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Seaplaning in Scotland

The only thing that really limits our imagination is the horizon. We travel not just to see but also to see over. I don't usually engage in such profound thought first thing in the morning, but after I walked off a Boeing 757 and peered out the window of Glasgow Airport's terminal building, I spotted a small aircraft waiting patiently for me, one I anticipated might change the way I looked at my native land. A tall order?Sure. Yet when I eventually stood in front of the six-seater plane, set my golf bag and carry-on onto the tarmac and looked up, I smiled with excitement.

"Welcome to Loch Lomond Seaplanes," said the pilot, Scott Alexander MacDonald, in a Canadian accent through a small half-opened window beneath the wing. MacDonald was sitting in the cockpit of a Cessna 206 Turbo Stationair adapted to become an "amphibian" capable of landing on water as well as on land. Tiny wheels protruded from the huge pontoons on which the rest of the aircraft seemed to be mounted. The dimensions looked wrong, like the oversize tires of a monster truck. But I would learn that appearances are deceptive when it comes to seaplanes: As with penguins, to fully appreciate them you need to wait until they hit the water.

Scotland and seaplanes almost seem tailor-made for each other. The country's small population is huddled around the central belt and pockets of the northeast. That leaves vast wildernesses of stunning beauty largely inaccessible, unless you've got as much time on your hands as a polar explorer or you can conjure up a landing strip near where you want to visit. Taking off from and landing on Scotland's abundant sea or Highland lochs has always seemed the obvious answer, although the few commercial seaplanes that have tested the tourist waters, as it were, have come and gone as quickly as a morning frost at St. Andrews.

David West, the owner of Loch Lomond Seaplanes, Scotland's only seaplane service, is an experienced commercial airline captain who used to train pilots for Cathay Pacific in the Far East. West, whose operation is based on the lake for which it is named, believes the era of the seaplane is about to arrive in Scotland. "It's now all about how long it takes to get there," he said, referring to the common traveler's query. His company is opening a seaplane terminal—Europe's first—on the River Clyde in Glasgow, and if all goes as planned, his craft will begin landing there in May. It will also offer flights from Loch Lomond Golf Club and the new Carrick course to the remote links of Machrihanish and the Machrie on a nine-seat Cessna 208 Caravan seaplane that can accommodate two foursomes plus golf clubs and small luggage. Said West: "I think we're about to open this country up."

The Air traffic controllers at Glasgow Airport tend not to get overly romantic about aircraft; seaplane or 757, it's all the same to them. MacDonald radioed the control tower—"Golf, Oscar, Lima, Lima, Sierra"—and we were ready to go. We taxied to the side of the runway, behind one of the big beasts and past, we were told, the unmarked aircraft of a U.S. statesman who was in Scotland to "tidy up" loose ends from a recent powwow at Gleneagles. Coincidence! Gleneagles was on my itinerary (as were Turnberry and St. Andrews). But first it was "home" to Loch Lomond, where our journey would officially begin.

A light wind, nine knots, would join us. High-tech earphones muffled the whir of the Cessna's single engine to a comfortable hum, and the built-in microphone in my headset allowed me to talk clearly with the pilot. We quickly lifted high above the airport. I'd flown in and out of here all my life, but I had no idea you could see Loch Lomond stretched out in front of you within seconds of taking to the air. As West had promised it would, "Lima, Lima, Sierra" had just begun to shrink my world. I was comfortable in the plane's black leather seats, but the view was so extraordinary I would have been happy sitting in a hard-backed wicker chair.


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