The romance of air travel is not quite dead, says Oliver Bennett. On a seaplane from the Clyde, you can still take the high road to adventure
Inflight scratchcards, boots and belts at security, queue upon ghastly queue: it’s no wonder the reputation of passenger flight is in tatters. Indeed, is there any glamour and adventure left in flying?
Well, there is one airborne operation that can tease out the inner Bleriot or Earhart. It’s in Scotland, it’s the only plane to take off from a river in a European city – namely the mighty Clyde in Glasgow – and its name is Loch Lomond Seaplanes. The company is seven years old, has two planes, and is growing all the time. It recently won a Scottish Thistle Award for tourism and has transported no less than Susan Boyle.
The whole idea tickled the part of my brain labelled Boy’s Own Adventure, so I went the full 39 Steps schmeer and thundered up to Scotland from London on the ScotRail night train, alighting at Glasgow Central at 7.20am on a sunny Scottish morning to catch the seaplane to fly over Oban, pearl of the Western Isles.
I strolled down to the docks, where the old industrial hinterland has been supplanted by a shiny new Glasgow: the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre, the Science Centre, Glasgow Tower and new BBC offices. After meeting pilot and owner David West at a pontoon behind the Science Centre, the Cessna seaplane taxied to the runway; in this case, the peaty waters of the River Clyde. “I think of it as a kind of magic carpet,” said the pilot. “It flies quite low, so you see a lot of life.”
The propeller whirred, and the Cessna seaplane was shortly aloft: soaring above the old gantries of the dockyards and revealing that not all in Glasgow is shiny cappuccino-land. Then it banked over Loch Lomond and onwards, across a patchwork of velvety green fields and sparkling lochs, though the prism of a duck-egg-blue sky. We climbed over Munros, Corbetts and Grahams, the three grades of Scottish mountain, and I spied the Waverley paddle steamer playing the waves below. I fancied that people were waving – after all, the toytown below was quite visible.
I had been apprehensive that the flight would be a bit white-knuckle, but apart from a few minor ducks and dives, it was smooth and exhilarating, like nothing more than being in the opening credits of Coast.
We passed Loch Fyne, Rothesay and Lochgilphead, following our progress on a little laminated map in the seatback pockets. Then we were at Oban Bay, where we landed on the water: a mildly alarming prospect, but in reality a lot softer than tarmac. I wondered what was so familiar about this? That’s it: I was starring in my very own replay of the opening sequence of cult 1970s film The Wicker Man, where Edward Woodward touches down by seaplane in the Western Isles in search of a missing person, only to be burned alive by chanting pagan islanders.
The seaplane usually just whirrs over the Western Isles and returns to Glasgow, but sometimes charter customers request that it lands, and that’s no problem, as the watery world is its runway. From another pontoon, I took a boat over to a harbour in the little green island of Kerrera.
Joy of joys: a seafood bar. I had six of the freshest oysters I’ve ever had, and followed through with several local langoustines. It was the finest arrivals lounge I’ve ever experienced. I sat on a hillock, and watched marine life go by: yachties, customs officers, inter-island ferries plying their trade.
Then, after an hour or so, I boarded the seaplane and returned to Glasgow, once again flying over those felt-like hills, rugged cliffs and hilltop tarns, before descending back into the Clyde and an enjoyable afternoon in Glasgow’s refurbished Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The seaplane had almost rescued the romance of flight from Stansted hell, and without a crazed pagan in sight.
More information: Loch Lomond Seaplanes