To Palawan and back before noon 2
Landing with ease. Photograph by Paul del Rosario

To Palawan and back before noon

Iñigo S. Roces explores the realms of freedom and possibilities opened up by untethering a plane from the airport.
Iñigo Roces | Oct 04 2018

They say air travel has made the world smaller, bringing two points of a map closer by means of just a few hours in the sky. That picturesque beach resort that boasts of being the mouth of heaven is just an hour away by plane. Yet the reality can make one question if the destination is worth the bother of getting there. In a post-9/11 world, the ease with which one could access a place so remote requires a lot more from us: spending a few more precious hours before and after our flight, giving up our privacy because of the phalanx of security checks, not to mention enduring the traffic coming to and from the airport.

On the plane, courtesies, once an airline’s source of pride, have petered out. Legroom comes at a price, airline food has never been blander, and inflight entertainment is a loop of movies and gag shows we’ve already seen. Once we disembark, a wave of porters carelessly handle our luggage from plane to van to bangka.

Perhaps the biggest casualty is the spontaneity that air travel used to represent. One can't simply purchase a ticket to anywhere and hop on board anymore. Or can they? Like a curious flaneur opting for the intriguing alleyway instead of the main road, the adventurous might find their spontaneity rekindled by opting to fly on a seaplane. Equipped with floats instead of landing gear, seaplanes eliminate much of the hassle of modern travel with a simple solution: take the plane out of the airport.

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The Cessna Grand Caravan.

It's this unusual yet simple premise that led us to Air Juan, a business and leisure travel service that specializes in seaplanes. Their fleet: Cessna Grand Caravan amphibian floatplanes with the ability to land on both tarmac and water — drastically multiplying the number of destinations it can fly to, and reducing the number of transfers as well. The eight to nine-seater planes have a crew of two, are equipped with as much navigation technology as any Airbus, and require passengers to be around just 15 minutes before take-off.

To Palawan and back before noon 4The eight to nine-seater plane has a crew of two, and equipped with technology as any Airbus. 

Isolated islands shone like gems in the water, while shipping lanes teemed with tankers. Once outside of Manila, the plane attempted a higher altitude. It gave us time to better enjoy our seats, blessed with twice the legroom of normal airlines but with the familiar accoutrements of a commercial flight like the safety card, water bottle, and airsick bag in the seat pockets. The constant hum of the engine made us imagine the pioneering days of air travel. And as we flew over heavily forested areas and sparsely populated islands, we almost fancied ourselves a cartographer or surveyor off to examine some uncharted escape. The plane began to dip as we approached the chain of islands of Coron, Palawan. The captain flew around Busuanga Bay Lodge to give us a good view before descending to the clear stretch of water in front of the resort. The sea was calm and welcoming and our landing was so soft, it wouldn't wake a baby.

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Modern controls and instruments allow pilots to navigate today's busy skyways with ease.

As we neared the berth, the co-pilot simply threw the dockhands a line and the plane was gently pulled in. In that instant, we were there—no tedious disembarkation, no waiting for your bag to roll out, no transfers. Getting there was as literal as stepping off the plane. The entire journey from hangar to resort took all of just an hour and 10 minutes. But for the typical Air Juan flyer, the resort would just be one of a series of stops. "We did a charter down to Sabang, Palawan to the Underground River," said Captain John Goulet, our pilot. "We landed just outside. The passengers were staying at the Sheraton, so they jumped off the bangka into the plane. We flew them from there to El Nido." Ordinarily, such an itinerary would take hours. But traveling by the charter service has opened up a wealth of sightseeing possibilities for tourists, with resort hopping being a favorite with families.

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Not exactly business class amenities, there's hardly any need for much, but as most flights are just a little over an hour.

"We just nosed onto the beach and the passengers could step off there. You just get your feet a little wet but that's part of the thrill. That's why we wear sandals," he quipped. Though traveling by charter plane sounds financially daunting, Air Juan offers a variety of packages ranging from a full charter to pick-up and drop-off charters to per-seat rates. Passengers can share the plane with travelers from nearby resorts. Aside from bringing you directly to your resort, Air Juan seaplanes can also land on docks, sandbars, and yes, even near yachts. The passengers we were picking up had just checked out of the hotel, bags in hand, and were taking a few selfies by the seaplane. They had waited for just 20 minutes. After the quick briefing, we were back on board, buckled up, and ready for the smooth take-off and quick flight to Manila. We arrived just before noon, having traveled to Palawan and back with nary a tan line to show for it. But our trip was just a joyride, meant to introduce us to another way to get from here to way over there privately, painlessly, and without tedium.

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Moorings on the float allow the seaplane to be tied up to a dock, just like any yacht.

This story first appeared in Vault Issue No.21 2015

Photographs by: Paul del Rosario