be able to operate in very confined spaces, especially in St. Thomas." Kurg agrees. "We generally won't fly with a crosswind of more than 35 knots, and in St. Thomas, that can be very challenging because winds come down from the hills and get stirred up and turbulent, and on top of that, the harbor is very crowded with boats," he says.

Believe it or not, though, Seaborne, which has only 120 employees, has trouble recruiting pilots. "Getting people to move here is a challenge. There is a lot of talk by a lot of people, but in the end they just don't seem to want to do it. Living in the islands is definitely different...and raising kids here is a challenge," says Kurg. He says this as I'm approaching the harbor for our return to St. Croix. The weather is perfect (again), the water is a color most of us only see on postcards, and I'm flying an airplane that handles like a big Skyhawk for a company that has a uniform consisting of tan shorts and white shirt with no tie. Had I not been gainfully employed, I would have tried to turn this interview into an application process. I think I could fit into the island lifestyle.

Seaborne is a great example of a company using a relatively small airplane to its full potential and making money with a smart, concentrated business philosophy. For pilots, it's a regulated but fun environment to work in, mostly because it is so different from anything else they might try. As Kurg lets me make our final landing in the clear blue water of Christiansted Harbor, I can't help but wonder that if I had found out about Seaborne several years ago...I probably never would have come home.

Since the time of the author's visit, John Dorward was offered a position running a seaplane airline in Greece; the new director of operations is Paul Bailey. Aspiring pilots can e-mail the new chief pilot, Wayne D'Amico, at damico@seaborneairlines.com.


Chip Wright, of Hebron, Kentucky, is a Canadair Regional Jet pilot.


Seaborne Airlines
34 Strand Street
Christiansted, St. Croix, USVI 00820

In the USVI, British Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico, call 340/773-6442. From the United States, call toll free 888/FLY-TOUR (359-8687). Visit www.seaborneairlines.com.