At first it is like flying into a television commercial, as if the old tube-watching armchair has sprouted wings and taken off under the orders of some electronic jinn right through the 23-inch screen. Certainly the colors are gaudy enough. Parrot greens and periwinkle blues; whorls of azure paling toward white, a meandering stripe of Day-Glow purple to mark the edge of the deep. And just as certainly the islands are right. Sudden atolls fringed with palm and pink sand, each a Rorschach blot of living color. The winged armchair banks steeply to the left, diving toward an islet where in a moment, the armchair's pilot is convinced, a smiling, suntanned vacation couple will emerge onto the sand, waving, bikinied, flashing those Ultra Brite ivories. Up music: steel drums and bamboo flutes, a buttery, black voice proclaiming—De Bahamas Beckon Tooo Youuuuu....
But wait a minute! This is a real airplane, a Piper Comanche, and these are the real Bahamas—out islands of the Exuma chain, to be precise. The figures, if any, that emerge on the beach will be wearing sun-bleached work clothes, not bikinis. Their teeth, if any, will be tan, not white. (In these islands, the conch fishermen still outnumber the tourists 10 to 1.) Such, however, is the numbing influence of our culture that even the reality of flight through the handsomest isles of the Caribbean seems to be something we are watching, not actually doing. We have grown so accustomed to the calm sterility of the big jetliners that we no longer can feel (dare we say it?) the thrill of flying.
And thrills, of course, are akin to wonder, a commodity all too rare in an age of glib explanation ("...in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, the oxygen mask in the compartment above..." etc.). Back in the early days of flight, when men still felt amazement at their conquest of the air, wonder was the main theme of aviation writing. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French existentialist of the airways, said it better than most in this passage from Wind, Sand and Stars: "Off to Benghazi! We still have two hours of daylight.... How empty of life is this planet of ours! Once again it struck me that its rivers, its woods, its human habitations were the product of chance, of fortuitous conjunctions of circumstance. What a deal of the earth's surface is given over to rock and sand!
"But all this was not my affair. My world was the world of flight. Already I could feel the oncoming night within which I should be enclosed as in the precincts of a temple—enclosed in the temple of night for the accomplishment of secret rites and absorption in inviolable contemplation. Already this profane world was beginning to fade out.... I know nothing, nothing in the world, equal to the wonder of nightfall in the air."
November 6, 1972
Well then, all of this is by way of preamble to an invitation. If you care to recover the wonder and thrill of flying, if you would like to peel away the plastic coating that television and the airlines have laid over the bare wires of airborne excitement, then buy, beg, borrow or steal a light plane and fly down to the Bahamas this Nov. 27 for the Flying Treasure Hunt. If Saint-Exupéry had not been killed in World War II he would be there. It is one of those wonderful "secret rites" of which he was so fond.
On one level the Bahamas Flying Treasure Hunt is a monster public-relations gimmick. The event is open to pilots from anywhere in the world who for a $25 entrance fee fly around the 700 islands of the Bahamas for the better part of a week looking for aerial clues. The clues, 18 of them, are in the form of aerial photographs—of lighthouses, sunken ships, capes or cays, reefs or reservoirs—and the pilot who accurately identifies the most wins a piece of property in the Bahamas (usually on one of the islands that the Bahamian government is presently pushing as a new real-estate development). Those who fail to win the big prize are rewarded with the treasure of flying the islands at reef-top height, or simply enjoying the sun, the rum and the wonder. The Bahamian government is rewarded with the money the visitors spend (an average of $4,000 per plane per hunt) and the knowledge that many of the pilots, having learned how to fly the islands, will return as vacationers or prospective land buyers. After all, the Bahamas are only 55 miles east of Florida, a 20-minute flight by light plane, barring hurricane.
