Flight to Horta

Zur deutschen Fassung dieser Geschichte.

On the plane to the island of Faial, I notice that many people have brought thick books with them. An island seems to be a good place to read, and I wonder why people, if they like reading, don’t make equal time for it at home.

A young girl sitting next to me is reading Anne Frank’s diary. It is always the youth that gives me a little bit of hope.

Sitting in the row opposite is an old man reading a thick thriller through thick glasses. He looks like Norman Mailer himself. With a touch of Clint Eastwood. Definitely like someone who would have a novel in him.

I start reading “Moby Dick” and regret not having found a ship to the Azores.

But when writing about flights, readers don’t want descriptions of fellow passengers and their reading, they want me to look out the window. Well, there is not much to see. Plenty of water.

“Why don’t you take pictures?” the beginners then ask, because they don’t know that the drops drifting in the ocean are the same ones as in the bathtub at home. And if you try to take a photo of the islands, it gets blurred and scratched.

Pico from plane

(This is the view of Pico Island, Mount Pico hidden in the clouds and the town of Madalena. If you want to know something about the island, you must not only fly over it, but you have to explore it properly, on foot, for at least a week – or read my article.)

And then I already have to put my camera down, because the announcement comes on: “Ready for landing,” and the little plane swings into the harbor of Horta.

The harbor?

Yes, the harbor, which is also the airport here.

Because that is perhaps the most interesting thing about this flight: As many islands in the Azores are too small for airports, the planes have to land on water. The only exception is Lajes Field, an airport that the British Air Force built on the island of Terceira during World War II. The mere mentioning of that time makes the readers throw their hands up in despair and shout in unison: “Oh no, not another historical digression!”, which is a pity, since it would not be limited to the Second World War, but would finally offer the opportunity to speak about the Anglo-Portuguese alliance of 1373. Anyway, if you are interested, just press the button above your seat.

The plane slowly descends towards the water surface. Actually, a water landing is easier than a ground landing, because you can “roll out” forever or, if necessary, attempt the landing again without having to return to a designated spot. But the weather must be better, because waves in the water are even deadlier than winds across the runway.

Oh, there was a first touchdown.

But the plane is already back in the air.

And another touchdown.

The plane bounces back again, still flying.

I’m a little bit worried, but later, I will find out that this is exactly how it is supposed to be. The pilot keeps touching the water to slow the plane down. In the end, the plane should be just slow enough to lose the aerodynamic lift and to glide into the water. Once the speed has been reduced enough, this is hardly ever dangerous.

seaplane landing in Horta

And I think it worked! You notice that you have finally landed when the propellers get cranked up again and the plane describes a curve in the water to drive/swim towards the port.

Once there, I’m surprised how busy it is. With only 15.000 people living on the island, what are all the airplanes doing here?

seaplanes parked in Horta

“What are you all doing on Faial?”, I ask the passengers disembarking from another plane.

seaplane passengers

“Oh, we don’t know that ourselves. We only have an hour to stretch our legs and have a cup of coffee.” They are on a stopover from New York to Lisbon.

And suddenly, I understand the big rush. The location of the Azores in the middle of the Atlantic makes it a perfect, indeed the only, stopover place for transatlantic flights. Well, you could still fly via Greenland or Iceland, but if you end up going to or coming from southern Europe, that’s quite a detour. And who wants to buy a winter jacket for a short stopover?

The first landing of a plane in Horta coincided with the first transatlantic flight ever. You are probably thinking of Charles Lindbergh now, but no! He was the first to fly non-stop and alone across the Atlantic in 1927. But the first successful transatlantic crossing by airplane ever was accomplished in 1919 by a US Navy crew in the Curtiss NC-4.


In May 1919, Captain Albert Read landed in Horta Harbor with what, at least to modern eyes, looks like a rattletrap and gave the fishermen and whalers a good scare. But back then, flying was all about energy efficiency, not luxury and convenience. At that time, getting on a plane was still environmentally acceptable, even for tree-huggers!

Lindbergh, sticking to the rules of the competition, had missed the Azores on his non-stop flight. But he returned in 1933 to find the best port for stopovers on the transatlantic route. He picked Horta on Faial as the best port, and because at the time, Lindbergh had not yet disqualified himself as a Nazi, the major airlines believed him.

But then, it was the Nazis after all who opened the first regular air service from Europe to New York via Horta. If Lindbergh had a secret hand in this? Who knows. From 1936, Lufthansa flew with Dornier Do-18 flying boats. But these were still quite windy aircraft, only for airmail and, in typical complicated German engineering, they could land in water but not take off in water. Instead, Lufthansa had to provide a ship from which the mail plane was catapulted back into the air after the stopover.

This is more or less the technology that is still used on aircraft carriers today. I believe.

But from 1938 on, the big passenger planes of Pan Am came and went several times a week. I forgot to take pictures in the airplane, also because I would have found it rude in front of the other passengers. But here you can take a look into the inner life of a Boeing 314.

seaplane inside

I actually found it quite spacious and comfortable. Much better than Ryanair and similar airlines, in any case.

Only now does it occur to me that the girl reading Anne Frank was perhaps not motivated by an interest in the Holocaust, but merely wanted to prepare herself for the forthcoming quarantine.

Practical advice:

  • Because the Azores are striving for equal treatment of all nine Azores islands, there is a great offer: If you can’t find a suitable (i.e. cheap) flight from Portugal to the island of your choice, simply fly to another island and get the connecting flight for free. All you have to do is register here in due time (this applies to inbound and outbound flights).
  • The flights with the flying boats are for nostalgics, which is why you won’t find them on the internet. You have to go to a travel agency like we used to do in the good old times.


About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in Azores, History, Portugal, Technology, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Flight to Horta

  1. Carla Madruga Gomes says:

    !!!!!!!!!! 😂😂

    • Or true history, at least.

    • Carla Madruga Gomes says:

      I will try to book one of those next time 😁

    • It’s the little travel agency around the corner, under the aqueduct, and through the park, opposite from the former elementary school, in the basement of the building.
      The one that looks like it’s closed and like it hasn’t been opened or cleaned since 1986. It’s run by an old couple, and you need to bring a lot of time. And pay in cash.

  2. Very cool! That plane looks like it would be fun! I’ve only been on a plane a few times. Once in the 70s when I flew alone as a child. I got a wings pin and a balloon too. Then a high school graduation trip to Hawaii in the 80s, boring 5 hour flight, crammed in like sardines. And once to Arizona in the 80s, a short flight to visit family. Driving was cheaper and we could explore by taking the smaller roads and seeing the small towns.

    • Maybe I have grown in size, but I think we get crammed in like sardines even more nowadays.
      I try to avoid flying as much as possible, for environmental reasons, but also because it’s not as much fun as taking the train or hitchhiking. And road trips on the small roads, as you mention! With spontaneous stops and surprising discoveries.

  3. Pingback: Flug nach Horta | Der reisende Reporter

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