A Seaplane Takes Off in Jelsa

Published in Highlights
After several years of trying, the German company European Coastal Airlines (ECA) finally had lift-off.
ECA seaplane ECA seaplane Photo: Vivian Grisogono
Its commercial seaplane service started its programme on Wednesday 27th August 2014 with an inaugural flight from Split Airport Sea Terminal in Resnik to Jelsa harbour.

Captained by Mark Poppleton, who formerly piloted seaplanes in the Maldives and Turkey, the ECA's de Havilland Twin Otter 6-300 landed in Jelsa Harbour just after its scheduled arrival time of 09:13. On board were two Swiss visitors, Natija Dolić and Christoph Glaser, who were taking advantage of the seaplane service to enjoy a day trip to Jelsa. There had been mounting interest in the impending arrival of the seaplane over several weeks once it became clear that the service really was about to happen. A small crowd gathered at the rowing club, whose landing stage has been taken over for the seaplane, while many more watched from the vantage points of the surrounding cafes or their own homes. Jelsa's mayor Nikša Peronja was one of the most eager to see the seaplane come in safely, as he had taken up the project for a high-speed link between Jelsa, Split and eventually other destinations from the moment it was presented to him. One of the most persuasive supporters of the seaplane project for Hvar from its earliest stages was British journalist Paul Bradbury, who played a key role in establishing the feasibility of the project. Besides the obvious benefits of improved communications between destinations across Croatia and beyond, Bradbury also highlighted the service's supplementary benefits, such as enhanced firefighting capacity.

Jelsa Council leader Jakša Marić was among the spectators who turned out in support of the welcoming committee. The rumour mill had suggested that Prime Minister Milanović might be on the inaugural flight, but this proved not so. Nonetheless, the event gained national and local media coverage, including television.

Rather un-Germanically, there was no sign of the seaplane at the appointed time of 09:13, which gave the expectant spectators time for a chat, always a welcome pastime for Dalmatians. 

The delay was not prolonged. Word came that the plane was coming closer, and in an instant it was roaring overhead. It flew over Jelsa's Town Hall, over the landing stage and out to sea, where it swung round towards Vrboska, and then turned again to land on the water heading out towards the open sea, with an extra roar of the engines at each expertly performed manoeuvre. Once safely afloat, the seaplane turned in towards Jelsa and headed for the harbour.

Seaplanes have landed on Hvar before, as archive photographs show. They did not land only in Hvar Town. Old photographs show seaplanes in Jelsa harbour possibly from the earliest days of their invention. The flying boat pictured below was designed by French firm LePen and Blanchard, and was known as a Georges Levy 40 HB2 or a Levy-LePen for short. Its roundel carries the insignia of the Serbian Air Force, which was founded in 1912, and whose pilots were trained in France. After the First World War, the Serbian Air Force became the nucleus of the new Yugoslav Air Force. The Levy-LePen was first built in 1917, and was discontinued in 1926. Seaplanes visited Dalmatia long after that time. Many local people remember the military seaplane which used to deliver Admiral Mate Jerković to Jelsa in the 1960s. The admiral was apparently a popular figure who owned a holiday home in Vitarnja. His seaplane used to land on the waterfront, where the catamaran ties up these days.

Another memory which was brought forward and dusted off was the popular comedy series 'Naše malo misto' from forty-odd years ago, which was largely filmed on Hvar. One of the story-lines is the arrival of a pilot on the island which resulted in the surprise arrival of a baby nine months later, born to the previously childless wife of the Mayor. Captain Poppleton was presumably unaware of the reputation attributed to pilots who drop into the island on flying visits. Anyway, as Jelsa's current mayor is young and unmarried, it was generally agreed that reality was unlikely to follow fiction in this case.

The seaplane entered Jelsa harbour and performed a very slick spin-turn with a triumphant crescendo from its engines.

Then it turned in to come to rest at the landing stage.

Once the seaplane was safely tied up, Captain Poppleton emerged. The passengers then came out to be greeted by Mayor Peronja.

Jelsa's most charismatic wine-maker, Andro Tomić, presented Ms Dolić with one of his fine special edition wines, a boxed 'Veliki plavac mali', so that she had a memento of her historic trip as one of ECA's first passengers in Dalmatia.

The television reporter conducted several interviews, some of which were screened later in the day. Quite extensive airtime was devoted to the seaplane's debut in Jelsa, even on national television. After all, this was the start of the first commercial seaplane passenger service in Dalmatia, a service which, if successful, will certainly bring much-needed change for the better to the travel options available between Hvar and the mainland.

