Thursday, 15 August 2013
Other than this preamble I'll keep this post to just the Catalina Splash-and-Go experience, maybe another time I'll tell you about what it's like to do a round trip on Easyjet Southend to Amsterdam, Amsterdam itself and Netherlands public transport and taxis. The Aviodrome aviation museum at Lelystad is excellent and definitely worth it's own post.
Lelystad is a town about an hour from Amsterdam. Five minutes out of town there's a small airport from where the "friends of the Catalina" operate. Not the Aviodrome museum, mind, but from the small terminal building itself.
We watch through glass screens as the plane is towed to the terminal building. On first seeing it I realise just how old this aircraft is - I mean I'd seen the figures, designed in 1933, this actual plane built 1941... But in the steel there is no ignoring that this aircraft is 72 years old.
Once the plane is on stand the motley collection of passengers are called for the safety briefing. In Dutch. Luckily they cater very well for English speakers - the short film they show has English subtitles and everyone involved speaks excellent English.
And then it's time to board. We filed through the terminal building in silence, up to the metal steps that had been placed against the aircraft. My mouth had got a bit dry, probably because I'm slightly claustrophobic, and the inside of the vehicle looked more like a submarine than any plane I'd been on before. You enter through one of the two large glass blisters on the rear fuselage, one at a time, moving to the smart modern seats so as not to unbalance the plane.
The steward says a few words before we taxi out, he explains that the engines are very loud so we won't hear him once they have been started. And they will run for a bit before we take off as each of them has 220 litres of oil that has to get up to temperature before take-off. The main thing to note, he says, is the Seat-belt signs. Where they're on, stay in your seat with the belt done up, but when they are off, get up, wander around the cabin, take photos, look out the windows...
We are sat in the front compartment, the pilots in full view. The engines start with a huge bellow that settles to a roar, somehow exactly the noise you're expecting to hear from a World War II twin prop. And then we taxi away from the terminal building where I see a small crowd of spotters has gathered to see this old bird take flight.
Take off seems completely effortless without the modern trust of a jet or the whirring and crashing noises that accompany flights these days. I mean it might make those noises, but you can't hear them over the din of the engines.
And in the sky it feels just as effortless, steep banks are graceful, and the seatbelt light is out already and the Steward is on his feet gesturing us to get up and look out the windows.
The view from the observation blisters is surreal and fantastic, giving 180 degrees of view.
And then the Steward is pointing at the seat belt lights which are on again, and we're already losing height, seeing the water come in to view. One of ground crew had spoken to me in Dutch as we boarded, and when I said "Sorry, I'm English" he shrugged and replied "You will enjoy... on water... very smooth."
I can only assume that he didn't really know what "smooth" means, because the water landing was ferocious.
On the other hand, what's the fastest boat you've been on? I'd guess 10 knots or so, unless you've been on a proper speed boat, in which case maybe 25? Well the Catalina landing and take-off speed is around 70 knots. On the Splash-and-Go run, it hits the water at 100 knots.
Our pilot says that they cannot land on water if the waves are bigger than 2 feet. He then says it's a good job no-one was measuring the waves today.
The return to the airstrip is just as exhilarating, and the experience is rounded off with another short briefing while the Catalina sits on stand in a puddle of seawater that's drained out of her hull.
The flight with them was quite easy to arrange - check their calendar on the web here and then email them with details of the flight you want - they'll give you the details for your money transfer.
At first glance the ticket price might seem expensive, but I assure you, it's the bargain of the century.