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A real-life tale of one commuter's flight from the rat race


One sunny Sunday afternoon, my husband Bill and I were returning from a small local airport where we had rented a plane to fly to Key West and back. We always referred to this experience as "renting a wreck" because the planes were old, run down and junky -- in a word, unpleasant. It was the usual bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-95 and Bill began ruminating about having his own plane. Little did I know an important new chapter in our book of life was just beginning -- one that changed our course to a radically new direction that afternoon.

We envisioned being above it all, flying high over the petty snarls of traffic -- independent and courageous. The concept was that he could fly from our waterfront backyard in Miami Shores to the Ft Lauderdale airport where Bill worked as a cabinet-maker on the interiors of private aircraft. It would be a seaplane which could float down the canal in our backyard out to the bay and take off, flying over civilization in just 10 minutes instead of the grueling hour's drive.

Yes, it was a brilliant and pratical idea. Why had so few done it? The intensity of cars and traffic was only increasing. Maybe this was the start of a new mode of transportation! Maybe my husband would be the first of a wave of people taking advantage of Florida's waterways and traveling quickly and efficiently by air and by sea. That sunny Sunday afternoon I was excited and supportive of my husband's sudden creative vision.

It all came together very quickly as though it was always meant to happen. Bill found an ad in an airplane magazines for the exact seaplane he wanted to build. The owner had started the project from a kit with a friend, but lost interest after the partner died. He wanted to sell the half-built plane and see it fly someday. We were planning on visiting my father in Pennsylvania and conveniently he lived just an hour and a half away. Within weeks we found ourselves driving out to the country where Bud, the plane hobbyist, lived. We found him to be trustworthy and the plane project was in order.

Coincincidentally, Bud planned to visit Florida that winter and told us we could use his trailer to haul the half-built plane down south. We would then deliver his trailer back to him. It was so easy and smooth, it seeemed that husband's vision was meant to be. That cool fall day in Pennsylvania, Bill's dream began to unfold as he made his commitment and gave Bud a deposit. Ten thousand dollars would buy the kit and its parts -- hardly a lot of money, considering it how difficult it is to find a quality used car for the same price.

My husband approached his brilliant friend and very respected Mercedes mechanic, Bryce. Bryce was also a pilot who has spent many hours dreaming about creating a plane with a Mazda rotary engine. My husband could not have anyone more suited than him to work on this project, as Bryce thouroughly understands the intricacies of engines and how they work. He accompanied Bill back to Pennsylvania to assist him in hauling the plane, with wings attached, back to Florida.

Arriving in our driveway the evening before Thanksgiving, I woke up that morning with our driveway completely overtaken by this unusual interdimensional-looking space craft. It was odd because there were no wheels and it was extremely wide, the wings covering from one side of the driveway to the other. How in the world did this thing travel down I-95? The neighbors began stopping by totally intrigued with the idea that this might one day take off from the canal in their back yard. All the men came telling their stories of flying in the military or of always having the dream to fly. One neighbor, the Doctor down the street, had just bought a second home in the Keys and realized in one fell swoop how perfectly it could serve him to commute from his home to his Keys getaway. Imagine the huge bays and intracoastals suddenly being able to be used as a landing pad, a natural runway and airport, from one waterfront home to the n ext.

That Thanksgiving morning the would-be pilots in the neighborhood helped my husband and Bryce wrangle the plane into the backyard. The body of the plane with the wing span was 24 feet wide. Our house lies close to the property line and there was no way to just walk it around back. Our next door neighbor has a wonderful ramp from his driveway into the canal and it was decided that they would roll the plane over on the trailer and then down the ramp into the canal. The tricky part was guiding the plane alongside the sea wall towards our davits without injuring it. I nervously feared the long journey it had made from Pennsylvania would end in disaster in the canal, the fragile plane banging against the sea wall - injured and beaten before the project even began. I braced myself, aware that my female instincts were prone to losing faith in anything technical.

It was tedious and time consuming, but the half-built sea plane made it out of the canal into the backyard that Thanksgiving morning, the supportive neighborhood men predicting that they would all be there with champagne in hand at the inaugural test flight. Little did any one know at that moment, that the project's expected completion date of six months was far under estimated.

