Last summer, one of Donald Trump's new pilots made the mistake of bringing his helicopter down on the back runway at the East Hampton airport. "What are you doing?" screamed the red-faced mogul. "The main runway's over there." The pilot replied that he thought Trump wanted to make a low-key entrance. "Are you crazy?" his boss sputtered. "I've got my name on the damn helicopter! Pick it up, and bring it back over -- I wanna land right in the center of this airport."
The competition for that choice spot at the East Hampton airport is pretty stiff these days. Mort Zuckerman usually manages to snag the prime -- i.e., the most highly visible -- parking space for his Falcon 900, with Edward Gordon and former Sony chief Mickey Schulhof jockeying for the same privilege (one that's determined, pretty much, by whoever arrives first). But they're spared any competition from Saul Steinberg and Teddy Forstmann, who are forced by virtue of the size of their jets to land at the West Hampton Air Force Base, where Air Force One will probably be parked this weekend. Ron Perelman and Tommy Mottola, like Trump, also have access to private jets but travel to the Hamptons by helicopter -- so they may not get to show off their planes' tail numbers (Zuckerman's ends in MZ, Perelman's in MF, as in the name of his holding company, MacAndrews & Forbes), but at least they don't have to haul themselves out to an airport just to leave town.
Of course, weekend air travel is no longer only for those with checking accounts larger than university endowments -- anyone with a few hundred to spare and the sense to plan ahead can book passage on a seaplane that leaves from the East River off 23rd Street, or hitch a ride on a helicopter (around $1500 for 6 people) that departs from the same location or on 35th Street. And why not? Mile-high-clubbers can jet from Manhattan to East Hampton in about as much time as it takes to read the Post cover to cover (say, twenty minutes). But with every two-bit millionaire flying out to Long Island these days, there are bound to be complications. If the weather's bad, you can get caught in gridlock over the East Hampton airport. You might even have to land in -- of all places -- Islip, well over an hour away from Lily Pond Lane.
For fifteen years, Loanet chairman Neil Hirsch enjoyed the ultimate door-to-door service: His pilot regularly flew his seaplane right up to his house in Water Mill, until an ordinance passed last year barred seaplanes from the pond. "They've been landing seaplanes here for 50 years, and there's never been an accident," he said.
Only fishwives and Marianne Williamson believe in jinxes, but the very next night, Hirsch's Cessna suddenly took a header into the East River. It seems the landing gear was not retracted, causing the seaplane to flip when it hit the water near the 23rd Street base. As the plane started to sink, Hirsch kicked out one of the windows. He and the pilot, Tom Roed, made it to the surface, but when Roed went back for Hirsch's companion, actress Elizabeth Barr, he lost consciousness. Roed spent a week in the hospital before being released. "Of course I'll keep flying," says Hirsch, who may have been downed but is certainly not out. Unlike its owner, the Cessna is totaled, but hey -- it was time to upgrade to a Gulfstream anyway.