My wife, Ramona, and I have an indelible remembrance of our first visit to the islands in 1977. For several years we had been coaxed by Charlie Blair to visit him and his wife, Maureen (O’Hara), in the Virgin Islands. I was a curator at the National Air and Space Museum, and Charlie would often visit the museum’s restoration shop when passing through Washington where the P-51 that he made famous was being restored for display in the National Museum.
I was never sure of which he was the most proud: his accomplishment with this P-51 for flying across the North Pole, proving the feasibility of connecting both sides of the globe by crossing the Pole, or if it was his airline, Antilles Air Boats, making it economically sound for residents to connect with their sister islands.
What a fantastic start for a vacation – to not only a new area of the world for us but to do it in style to arrive at our destination by the air boat, the Grumman G-21 Goose. Charlie greeted us at the San Juan Terminal, making sure that he scheduled himself for our connecting flight.
When boarding, I was directed to the co-pilot’s position, always the most desired seat on a Goose flight. Ramona was in the single seat behind me. We both were rated pilots, so the flight was not unusual, but the takeoff and alighting were looked forward to with great expectations.
The two engines were brought to life, parking chalks pulled and the Goose waddled down the ramp into the water. As a first timer passenger, I did net expect to sink that low in the water as we taxied out away from shore and other boats. What a throaty sound of power as the throttles were pushed to their stops! There was an initial struggle for the plane to raise itself onto the step, drenching the windows in the process. Once skimming the blue-blue water, and taking some jolts when hitting a few waves, the airplane was smoothly climbing for the comfortable ride to St. Croix.
Between bits of conversation between Charlie and me above the deafening roar of the engines and the splendor of the always changing view below, Charlie pointed out a gray streak in the sky ahead, something I had not seen anywhere. That’s dust from the Sahara Desert in Africa, I was told. This is not seen from the ground and its presence is based upon the air currents.
I was equally interested in the cockpit arrangements of this upgraded (but 40-year-old) airplane doing a magnificent job as a seaplane shuttle. Charlie was aware of my study of what seemed to him like every nut and bolt.
That was my job back at the museum, to make sure of originality and accuracy. Perhaps I was silent too long in studying every detail within the cockpit. Apparently Charlie could not stand my silence any longer regarding my appraisal of this interior. Since Charlie knew that excellence in aircraft restoration at the museum was my standard, what more could he say than: "Well Bob – it’s not gold plated!"