Billabong, an Australian surf wear giant with corporate offices in Orange County, has carefully refurbished a 1950s military seaplane once used by the Air Force for search-and-rescue operations.
Today, there's a new mission: promote the Billabong trademark and seek out the best waves on the planet for some of surfing's leading professionals.
Like something out of a "Fantasy Island" rerun, the venerable Grumman HU-16B Albatross landed in the sea off Corona del Mar on Monday afternoon and moored in scenic China Cove.
"It's finally come to fruition," Graham Stapelberg, vice president of Billabong's North American operations, said during a press conference. "This has taken a lot of work by a lot of people. It's great to see it here in one of the most beautiful spots in California."
The twin-engine aircraft -- with its cream paint job, brown accents and Billabong logos -- is the ultimate surf exploration vehicle. It has a maximum range of 3,300 miles, a cruising speed of more than 200 mph, a payload capacity of 5 tons and room for 12, including three crew members.
Besides being a promotional tool for the company, the plane, dubbed the Billabong Clipper, will be used exclusively to ferry around professional surfers for documentaries and advertising.
When finally outfitted, the plane will have bunks, a galley, a bathroom and what Billabong says will be the latest navigational and information systems to track the weather and waves. Outside, two Jet-skis will be mounted on wing pods that were once used for drop tanks.
If all goes as planned, it will be possible to get the latest surf information for a region, crank up the radial engines and fly off to the best possible spot for the swell conditions. After touchdown in the ocean, there's only a short paddle to the break.
The Grumman can easily hunt for waves along a South Pacific archipelago or search isolated stretches of Mexican or Central American coastline, providing access to the most remote places.
"I've been on a lot of boat trips, but you spend too much time at sea trying to get from one surf spot to another," said Andy Irons, a two-time world champion. "Now we'll be able to check dozens of surf spots from the air. It's the best possible way to go surfing."
Even the flight crew -- pilot Paul Rivas and flight engineer John Gasho -- are stoked, though they know little or nothing about surfing. For them, the old Grumman will provide a rare chance to work on and fly a piece of aviation history.
"It's really a cool job," said Gasho, who has helped rebuild more than 20 Albatrosses, including Billabong's. "I don't know how to surf. When the fun factor is over, I will do something else."
The use of seaplanes is one of the latest developments in maximizing the surfing ethos -- the desire for uncrowded, perfect waves in remote, exotic locales.
For years, charter boats, oceangoing trawlers, commercial airlines and four-wheel-drive vehicles have been the means to that end for those who could afford them. The big seaplane, with its extended range and speed, kicks it up a notch.
At Billabong, "these guys are hard-core surfers. When you have millions of marketing dollars, this kind of thing becomes reality," said Steve Pezman, publisher of the Surfer's Journal. "It's a little bratty, a little hedonistic and a little wonderful all mixed together."
The 50-year-old Grumman also highlights some of the intense competition between major surf wear manufacturers for name recognition and market share.
Once Billabong announced its seaplane project after several years of secrecy, rival Quiksilver acquired the same type of plane and dispatched it on a promotional tour of North America in September.
Though disappointed, Billabong executives remain undaunted. "We can't worry about other people. Everyone to their own devices," Stapelberg said. "We are going to do what we want to do on a global basis."
Pezman worries that the mystique of remote surf spots known only to a few is fading fast. Baja California, for instance, was once a surf frontier but now is overrun in many places.
"I hope they conduct this intense investigation of the last undiscovered morsels of waves on our globe in a way that does not spoil the adventure for the rest of us," Pezman said.