Sea wings

WHAT was it about flying with Klaus? Fifty-five of us steamed from Vancouver to Victoria, British Columbia, that morning aboard a huge ship of the B.C. Ferry fleet, my kind of vehicle.

After a day of sightseeing, 54 elected to return to Vancouver aboard chartered seaplanes. Mine was the sole voice of sanity counseling that ferries belong on water; airplanes absolutely do not.

If compelled to employ transportation that disassociates itself from earth or water above an altitude of 12 feet, I have always been the sensible sort of traveler who spends every minute aloft doubting the wisdom of what Orville and Wilbur were up to that day at Kitty Hawk.

The first seaplane accommodated 16 from our group. I managed to be overlooked by burrowing in my camera bag.

For the second, I was paged and staggered unsteadily onto the dock. This second craft, allegedly sea- and airworthy, had four seats. It looked like a mammoth mosquito tethered at the edge of Victoria's harbor, although closer inspection suggested it probably had been a Volkswagen beetle that suffered the indignity of sprouting wings and pontoon legs.

A fellow wearing sunglasses and a friendly grin stood under a wing. Offering a handshake, he said, ``Hi! I'm Klaus, your pilot.''

``Hi,'' I replied, shaking. ``I'm not sure about this enterprise.''

Klaus laughed and invited Mr. and Mrs. Supak to board first. They obediently assumed a fetal position demanded by the two rear seats. There being no graceful way to enter a four-passenger seaplane, a combination crawl, clamber, and half gainer landed me in a bucket seat up front, knees nudging the instrument panel, shoulder (I mean this literally) to shoulder with Klaus.

``So far, so good, eh?'' he said. ``I've never yet lost a passenger between dock and plane.''

We skied out across the harbor, and as soon as I noted Klaus could spot boats, seals, and channel markers obstructing our path faster than I could, my exaggerating fears settled into merely rational panic.

``You were born in British Columbia, were you, Klaus? Been flying hereabouts, I guess, all your life?'' I asked with excessive hope.

``Ah, no,'' he replied, ``I'm from Austria.''

Austria! Austria is renowned for exporting Viennese waltzes, but seaplane pilots? ``Flew, um, then, did you, a lot in Austria?''

Klaus laughed. ``I was gliding since I was 16.''

A glance over my shoulder disclosed the roar of the single engine deafened the Supaks into enviable ignorance of this revelation that we were on the threshold of hang gliding back to Vancouver. It would have been heartless to do anything less than flash them the most reassuring smile I could fake. A seating arrangement as cozy as four people in a bathtub left no room for standing on polite ceremony.

``Klaus,'' I shouted over the noise, ``could we talk about your acquaintance with airplanes?''

Ten years of professional experience was encouraging, and for someone who practically since dawn had been flying clients over a 50-mile range of British Columbia forests to survey prospective timber purchases, Klaus exuded a remarkably fresh concern for giving three tourists an unforgettable adventure. Did we know the merest touch on controls of a small airplane could duplicate the sensation of a roller coaster? We didn't. But do, now.

Spying the first plane ahead, Klaus said he would catch up and fly alongside so we could photograph our friends with Mt. Baker, in Washington, for background. He did. We did, then surged ahead of the laggards.

Above channels of the Gulf Islands, where yachts and ferries looked like diamonds carving their routes across mirrors silvered by a declining sun, Klaus glanced down, as if he had never seen the sight before, and said, ``Beautiful, isn't it?'' Quite ... and so, viewed from the vantage of swooping seagulls, was a pod of killer whales leaping in the Strait of Georgia. Klaus flew low over a green delta to point out the Fraser River, then overflew the Vancouver airport, anticipating we would share his fascination with the tiny Concorde parked beside a matchbox hangar.

As we banked high over Burrard Inlet, then dived toward splashdown at Coal Harbour (Klaus assured me he had already spotted that cruise ship in our runway), I suddenly realized something was missing -- the covey of butterflies that invades my stomach at such moments. My body tingled as usual but due to a peculiar sense of having been, as never in jetliners, one with birds, with air; to the thrill of having glimpsed a world of marvels from an uninvited yet entrancing perspective.

Pontoons clump-thump-bumped onto water. ``Well, we're here,'' announced Klaus. ``How was it?'' The word ``fantastic'' escaped before I gained control over what I was saying. Mr. Supak observed, thankfully, that we didn't even have to swim. Klaus laughed and flashed his smile. ``I'm glad you liked it, eh?'' If we hadn't, I think he would have been disappointed.

One might think a safe landing would mark the end of a trip, but something perplexes me still. Can one man's lifelong love give wings to another's earthbound fears?

How is it that I, sane me, heretofore willing to declare Icarus a fool for even thinking about jumping off that cliff, now catch myself in odd moments singing: ``Those magnificent men in their flying machines ... they go uppity-up-up, they go down-de-down-down''?

More incredible than singing that old movie tune, I frequently envision myself one day again putting shoulder to shoulder with a certain pilot in British Columbia to fly -- it doesn't matter, anywhere!

A transient exhilaration, perhaps, from dallying with gravity? A bonding of human spirit? What was it about soaring with Klaus?

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