Thursday, September 22, 2011

Seaplanes: Flying high ... A bird's-eye view

Pilot Edgar 'E.T.' Tello lands his 1947 SeaBee on Lake Norman. When SeaBees were first produced in post-war America they came with a price tag of $3,500.

Trees dot much of Lake Norman’s shorelines. Thick, dense forests often not noticed when boating on the lake or sitting in traffic beside it.

But trees are the first things you notice flying 500 feet above the lake at 100 mph in a refurbished 1947 Republic Seabee seaplane.

The second amazing fact is that you can tour the lake’s 520 miles of shoreline in merely 20 minutes. The third observation is knowing that the plane is supposed to head toward water – when you land - and water sprinkling your feet inside is par for the course, as this amphibious sports aircraft suddenly transforms from plane to pontoon. There’s even an anchor to moor up to an island. The entire experience is like being in a James Bond film.

And that’s when seaplane pilot Edgar Tello turns and smiles. “Have you ever seen the movie “The Man with the Golden Gun?”” he asks, referring to the 1974 Bond flick. “I watched that movie when I was 14 years old. When I saw the scene with the seaplane, I knew someday I had to own one.”

Tello, or “E.T.” as his friends call him, resides with other seaplane enthusiasts in Long Island Airpark, a community of 42 people in Catawba County about 17 miles west of Mooresville. Many residents are current or retired commercial airline pilots, while others are families who enjoy both flying above the lake and boating on it. In this subdivision, planes literally have the right of way. Roads provide cars with areas in which to pull over, and street signs peak no higher than a car door. “Cars must yield to planes, and the street signs can’t be any taller or the plane’s wings would clip them.” explains Tello. Hearing planes venturing from driveways to the neighborhood runway is common.

Having served in the U.S. Air Force for 14 years and currently a 20-year veteran pilot for United Airlines, Tello is completely at home in the air. He and his family moved to the Lake Norman area 10 years ago and have called Long Island Airpark home since 2010. He flies his plane at least once a week. “It’s the way I relax,” says Tello, whose job takes him on weekly international and domestic flights. “I’ll call friends in South Carolina to see if they’d like some company and we share drinks at the dock when I land.”

For those who own seaplanes, flying is just one of many aspects where the passion bubbles over. Like antique car enthusiasts, many pilots purchase old planes that sell for $50,000 (compared to new ones that start at $400,000), tear them apart, and restore them. Tello purchased his Republic Seabee in 1997 and spent countless hours rebuilding it. Akin to boating, seaplane flying is a family affair. Tello’s wife Melissa is pursuing her pilot’s license. Their sons Erick and Austin, who attend college and high school, also share the family’s enthusiasm (the minimum age requirement to obtain a pilot’s license is 16).

But the seaplane pilot family extends beyond spouses and kids. “Seaplane pilots and their families are a close-knit community,” says Tello. “I once brought a friend who’s not a pilot to a fly-in event. He commented how fun it is for our interest to bring us so close together.”

Fly-ins are akin to family reunions: Events held at plane-friendly venues throughout the country where pilots and families gather for a weekend or week of food and fun. Long Island Airpark hosts its annual fly-in every fall. “Fly-ins are all about friendships and having fun,” Tello remarks. “We love sharing our passion for flying.”

Tello embraces opportunities to help others experience – or relive- the joy of flight. “Recently I had the privilege of flying with a former member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a select group of women pilots who flew military aircraft in World War II,” recalls Tello. “She emailed me to say the flight made her feel young again.” Another passenger who accompanied Tello was an Afghanistan War veteran who lost both legs in combat. “I was happy to take him for a flight,” Tello says. “Knowing the sacrifices he made, I was honored to fly with him.”

As the local representative for the Seaplane Pilots Association, an international organization representing the interests of seaplane pilots, Tello hopes to enlighten pilots about the seaplane-friendly communities in the Carolinas and Virginia. “I spend a lot of time flying to events and plane-friendly establishments in other areas of the country, especially the northeast,” says Tello. “Seaplane pilots need to know about Lake Norman, Lake Wylie, and other bodies of water that welcome them.”

Another component of his role is educating the non-flying public about seaplanes. Some resist embracing seaplanes in their lake communities, citing concerns about noise and safety. “Many seaplane pilots have years of professional flying experience, and all must possess a pilot’s license,” Tello says. “How can they be unsafe compared to someone operating a boat for the first time, under the influence of alcohol?”

Seaplanes have come a long way since the first U.S. flight in 1911. “Back then, seaplanes were very flimsy,” Tello says. “You’d sneeze and they would fall apart. Today’s planes are sturdy and sophisticated.”

Long Island Airpark’s grass-carpeted runway makes for a soft takeoff. During an early morning or early evening departure, you might spy a fox sprinting into the surrounding woods. On that same flight the lake shines smooth as glass, making it easy to spot fish jumping in the water below. What a unique way to appreciate the lake surrounding us.

Not to mention all of those trees.

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