By Claire Walla
It’s happened. My undying loyalty to wheeled transportation’s been put into question.
It’s not exactly the bus’s fault. The Jitney has been my preferred mode of transportation over locomotives since I discovered that the Long Island Rail Road only offers two inconveniently well-spaced Sunday trips from Penn Station back to the remote depths of the East End: one a-tad-too-early (11:45 a.m.), the other way-too-late (9:16 p.m.).
But as smooth and luxurious as the open road may be, my preference has been lured beyond tracks and wheels.
Earlier this month, I headed to the East Hampton Airport to meet Andrew Clark, co-owner of Fly the Whale, a relatively new sky-high venture with regular weekend service through that well-traveled airway between the Big Apple and the East End.
I had never been to the East Hampton terminal before. As far as I could tell, it was unofficially reserved for portly businessmen in seasonally light-colored suits and statuesque women in multi-colored, floor-length sun dresses and oversized shades, flanked by a pair of leather bags fashioned by someone with an Italian-sounding name. (I saw at least one of each.) Stepping foot on that tarmac essentially required a certain amount of disposable income ($990 round-trip on The Whale, to be exact).
It’s not a financial realm with which I’m very familiar. I approached the airport in a purple sun dress, weighted down by a worn A.D.I.D.A.S. gym bag left over from my high school days as a power forward and an oversized all-weather Timbuk2 bike-messenger bag from the same era.
So, you ask, what was I—vintage bags and all—doing here, at the East Hampton Airport, just minutes away from my own chartered flight to the Manhattan?
It turns out we Hamptonians have the great fortune of being perfectly placed to take advantage of Fly the Whale’s “dead legs.” These are the trips this sea plane makes back to the city on Fridays after having dropped well-festooned urbanites off out east, and on Sundays after it’s brought the thoroughly bronzed city-dwellers back home. And at a whopping discount of 80 percent (which makes each leg of the journey a mere $100) even I and my high-school gym bag were ripe for the occasion.
My instructions were as follows: head to the tarmac Friday afternoon at 4:10 p.m. Pretty simple for airport protocol in this day and age. (No hour-long check-in. No metal detectors. No cumbersome customs agents.) And sure enough, as I wandered out into the sun’s butterscotch glow and stood amid the cacophony of rumbling Cessna’s on the black asphalt—which felt like a Technicolor version of “Casablanca”—I bumped into a bearded guy in aviators, khakis and dock shoes, who looked too easy-going to be a passenger.
This, I learned, was Kerry Hanger—the pilot.
Fly the Whale was established in the Hamptons last year after Hanger and Clark purchased their own sea plane from the one-and-only Hamptons-based pop star-turned aviator: Jimmy Buffet, who was then looking to ditch the 10-seater for a brand new set of wings. (Said new-and-improved Buffet-mobile—nearly identical to this one—sat just a few wing-spans away on the tarmac.) The appropriately named Hanger, the son of a Canadian pilot who himself flew a commercial airline route between the U.S. and Europe for several years; and Clark, who had been a real estate agent in Manhattan; teamed up with Melissa Tomkiel, a Manhattan-based lawyer who quit her job last year to join the boys and work full-time for The Whale. (The team spends its summers in the Caribbean chartering island-hopping flights, catering primarily to those seeking refuge at Richard Branson’s private island.)
Once the clock struck 4:30 p.m., we hopped in the veritable aeronautic mini-van and were off to the city.
You’ve probably heard it said life is a journey, not a destination. And in this case the journey was certainly grand.
At first the plane rocked gently like a kid on a balance beam with arms outstretched in attempt to gain composure, but it quickly steadied and rose swiftly above the tree-line, which from only a few hundred miles up looked like a fluffy green beard growing atop the East End. We continued effortlessly above residential areas, and—just for fun—descended to a stretch of airspace only slightly above the waves, soaring along the bayside cliffs of Stony Brook, low enough to look into the eyes of each boater we passed—though only momentarily (we were clocking speeds of 170 knots, or 196 mph, after all).
The landscape changed around Queens, and suddenly we were approaching the lumbering swathe of skyscrapers fighting for space on the isle of Manhattan. From this vantage point—seemingly at eye-level with the monstrous buildings—the entire city looked accessible, almost reachable, as if made out of Legos. Flying parallel to the eastside skyline, we slowly sank back to Earth, finally hitting the East River with a few delicate taps before floating over to the dock at East 23 Street.
Life is usually more heavy on the journey, less focused on the destination. But, when it comes to getting off Long Island, ultimately it’s the destination that really counts.
We made it in about 40 minutes.
It’s true: $200 is still a pretty penny for a weekend romp in a city not exactly known for being cheap. It’s precisely $147 more than a round-trip Jitney ticket.
But when you’ve got less than 48 hours to walk about town—32 tops, when you factor in sleep time—slicing through the atmosphere will give you about three more hours to do with what you please.
Is it worth $147?
Consider this: on the way back to the East End, if the plane is packed with enough Sag Harborites, The Whale’s been known to touch down in the middle of Sag Harbor Bay, bringing passengers within steps of Main Street.
Out of the city and into the village in the time it takes to watch a sit-com?
That’s pretty darn convenient.