On a subtler level, the Hunt is an aerial Happening, a congress of flying fans who pretend to be sane, well-to-do Middle Americans but who in fact are the reincarnations of Captain Midnight and Hop Harrigan, Smilin' Jack and the Daredevil Girl Pilot. There is even a benevolent, latter-day Red Baron—Hans Groenhoff, a transplanted German who dreamed up the Treasure Hunt a decade ago for the Bahamian Ministry of Tourism and who still runs it with refreshingly un-Teutonic humor. "Flying is fun and tourism is fun," Hans likes to say, "therefore flying-tourism should be double fun."
Add Groenhoff to the equation and you have triple fun. A short, wry, mustachioed aviator, the 63-year-old Groenhoff split from the Fatherland when Hitler came to power but not before acquiring a nifty Heidelberg dueling scar. "Ja, sure, everyone had to have one," he chuckles, rubbing the white welt of the Schramme that cuts like a second part through his thinning salt-and-pep-per hair. "I was the shortest man ever to attend Heidelberg, so I took my Schlag on the top of the head—easiest place to hit me." To his role as the Treasure Hunt's chief coordinator and ma√Ætre d'aérodrome, Groenhoff brings a delightful sense of play. There are no mere aviators in his game, only "Fearless Fliers" and "Courageous Hunters." As for his own rather commercial involvement in the event, he explains: "There was an opening for a job with the Bahamian Ministry of Tourism. I thought it said 'Bohemian,' and being a bit of a hippie I accepted it. Been here ever since."
Last year's Treasure Hunt was the seventh in the series—the event was not held in 1969 or 1970 but was revived "by popular demand"—and Groenhoff was on hand as usual to greet the earliest arrivals, accompanied by his able wife Fran, whose quasi-hardboiled New York dialect stood out in refreshing contrast to the soft Bahamian slur all around her. The scene was the West End airstrip on Grand Bahama Island, northernmost of the group, but by squinting one's eyes in the coralline sunlight as the planes roared in, it might have been Guadalcanal's Henderson Field during the height of the battle for the Solomons. Rare was the Fearless Flier who did not buzz the joint before touching down. "Have to warn them about that," muttered Groenhoff. "Above all, safety comes first." He looked over at the rapidly dwindling tub of mai tais that welcomed the new arrivals. "We'd better top off the fuel tank, Fran."
The armada of competing aircraft—127 in all—was an impressive sight lined up on the hardstand. "We have more planes here than the average country has in its entire air force," chortled Fran. They ranged in size and cost from a sleek, white-and-yellow, $750,000 Mitsubishi MU-2 down to blocky but sturdy single-engined Pipers, Cessnas and Mooneys that cost no more than a two-bedroom house or a Ferrari 365 GTB. In a scene reminiscent of a hot-rod show, the competitors wandered up and down the line, kicking tires and commenting sagely on the nubbins and antennae of the sophisticated navigational and electronic gear in the costlier aircraft. Say, this feller's got one of them double-doppler, flip-top frazzle scanners that lets you land upside down in a hailstorm—or words to that effect. Yes, there is still a touch of mystery to the art of aviation.
The Intrepid Aeronauts were a bit more comprehensible to the layman. They ranged in age from a licensed 14-year-old to a spry and leathery gaffer from St. Louis named Denver Wright, in the 82nd year of his age, who had not missed a single Treasure Hunt. Younger pilots stepped back from him in reverential awe, wondering if he might not be the third Wright Brother. (Nope, but it's nice to think so.) The man who had flown the longest distance to join the Hunt was one Earl Beedle, an insurance tycoon from Carmichael, Calif. who had crossed the continent in his Cessna 210 with only three stops and a total of 15 flying hours. To be sure, Beedle's arms and legs were still locked in the flying position and his eyes flashed red as a Grimes beacon when they lifted him out of the cockpit, but he was still smiling, a fixed grin that never came unstuck throughout the week. The earliest arrival was Dr. E.Y. Detjen of Guthrie, Okla., a ruddy-cheeked, hard-drinking veterinarian who had winged his single-engined Mooney over the 1,000-mile distance in 5¾ hours. "Had to do it fast," the Doc allowed over rum and limbo music at a luau in the Grand Bahama Hotel that evening. "I'd been out clippin' over the weekend and I was bringin' a load of Rocky Mountain oysters to some friends in Florida. Couldn't let 'em spoil—not after the sacrifice those bulls made in the cause of haute cuisine—haw, haw, haw!"
