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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-Exup�ry, 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."
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-Exup�ry 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�tre d'a�rodrome, 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.