How my First Flying Job was my Coolest Job ever

Photo by Author

Anyone who started a career in aviation would probably agree with me that after getting your commercial pilot license, you pretty much try to get any job that would get you flying. It didn’t mean much how much your salary was (if there was at all) or how beautiful the plane is. As a newbie pilot, we just want to get that first job to get us started, to finally get the ball rolling, so to speak. Some start as instructors, some get into cargo, a very few get lucky in a corporate flying job and some who were even more fortunate funded their training to get a chance to fly for a major airline even as their first job. For me, I was just plain darn lucky.

My first job as a pilot was a first officer for Air Juan, an airline that had scheduled and none scheduled flights to smaller airports not usually served by the bigger airlines. The best thing about my first job was the fact that I got to do something extraordinary, I got to fly seaplanes!

Below are some of the usual questions I got when people asked about my short career flying seaplanes in the Philippines and the interesting flying stories that came along with it.

How did I end up flying with Air Juan’s seaplanes?

Initially, I had to go through the company’s tough selection process. Along with other applicants, we went through multiple evaluations, a couple of written exams, and then about two separate interviews before being selected for training. One day during ground school, we were told that some of us would have to go to the seaplane fleet. See, Air Juan then operated two kinds of Cessna Grand Caravan Ex, one fleet was configured as a landplane and another fleet was configured as an amphibian, able to land on water as well as runways.

So when they asked who was willing to go fly on the seaplanes, I raised my hand.

So, there I was in the classroom when they were telling us this and I wondered, “that might be cool, something I have zero knowledge of, yet something that could be fun…” So when they asked who was willing to go fly on the seaplanes, I raised my hand. That was pretty much it! After ground training was over, I and another colleague were told to find ourselves some dark blue shorts and footwear we don’t mind getting wet and to report the next day at our seaplane terminal in Manila bay. The rest was history.

What plane did my company use?

The Van as we affectionately called it parked at our home airport in Subic Bay International Airport. Photo by author.

We flew the Cessna Grand Caravan EX Amphibian, a single-engine turboprop aircraft that was used worldwide and known for its ruggedness. We could land on paved and unpaved runways, as well as on bodies of water making almost everywhere within reach. She was a beauty to fly and she was dependable. Our plane sometimes had challenges operating out of Manila bay, but she was a joy to fly anyway.

The coolest part of the job?

Photo by author

For starters, working every day meant wearing shorts and sandals, that for me was cool in itself. We flew to different islands and served nice resorts in the Philippines, making work almost synonymous with island life. When we had a couple of hours waiting time somewhere and the water is nice, we would usually take a quick dip to enjoy the water ourselves. What I liked best about the job was the variety of flights we did. We could be flying a regularly scheduled service one day and doing a rare charter flight to somewhere new the next day. I often described my work as an everyday adventure, it was very dynamic and this kept you on your feet.

For starters, working every day meant wearing shorts and sandals, that for me was cool in itself.

How much flying did we do?

Taking off out of nice and sunny Manila bay. Photo by David Radford

During the summer season when the weather was mostly good and water conditions at Manila bay were not a factor we did lots of flying, and I mean A LOT! We would max out on our daily, weekly, and even monthly time limitations. I remember leaving Subic airport at dusk and walking away from our planes at dawn, this happened regularly for us.

We would max out on our daily, weekly, and even monthly time limitations.

Manila bay starting to get grumpy during Habagat season in the Philippines. Photo by the author.

The wet season was a different story. Because weather becomes a big factor in our operation, there were fewer flights and even when we got to fly, getting in and out of Manila bay was an everyday struggle we all dealt with. Days would pass during wet season where it would rain continuously for days and we won’t be able to fly out of the home airport at all, those days were pretty much spent at the staff house, trying to burn time, hoping that the pissing rain would end so next day we could get some flying done.

How was it flying in and out of Manila Bay?

Departing out of Manila Bay one afternoon with another company seaplane. Photo by the author

I still remember how tough Manila bay can be, the can wind pick up and the water can get rough. Often in Habagat (southwest monsoon season), Manila bay becomes unusable for us to operate safely altogether because the water conditions are more than what the plane can manage.

How do we know which way to land when landing on water?

Each place we landed was unique, most resorts have protected water, meaning the waves were not so big and we could focus more on orienting our landing against the wind. We usually start every water landing by flying over our landing spot. We survey the water area for boat traffic, look at the condition of the water and we determine from which way the wind is coming from.

We usually start every water landing by flying over our landing spot.

Once we picked our landing spot, the pilot flying would then brief on his approach, and where his “line” would be. Think of the “line” like our runway centerline. Where’s the centerline? For that, we pick a landmark along our line to align with. Once you have your approach, your landing spot, and your line, all you got to do is fly it. Usually, we get to execute the approach as planned but with boat traffic being constant, we do adjust our lines from time to time to accommodate for water traffic avoidance.

Did I ever get hurt on the job?