There was little such levity at the final weather briefing the following morning. A tropical storm, code-named Laura, was swirling off the coast of Cuba to the southwest, and although her final course could not yet be predicted accurately, it looked as if Laura might head up into the Bahamas, increasing to hurricane velocity en route.
"Laura's influence right now extends nearly to the southern end of the Exumas," warned Groenhoff. "Therefore, those of you who plan to hunt down toward Stella Maris on Long Island—which is just southeast of the Exumas—will probably run into high overcast and strong winds." Muttering imprecations at Laura, the Fearless Fliers headed for their aircraft, studying the clue sheet as they went. In addition to the 18 aerial photographs, Groenhoff had added a tricky 19th clue as a tie breaker—"A brilliant red design which represents something that is frequently seen in the Bahamas." A painted coconut? A Sally Lightfoot crab? The sunburned potbelly of a stockbroker who wisely sold short? We would soon see.
As the aerial armada scattered from West End, it quickly became evident that only about a third of the contestants were serious competitors. The majority of the planes simply hopped over to Treasure Cay on the northern tip of Great Abaco Island—a half hour's flight from Grand Bahama—for a leisurely buffet lunch punctuated with more rum. The minority headed for Laura and the clues.
One of the planes heading south was a red-and-white Cherokee Six whose pilot carried a business card that read:
AVIATOR EXTRAORDINAIRE (VIP)
SOFT SHOE DANCER MISSISSIPPI GAMBLER
LOVER OF BEAUTIFUL WOMEN
SOLDIER OF FORTUNE
WILL ACCEPT CHECKS TOO
HAVE PLANE—WILL TRAVEL
REVOLUTIONS GUN RUNNING
BOOTLEGGING CIVIL WARS
Ah, here it was, all in one package! The entire Hop Harrigan-Smilin' Jack syndrome rolled up in one man! Call him Captain Midday. In point of fact, however, Norm Dunn turned out to be a soft-spoken, neatly clipped executive of the Piper Aircraft Corp., whose cargo on this flight consisted not of guns or rum or revolution, but rather of his wife Marie and his teen-aged son Randy. A naval aviator during World War II (torpedo bombers) and later in Korea, Dunn proved a smooth, safe pilot with a kind of sixth sense when it came to turbulence: he always knew how to avoid it. "The business card's a joke, of course," he was quick to explain in his nervous, corporate manner. Then he stared down at the glittering coves and reefs of Great Abaco sliding under the port wing. "But I suppose that there's an element of fantasy in it. Romance is a dirty word nowadays, although back when I started to fly in the early 1940s there was no more romantic an occupation than being a pilot. I guess there still are a few aerial soldiers of fortune, running guns and booze and other stuff, but most private pilots are just plain folks who use their planes for business or recreation—pretty serious people. That's why this Treasure Hunt is such a kick. You can play at romance again, and not be laughed at." Marie and Randy chuckled—not unkindly—and Norm busied himself with his instruments.
South of Great Abaco, the sky began to thicken with the gray outriders of Laura's violent persuasion. The bent, green bow of Eleuthera loomed abeam to the east. Dunn took the Cherokee over New Providence Island—Nassau's downtown street traffic, from 1,000 feet up, looked as thick as Manhattan's—and after avoiding the churning, black-tinged wakes of a few jetliners, set a course for Norman's Cay, one of the northerly islands of the Exuma chain. "Norman's Cay isn't named for me, though I wish it was," Dunn explained. "We'll put down there and go for a swim. It's one of the few islands in the Bahamas where you can park your plane at the end of the runway and dive off the wing into the water." He studied the murky skies ahead. "Looks like we'd better swim now while we have the chance, Laura permitting."