Apart from the press and media presence, the occasion was low-key. There was no written press release, with the result that different media channels published slightly differing versions of details such as the price of tickets and the flying time. The occasion was a missed opportunity to introduce the staff managing the ECA operation in Jelsa, to present the flying schedule, and to explain how the seaplane service functions.

As the chosen few headed out of the landing area, there was a slight hitch as no-one had been deputed to release the rope which cordonned off the onlookers, so VIPs, visitors, press and staff had to step rather precariously round the edge of the platform. Fortunately there was no mishap.

The possibility of a quick and cheap transfer to Split has been met with enthusiasm by many who are taking advantage of the special price of 99 kunas for the first five tickets sold on each flight. Following the inaugural flight, there was at least one paying customer for the return leg to Split. Tomica Carić from Svirče was on an ambitious mission to achieve a day trip to Zagreb, taking the seaplane to Split, then a friend's private plane on to Zagreb, returning to the island by the same means in time for a funeral at 17:30 in Zastražišće.

The turnaround between flights is not long, just an hour for the first transfers of the day. On the first day, there was time for Captain Poppleton to enjoy a quiet rest and chat with Mayor Peronja, while Tomica Carić indulged in some friendly banter with his friend Tihomir Jelković - one bone of contention between the latter two centred on the rights and wrongs of sacrificing so many edible dormice for the Puhijada. (Eco Hvar would prefer the festival to be based on something other than dead animals, so in this case was in sympathy with Tomica Carić, although Tihomir Jelković offered the reasonable defence that the dormice had been brought in from Slavonija, where they are considered a pest, rather than hunted locally.)

As the English expression goes, "one man's meat is another man's poison", and this covers a much wider context than edible dormice. The seaplane service is undoubtedly a boon to those who need or want a quick affordable transfer to Split from Jelsa and other parts of Hvar Island. A regular service throughout the day is a boon, covering the gaps in the present ferry and catamaran services. But there are also a few downsides. One lady reported that her first awareness of the seaplane was a penetrating roar of engines, quickly followed by the stink of fumes which remained in her apartment near the little chapel of St. John for some twenty minutes. The thought of that happening eight times a day was not an appealing one. It is unfortunately true that the fumes from aviation fuel carry: they have been evident in the cafes of Jelsa's main square, particularly when the seaplane takes off.

As already mentioned, the seaplane's present landing stage is also the platform from which the rowing club launches its boats. The regular rowing sessions will inevitably be curtailed by the seaplane schedule. The youngsters who had come for their normal training on the day of the inaugural flight were content to watch the seaplane arriving for the first time instead of being out on the water, but it will be a pity if this situation lasts for an extended time. It is said that the seaplane base will be moved at some stage to the other side of the harbour. When that happens, the rowing club will be able to get back to some normality, although of course outings on the water will have to be planned around the movements of the seaplane.

Among the witnesses to the inaugural flight was Don Jurica Carić, the Chaplain who works alongside Jelsa's parish priest Don Stanko Jerčić. Some people were surprised to hear that he was not there to bless the seaplane and the ECA's area of operation. There is a long tradition of blessing new buildings and enterprises on this strongly Catholic island. Just a few years ago Don Stanko led a service of blessing to celebrate a major anniversary for the rowing club. Many local people openly cross themselves and say a prayer before setting off on any journey which takes them a significant distance from the island. To them the seaplane would seem an obvious candidate for a blessing.

In general the seaplane service has been accepted as a welcome benefit by local people. It has got off to a good start in attracting travellers. It remains to be seen how the seaplane will cope with winter weather conditions, and whether the drawbacks of its noise and fuel fumes will elicit opposition from residents. Establishing the service has been a long-drawn-out struggle for European Coastal Airlines. These flights represent a tribute to the patience and perseverence of ECA's Chief Executive Officer Klaus Dieter Martin.  Whatever happens in the future, he can be satisfied that he has made a significant contribution to Dalmatia's tourist industry, and made his mark on the area's history. One nice spin-off from the enterprise is the introduction of the webcams which allow long-distance viewings of what's happening right now on the Jelsa waterfront and the Resnik terminal in Split.

 

FOOTNOTE AND UPDATE: After the successful launch of the service between Jelsa and Split, European Coastal Airlines extended its operations to Rab. On October 8th 2014, their first flight landed in Zagreb from Rab, linking the capital with the islands in what is bound to prove a highly popular alternative to the current options. 

 © Vivian Grisogono 2014

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