Photo by Cosmic Timetraveler on Unsplash

Thankfully, I never did get a serious injury from seaplane flying, but there was this memorable experience departing out of San Vicente, Palawan. We were starting engines from the shore of a beach and as the first officer, my task was to hold on to the tail of the plane to keep it from turning while the engines started. So there I was holding the tail in about knee-deep water then something started hurting.

So there I was holding the tail in about knee-deep water then something started hurting.

That’s when I realized I have surrounded by a group of jellyfish. It wasn’t long from then when I hopped in the floats to get in the plane, but by that time the jellyfish already stung me. The rest of the day my feet hurt like crap but thankfully I’m here to tell you about that day, I guess that means those guys were not poisonous. Lol

Did I ever fall into the water?

I kept telling myself I would never fall into the water. A captain told me “everyone will fall at a point or the other”. One fateful day, we were docking at a fairly new resort, I tried to get the help of the resort boatmen by the dock assisting us but while doing so, the inevitable happened.

“everyone will fall at a point or the other”

Photo by Krystian Tambur on Unsplash

My foot slipped and a few seconds later my next view was the bottom view of the dock and our plane. Yup, I was underwater, so everyone falls after all. When I swam up the surface, I found myself in between the dock and the seaplane. Knowing the situation, I used the closing gap between the two to get myself out of the water. It was funny afterward because I squeezed some water of myself and started offloading our passengers who watched the whole thing. I found the whole thing funny, our passengers thought so too. Cruel buggers.

Craziest thing I ever did while flying seaplanes?

The life-changing moment in my life when one day we were attempting to park our seaplane on a beach. The captain and I were fairly unfamiliar with this beach and we approached it with caution. Nearing the shore, I went out of the plane, hopped on the shore, and with ropes, I guided the plane to shore. One thing though, for some reason, the closer I got to shore instead of the water getting shallower, it was getting deeper and the point came where I didn’t have a foothold anymore. We waved off our attempt to beach the plane, captain cautiously backed out, and he anchored the seaplane a couple of hundred meters from the shore.

That was the first time I swam far in open water, and I didn’t have time to be a wussy.

Meanwhile, I made my way on the shore looking at what to do next. It wasn’t longer than 2 minutes until I was back in the water. I swam back to the seaplane in open water. That was the first time I swam far in open water, and I didn’t have time to be a wussy. I remembered Dory from the movie “Finding Nemo” and did what Dory said, she said, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming!” So I did. When I made it back to the plane, I still got to help out offloading baggage. After we got our passengers off, we departed right away and I took off partially wet and thoroughly refreshed from my unscheduled morning swim.

If it was so cool, why did I leave?

Refueling the van in Busuanga, Palawan. Photo by author

I knew I was having a blast with my seaplane adventures and it would have been awesome to stay flying on floats, but deep inside something was calling me. Being a flight attendant before flying full time, I always admired my previous airline’s turboprop airplane, the ATR 72.

I knew I was having a blast with my seaplane adventures and it would have been awesome to stay flying on floats, but deep inside something was calling me.

The ATR 72–600. Photo by Nikko Espiritu Jr.

That plane was my inspiration for 7 years to finish my flying license despite not having money to fund flight training. I kept telling my airline friends at Cebu Pacific for years, that one day I will fly for our airline, on the ATR 72. Fast forward flying seaplanes and my flight hours were racking up fast. I flew so much that I reached the minimum required to apply for a first officer position on, you guessed it, the ATR 72.

That plane was my inspiration for 7 years to finish my flying license despite not having money to fund flight training.

I had to leave my adventure life to scratch a bigger itch that has long been a goal of mine and I felt it was time to make realities of my dream. Thankfully, I got hired, and as of writing this article, still flying the ATR 72 with Cebgo, a subsidiary of Cebu Pacific.

During a quick ground stop at Basco airport, now flying the ATR 72–600. Photo by Angelo Sauro

Do I miss seaplane flying?

I will always miss that sea breeze. Photo by the author.

yeah, big time! I miss everything about it and it will always be a big part of me. No joke, I still read the water when I land at runways near the shoreline. Seaplane flying gave me a better grasp of how it was to fly, along with knowing how to read your surrounding to make your approach better and in turn, to land your plane safer.

yeah, big time! I miss everything about it and it will always be a big part of me.

Me and Capt. Ian in Puerto Galera. Photo by Ian Delos Reyes

I will always be grateful to Air Juan and grateful to the seaplane pilots I flew with.

Ironically, I would think that most people who pursue worthwhile careers know that when it’s time to go, it’s time to go, that how I felt before. I honestly feel that my time flying seaplanes made me a better pilot. I will always be grateful to Air Juan and grateful to the seaplane pilots I flew with. They will always be my favorite guys to fly with and they are still my good friends to this day. Seaplane flying with Air Juan will always be the coolest flying I ever did, and I know years from now, even if I fly many more planes, deep inside I will always be a seaplane pilot.

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Paul Burns

Paul Burns

A husband, a dad and an Aviator. Live, Love, Fly!!