Dunn brought off the cross-wind landing with a carrier pilot's aplomb. Moments later, another plane touched down—a Mooney piloted by a young hydraulics executive from Greenville, S.C. named Gary Loftus ("Fine name for a pilot," mumbled Randy Dunn, himself an aspiring aviator. "Get it: 'Aloftus'?"). Loftus' supercargo was a young woman named Kay Leigh Kreidler who enlivened the beach party by peeling to her bikini and splashing water on everyone, wet or dry. Livelier still was the proprietress of the island, a young Englishwoman who wheeled up in a station wagon to inquire if the party was lost. Reassured that the only thing the party might have lost was the opportunity to swim in the days immediately ahead, she took heed. "I'm Penny Turtle," she said, immediately unbuttoning her blouse, "and I live here with my husband Bill Turtle in a houseboat named R.U.A. Turtle. If you don't mind, I'll join you. We Turtles just love the water." Ah, that old Bahamian wit and hospitality.
After the swimming came the real flying—the long, low-level search along the Exumas en route to Stella Maris. Perhaps it was the salt caking on slightly sunburnt skins, or the threat of storm crackling through the air. Whatever it was, it caused the Bernoulli Principle to become more than a physics book explanation of flight: one could actually feel the lift generated by the wings slicing through the warm, wet fluid called air; feel the subtle turns effected by the ailerons and trim tabs. It was suddenly—wonderfully—clear that this vehicle diving down to take a closer look at some unnamed and unnameable islet was a fragile, pliable skeleton wrapped in soft aluminum, carrying fragile and pliable skeletons wrapped in flesh. With that rather sobering realization, flight ceased to be Transportation and once again became Adventure. Other hunters were in the sky, Barons and Aero Commanders, Senecas and Aztecs—the very names of the planes reflecting their builders' exalted view of history, naive though it might be—and Dunn kept a close eye on them. A cardinal rule of the Hunt holds that the best way to find clues is to find other planes finding clues.
The sky grew continually darker, both from cloud cover and the waning of the day. Dunn nearly missed a turnoff from Great Exuma Island, where he intended to turn east for Stella Maris. But eagle-eyed Randy spotted another plane's landing lights putting down at the George Town airstrip on Great Exuma, and Dunn made his turn on time. A stiff crosswind was rippling the nearly invisible windsock at Stella Maris when Dunn put down. "Two landings for the price of one," he laughed as the Cherokee bounced once on touchdown. "Sorry about that."
That was as close as Laura came to disrupting the Hunt. During the night, while the Fearless Fliers who had risked the flight down to Stella Maris—there were less than half a dozen planes on the resort's strip—rewarded themselves with rum and tall tales in the bar, and while salt-soaked driftwood blazed orange and blue on the fire, and while the wind howled in from the open Atlantic piling miniature sand dunes on the floor, Laura turned in her track and chugged off toward the Gulf of Mexico. One of the Hunters, a husky female physicist from Fairborn, Ohio named E. Anne Buvinger, cheered Laura on her way. "Great," she gruffed, "tomorrow we can go scuba diving. I love it underwater almost as much as I do up in the air." The image came to mind of an aircraft equipped with tanks and a regulator, a translucent plane like Wonder Woman's in the old comic books, half airplane and half submarine....
The following morning, hiking down to the beach at daybreak, Norm Dunn spotted something strange under a clump of frangipani trees in front of the hotel: a six-foot-tall letter "A" laid out in brilliant red cloth. "Hey," he asked at breakfast, "how often does the letter 'A' occur in the word 'Bahamas'?" Sure enough, he had found Groenhoff's non-photographic clue: "A brilliant red design which represents something that is frequently seen in the Bahamas." It was like cracking a code. Who could take the competitive aspects of the Treasure Hunt seriously after discovering Hans Groenhoff's intent so playfully exposed under the frangipani trees? In Saint-Exupéry's phrase: "Already this profane world was beginning to fade out."
