Eighty minutes in the air, plus a splash in the East River, and I was in Manhattan.
Tailwind Air's seaplanes are the latest mode of transportation to connect the Washington area to New York City, and the amphibious flights eliminate much of the dread associated with the trip north. Passengers won't hit traffic snarls (car, bus) or find themselves exiled in the wrong borough or state (commercial air). The travel time is also quicker than the train, including Acela, which clocks in at just under three hours.
While a seaplane ticket is pricey, with one-way fares starting at $395, the views from the air are exclusive to private planes and birds.
Flying by air, landing by sea
Tailwind Air was founded in 2012, but the carrier only recently started offering amphibious flights. The company flies eight-seater Cessna Caravans, which are popular in Alaska, where seaplane travel is almost pedestrian.
In 2020, it introduced seaplane service on routes bookended by bodies of water, such as Manhattan to the Hamptons. The following year, it launched flights between the East River and Boston Harbor, and it has been on a tear since, adding Plymouth and Provincetown, Massachusetts; Sag Harbor, and, most recently, the Washington area.
The company's original plan was to depart from College Park, Maryland, which is disappointingly landlocked, so passengers would not experience a water takeoff and landing on the same trip. Security issues, however, forced Tailwind to scout for a new airport, which it found in Virginia, but, strike two, not on the Potomac. Washington Dulles does have a little pond, if that's any consolation.
Regular rules do not apply
Tailwind Air leaves from Jet Aviation, a fixed-base operator (FBO) permitted to manage private, charter and commuter flights out of Dulles. Passengers departing from here do not have to go through the same security rigmarole as they do in major airports. The airline screens travelers in advance using a national database. This means no body scans, bag inspections or stressful queues of any type.
The 3-1-1 rule does not apply. Passengers can bring grown-up-size liquids onboard. One dog - or two, if they belong to the same family - is permitted in the cabin. The owner must pay the regular fare for pups weighing 25 pounds or more, and secure smaller dogs in an approved carrier.
Passengers are allowed 20 pounds of baggage each. The company charges $250 for extra luggage. When booking, you must provide your weight, and while it's important to be honest, no one is going to come after you with BMI calipers.
Seaplanes follow the same weather advisories as other aircraft, with one notable exception: "The pilot has to be able to see the water," said Alan Ram, the airline's chief executive, explaining that seaplanes don't fly at night.
Because seaplanes don't fare well on ice, Washington's season will end Dec. 21 and resume March 21.
If the aircraft can't splash down, the pilot will divert to the nearest terrestrial airport, such as New York's Westchester or Teterboro in New Jersey. The company will cover the cost of shuttling you to Manhattan.
Jet Aviation is not directly attached to Dulles, so driving is the best option. Parking is free, a nice perk if you fly round trip. If you don't have a car, you can catch ground transportation from the main airport or grab a taxi or car share.
According to the company, Jet Aviation has an on-demand shuttle that will transport passengers to and from IAD's main terminal. When I called Tailwind to arrange a ride, I was told to drive or take a cab; I later learned that I should have called Jet Aviation. To eliminate a step, I ordered a Lyft from the Wiehle-Reston Metro station for about $15.
The gate closes 10 minutes before takeoff. Ram recommended gliding in no more than 20 minutes beforehand. I arrived a half-hour before the 2:05 p.m. takeoff and checked in at the front counter.
Two guys dressed in khakis and blue polo shirts were relaxing on a couch, heads deep in their gadgets. Let me guess: Bachelor party? College reunion? Company retreat? Nope: They were my pilots.
"Just relax. You didn't have to be here so early," said Capt. Adam Schewitz, when he overheard me checking in.
We could choose our seat. I had significant leg room and didn't have to worry about a beverage cart slamming into my shins, since there was no food or drink service or flight attendants (or bathrooms).
Using your phone in the air
"We have phone service," said a very pleased, business-suited passenger, as the plane climbed toward the pillowy clouds.
I switched out of airplane mode - another commercial air rule I could ignore.
The flight was smooth until we hit a stormy patch in Maryland. The pilot found a keyhole in the dark clouds and headed for a patch of blue. I resumed my relaxed pose.
Marine landing in Manhattan
On the East River, the plane landed with a whoosh and a thud. The finale was as scream-worthy as a rapids rafting ride at a water park.
The co-pilot hopped out and balanced on a pontoon while Schewitz steered the plane toward the shore. "Welcome to New York.," he said, after co-pilot Austin Tichy had tied us up at the Skyport Marina dock as if we were a boat.
The seaplane is more than just a conveyance to New York City: It is a sightseeing flight that ends with a double exclamation point. It earned practicality points for being speedy and convenient, at least in the destination. Since the service is new to Dulles, I can overlook the few hiccups.
For the price, I could not become a frequent flyer, but I might splurge on a ticket for a special occasion.