Next the trips to Home Depot began. My husband bought a big ugly tarp as a makeshift hanger. I worried this would quickly become an eyesore for both neighbors and boaters -- don't those tarps come in peach that would at least match the house? As boaters passed by I could only comfort myself that at least our yard was unusual and provided them with a conversation piece as they passed by on Saturday afternoons, drinking beer.

Little by little, all the parts of a real workstation manifested in our backyard. A hose connected to a big silver tub became a running sink. Saw horses with plywood boards on top became work benches. Big fans stood in each back corner to help fight the baking Florida heat. Bill and Bryce began working from sunrise until eleven pm every night, forming the most focused partnership I have ever witnessed. I felt honored to make them meals, calling them in late at nights for dinner, ideas about making plane parts running through their conversations like rushing water.

Early each morning, sipping coffee as the sun brightened feelings of excitement and optimism, they would scan through airplane magazines looking at the latest designs. Their partnership worked like two intricate cogs in a wheel. Bryce lived with us for months at a time, working night and day, seven days and nights a week. They were determined, focused and constantly inspired.

There have been many phases to this seaplane project, but since I don't even pretend to have the least bit of understanding of all the details that have gone in to this enormous undertaking, I will just mention a few of the highlights that struck me as I pause now in remembering it's construction. One of the most dramatic transformations was when the "cowling" was formed. The cowling is what houses, or holds, the engine. I guess it stands out in my mind because of the sexy design it has given to the shape of the sea plane. My husband made a mold and created its shape himself in fiberglass, then sanded it to give a sleek, rounded soft appearance. The engine was then placed into this compartment. Several trips were made to the Mazda dealer. The use of a car engine in an air plane is a rare and unique thing. There are only a few such applications. Bryce loved the idea and communicated with the few experts who had used this "wankel rotary" type engine in their planes. He bought the car engine from the dealer and then worked on modifying it for months and months to adopt it to the seaplane. The day it landed into the cowling was a big day, but the biggest day of all, as of yet, was the day when they actually turned the engine on.

Initially it sounded terrible. So loud and rough that it was almost painful and unbearable to hear. That day was miserable. My husband's face flattened, his spirit pierced. Could it be all this work, all this time and an engine that didn't even work? He labored over it for days until I finally picked up the phone to call Bryce in Key West. Help! I pleaded; the engine doesn't work, we need you! He came the next morning and three weeks later, after several modifications, the engine was rebuilt and working. Still extremely loud but powerful, Bryce declared he had created a monster. The analogy implied that an airplane engine could never be too powerful as a person could not be too thin or too rich. I instantly understood and was relieved.

Last summer as hurricane George headed for Miami my biggest fear wasn't losing our precious home that we spent years remodeling, but the thought of the "Sea Hawk", as we now called it, being smashed to smithereens. Thankfully, by this time the brown hillbilly tarp had been replaced by a classy white tent that was literally a hanger. My husband had purchased it last Spring at "Sun 'n Fun" and it transformed our yard and his experience into something close to professional and pleasing. As the night winds blustered on and the hanger shook in the backyard, I couldn't sleep. Thoughts of all the time, dedication, love and now money tormented me. What would this do to my husband, if in a matter of minutes, it was all destroyed?

Yet, isn't this the true nature of life? Thankfully, the hurricane was just a test of faith and the Sea Hawk project continues on. My fondest memories is my husband's birthday two Augusts ago -- yes, the project has been moving ahead now for over two years. The most frequently asked question is how much further my husband has to go. He no longer answers but says he hopes to have it flying sometime this year. His first birthday after the plane began I got the logo of the "Sea Hawk" etched on to tee shirts.

Mostly my husband and Bryce wear them and they remind us all that they really are pilots and will some day fly their own plane. Yet, I also gave them to significant people and friends that have appreciated or taken part in the project in some way. The image is that we will all wear the shirts in gray, off white and powder blue the day the Sea Hawk takes off from the bay in our neighborhood. We'll stand along with the neighbor men in the empty lot alongside the water's edge, champagne in hand, with white swooping birds overhead in our view, saluting my husband and Bryce for making their dream come true.


Lynne Hyde is an astrologer who lives in Miami.