It faded into a round of early morning flights in search of clues, followed by days of sailing and skin diving, easy conversation about the places to which only a light plane could take a man (or a woman and children for that matter). Medicine Hat and the River of No Return; an ice-water lake in Labrador where the brook trout run up to 10 pounds; a field in the Yucatan where the Mayan carvings lie nearly as thick and close as the iguanas. There was the usual shoptalk endemic among people who are hooked on machines, but far less than one encounters among the car or motorcycle set, whose main concern in life seems to be frammises and gear ratios. "It's the act of flying that's important," said Anne Buvinger. "That, and what you do once the airplane has gotten you to where you want to be."
As the week drew to a close, the Hunters rendezvoused in Nassau to turn in their clue sheets, each identification marked with latitude and longitude. Despite the early threat from Laura, there had been only one close call. An aging Piper Geronimo piloted by a dry-goods merchant named Lee Spickard, 47, of Knoxville, Tenn., had crashed in Nassau. The wreckage was visible to all the other Hunters as they landed—a bent and burnt-out case at the end of the runway. Spickard and his three passengers were there in the hangar, slightly battered but unbowed, sipping champagne while they told the tale of near disaster over and over again.
"We were taking off for George Town when we began losing oil from the port engine," said Spickard's accountant, James Hickman. "I could see the oil spilling over the cowling. Lee, who's been flying for 23 years, immediately swung back to land, but we had to make two approaches and we were losing altitude all the time. I had my camera loaded and got some really nifty shots of the feathered prop and of the emergency trucks racing out to pick up the pieces. It was strange and in a way reassuring: you often wonder if you'll panic when a plane you're riding in starts to crash, but I found myself perfectly calm, a disinterested spectator at what might have been my own cremation. Then it was just bump, smash and fire. I burnt my hand on the fuselage when I jumped out of the wreck, but it didn't even hurt until later. Lee wants to buy an Aztec for next year's Treasure Hunt." For a 60-year-old certified public accountant, Hickman was pretty cool.
The awards dinner concluding the Seventh Bahamas Flying Treasure Hunt was nearly as aerial as the event itself, thanks to Hans Groenhoff's cultivated concern with the menu. The guests, all well fueled with the bartender's equivalent of av-gas, enjoyed Shrimp Spitfire and Filet Mignon Concorde, Satellite Vegetables and Salad Red Baron, topped off with Parfait Whirlybird and Coffee Phantom. Only the wine—a Bordeaux Saint-Emilion—was non-aeronautical, but it had subtle wings of its own.
The winner of the first prize treasure, a lot on Long Island's Stella Maris Resort, proved to be Hal Roberts, 47, a lumber baron from Camden, N.J., who had been flying a Cessna P206. "I got 14 of the clues," he said in his slightly slurred acceptance speech, "and my wife Jerry got one and my brother-in-law got another one. That makes 16, hey? I won this race and I'm gonna stay here all night if you want me to."
No one actually wanted him to. After all, the real prizes of the Treasure Hunt had been collected long before the last plane touched down at Nassau—gathered at the nerve ends in high-G turns over Rudder Cut and Tarpum Head, or during those long, swift slides down the wind toward Hawks Nest Point or the Sail Rocks. The real first prize was a return to the wonder of flight, obtainable only in a light plane over beautiful but dangerous terrain. One thinks again of Saint-Exupéry packing the airmail through the Andes in 1930: "He felt at ease up here, snugly ensconced. He passed his fingers along a steel rib and felt the stream of life that flowed in it; the metal did not vibrate, yet it was alive. The engine's 500-hp bred in its texture a very gentle current, fraying its ice-cold rind into a velvety bloom. Once again the pilot in full flight experienced neither giddiness nor any thrill; only the mystery of metal turned to living flesh.... So he had found his world again...."