“I have some good news and some bad news,” the pilot said to the 10 of us at the boarding gate for the flight from Santa Catalina Island to Long Beach.
“The good news is all of you will be going home tonight. The bad news is I can take only four of you. The others will have to take the boat.”
I looked down from the Airport-in-the-Sky to the harbor at Avalon and watched the last scheduled boat for the day leave the dock. What does he mean, “The others will have to take the boat.” What boat?
“As you can see,” the pilot continued, “the fog is closing in so I won’t be able to make a return flight tonight for the rest of you. Because of rough seas today, the amphibian has had to land on the airstrip. After several landings, the brakes gave out so I’ll be flying a seven-place plane. There are two passengers bumped from the previous flight already on board.”
“We’ve been sitting in a bar since one o’clock waiting for this flight,” said the woman in a red, Porsche T-shirt. “If we wanted to take the boat, we would have left hours ago.” Her male companion nodded in agreement. They stood firmly by their three pieces of luggage.
“I’ve got an important dinner engagement in L.A. in two hours,” said the man with the briefcase.
“I’m very sorry for this inconvenience,” the pilot said, “but I can take only four of you. These two (gesturing to two men) are company employees and will stay over. Are there any volunteers for the boat?”
I saw fear in my young daughter’s eyes. Earlier she nearly lost her lunch on the calm, glass-bottom boat ride. How will she survive a two-hour ride across the channel?
The two young backpackers shrugged, picked up their sleeping bags, and boarded the van that had just brought us up the narrow, twisting road from Avalon.
Six of us remained: the Porsche couple, the man with the briefcase, and the three of us.
“You can draw straws,” the pilot suggested.
“Our car is at the Long Beach Airport,” the Porsche woman said. “The boat docks at San Pedro. How will we get to our car?”
Our car is also at the Long Beach Airport.
“The company will pay your taxi fare.”
No one budged.
The pilot looked at his passenger list. “ . . ., party of two; . . ., party of one; Schaefer, party of three. I’ve got to consider weight. (Good! We didn’t have any luggage.) But I don’t want to split any party.” He looked at my husband.
“Don’t look at me,” Lee said. “You’re the pilot in command. It’s your decision.”
Meanwhile, fog swirled overhead and fingers of it stretched around the island.
If he doesn’t decide soon, none of us will fly off the island tonight.
The pilot penciled his passenger list again. “Maybe I’ll take the first four who checked in for the flight.”
The man with the briefcase was on the morning flight with us to Catalina. He was waiting for the return flight when we checked in late that afternoon. We did not see the Porsche couple.
Ours was a last minute decision to go to Catalina. When we called from Long Beach to reserve overnight accommodations, we were told that a four- to six-months’ reservation is necessary. In order to spend a day on the island, we reserved seats on the 9:30 a.m. seaplane flight to Catalina and the last return flight at 5:30 p.m. to Long Beach Airport.
When we checked in at nine the next morning, the attendant greeted us with an omen of things to come. “The waves are too high for the seaplane to land at Avalon,” she said. “You’ll fly over in the seaplane but it will land at the airport on top of the island. The company will provide transportation down to Avalon.”
For the 5:30 p.m. return flight to Long Beach, the sea at Avalon was still too rough for the amphibian so we were bussed up the mountain to the Airport-in-the Sky. However, the attendant neglected to mention the mechanical failure and the incoming fog.
The Airport-in-the-Sky is aptly named. Two mountain tops were leveled and the adjoining ravine filled to create a plateau for the airport.
Fog crept along the edge of the runway. I shivered in my summer dress and sandals as I awaited the pilot’s decision.
Who will be the four passengers to fly off the island tonight?
“I’ve decided to take . . . (the man with the briefcase) and the three Schaefers.”
We heaved sighs of relief and hurried toward the aircraft. Fog obscured the end of the runway as we climbed aboard. The pilot taxied through puffs of fog, gathered momentum, and lifted off at the edge of the precipice.
Minutes later we flew in clear sky over the channel and the passenger boat we had watched leave Avalon 90 minutes earlier.