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Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Big Lift A Tiny Plane Gives Weary Travelers An Unexpected High


July 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

I regarded the 10-seat Air Flamenco plane, which sat on a runway on the island of Culebra east of Puerto Rico, with a mixture of desire and fear.

Janice and I had arrived in Culebra via San Juan two days before. The trip from the city had been longer than we expected -- an hour and a half by cab on 30 miles of traffic-choked roads to the port of Fajardo, an hour and a half waiting for the ferry, and another two hours across 25 miles of Caribbean Sea.

The water was choppy, and the ferry swooped and dipped like a roller coaster. I got a kick out of it, but it made Janice ill.

We had traveled to Culebra for the wedding of our friends Francois and Stephannie. It turned out to be the coolest wedding we had ever seen, with a ceremony on a pristine beach bathed in a blood- red sunset, and a bride who was gorgeous from her veil to her dainty bare feet. But after two nights on the island, Janice was still sick (it might have been food poisoning, made worse by the ferry). It was time to get back to San Juan and catch our plane to the States, and she was in no mood for another five-hour journey.

We knew that many light planes make the trip from Culebra to San Juan, but it was one of those things that somehow we couldn't imagine doing -- only for the rich, we thought, or for people who bungee jump or hang-glide or who would just as soon end it all.

But desperation brought us to the counter at Air Flamenco that afternoon, and to a new, and memorable, experience.

A jaunty band of three or four strapping young men in uniforms took tickets, pumped up the tires and, yes, flew the planes. A guy with an ID around his neck reading "assistant mechanic," wearing a shirt with "counter agent" sewn in script, told us that the last plane for the day was leaving soon, and it was full. But Janice had a hunch that we should stick around. Sure enough, when a big guy wearing a gold airplane chain around his neck took over behind the counter, he told us two seats were available on another flight to San Juan in about an hour and a half.

Janice tried to buy our tickets immediately, but Gold Chain counseled patience. "In about a half-hour," he said in heavily accented English, and gave us a wink. "Take it easy. No problem. I'm the pilot."

We waited in the deliciously air-conditioned little building. Outside in the brutal heat, a dog had found shade and sleep under the fuselage of a twin-engine model. A boy of about 16, who was also handling baggage, climbed on top of another plane with an oil funnel.

True to his word, Gold Chain called our names a half-hour later, and we paid $40 each for our tickets. But when the plane was finally ready to depart, a change had been made, and he was no longer our pilot. From behind the counter, he winked at us and said, "Catch you next time," as if we were his favorite passengers.

We joined the queue and were soon ushered out to the aircraft by the 16-year-old. There were Janice and me and six other passengers, mostly casually dressed, well-heeled older folks with faces made leathery by years of sun.

Our pilot, a slim, fit fellow in his late 20s who wore sunglasses and walked with a hint of a swagger, joined the co-pilot in the front two seats. The pilot wished us "good afternoon" and raced through the safety instructions.

During our short taxi, the propellers seemed anemic. But then we turned at the end of the runway, and the engine noise escalated to a loud, vibrating, determined snarl. We gathered speed relentlessly and then, suddenly, seemingly without effort, we rose into the air.

My fear subsided as I took in the view, surprisingly vivid due to our low altitude. I could see the main street I had walked on the other day, and the shack with the corrugated iron roof and the hand- painted "Free Puerto Rico -- Cut the Umbilical Cord" sign on its walls. I saw the town of Dewey spreading up into the hills, and a series of beaches, each with long lines of foam and sand, and then dense green vegetation.

Most beautiful of all were the coral reefs, the underwater latticework that altered the color of the ocean from sparkling aquamarine to a deep, dark blue.

Heading away from Culebra, we passed smaller islands -- one no bigger than a sandbox, with a lone palm tree. If we had seen Robinson Crusoe waving, I wouldn't have been surprised. We flew over a series of rocks that barely broke the surface of the water, one after the other, like steps made for a giant.

It was only 20 minutes or so until we reached Puerto Rico proper, and a few minutes more until we saw the densely packed suburbs of San Juan.

Our flight ended with a flourish. The pilot flew over Old San Juan, low enough that we could clearly make out the cool pastels, elegant arches and shady courtyards of the Colonial Spanish architecture. The plane cruised over the island's very tip, where the Morro fortress juts into the sea on a thin spit of land. It's a massive, brooding, black stone labyrinth, hundreds of feet above the rocky coast.

The pilot did a u-turn out at sea and began a swift descent toward the little city airport. His landing was gentle as a kiss. I felt relieved to be back on the ground, as always, and thrilled to have seen an exotic corner of the world from a new perspective. I was reminded of an old saying, that it's not only the destination that matters, but how you get there.

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