The People and Planes of Friday Harbor
Time and tide wait for no man, but they seem to linger a little around the flying paradise of the San Juan Islands.
- By Tom Harpole
- Air & Space magazine, May 2004
(Page 2 of 5)
The inconvenience of waiting for ferries is one reason Friday Harbor Airport is so important to the San Juan community. Pat Mayo, a thin, philosophical man of 57, has managed the operations at the airport for 21 years. His office perches in an octagonal control tower, a structure he acquired as surplus and had barged to the island and mounted on the new operations building. He enjoys a 360-degree view of the airport as well as the San Juan forests and Puget Sound. “Our lawmakers underfund [the ferry system] chronically, even though it’s a critical link to the population of these islands and the Olympic peninsula,” Mayo says. “There aren’t enough ferries. You show up an hour early and still can’t get your car on.” Ferries connect the four largest islands with mainland cities, and though many islanders use their own boats for pleasure trips to the mainland, the fastest and simplest way to cross is by airplane.
With 10 pilots, five de Havilland Beavers, and a fleet of Cessnas and Piper Navajos, San Juan Airlines operates three scheduled round trips a day between the islands and the mainland. “In summer we fly a lot of families who want to go out on Thursday and come back on Sunday,” says Chris Pagnotta, the 31-year-old director of operations. “It’s a one-and-a-half- to two-hour ferry ride versus a 10- to 12-minute flight for $35. There’s a lot of development on the islands, and lately we’ve been flying a lot of workers—plumbers, carpenters.”
Pagnotta says they fly the winter traffic in sometimes less-than-ideal conditions. “Most of the time it’s calm and beautiful,” he says, “but throughout the winter, the weather is not always so friendly. With low ceilings and low visibility, the flying is extremely demanding. We’re following shorelines and weaving around through the islands. You can’t cross over the islands. People think: Islands. Flat plates sitting on the water. But on Orcas Island, for example, the elevation changes from sea level to 2,500 feet in about a mile, and if the clouds are sitting at six or seven hundred feet….”
Kenmore Air Harbor is a large seaplane operation flying de Havilland Beavers and Otters between the San Juans and ports near Seattle. Ask the pilots for hangar tales and they rarely reply with stories of close calls flown in winter weather. They talk about movie stars. Friday Harbor’s Pat Mayo can also tick off a list of celebrities who have shown up there: Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn, Patrick Swayze, Art Linkletter, Tom Cruise, Sandra Bullock….
“One of my most memorable flights was taking Katharine Hepburn to the islands,” says Kenmore president Gregg Munro. “She was in Seattle doing a play, and she went to Friday Harbor for lunch. She was an older lady with a walking stick, but as the day went on, she just got younger—climbing over logs and rocks on the beach.”
Munro prefers seaplanes to land planes, he says, because “basically it’s one of the last unrestricted areas of flying, going where there are no control towers.”
Both Kenmore and San Juan fly charter flights to the “outer islands,” as the locals call them, where there’s no ferry and the residents depend on airplanes for services and deliveries. “When we fly to the smaller islands, we’re usually taking [someone from] the phone company, or a package for FedEx,” says Jackie Hamilton, the owner of on-demand charter service Island Air, which is based at Friday Harbor. Hamilton’s dad moved the family to the islands when he retired from Pan Am. “Pilots tend to find the garden spots,” she says.
Air deliveries to the smaller islands earned the San Juans a spot in the Guinness Book of Records for the world’s shortest scheduled airline flight, less than a minute. West Isle Air notified the Guinness organization of the flight, between Center and Decatur Islands, which was on its mail run. Jack Kintner, an ordained Lutheran minister, who flew his parish’s Cessna 172H from Friday Harbor to Lopez Island to Orcas for Sunday services at 10 a.m., noon, and 2 p.m., had previously flown the mail for San Juan Airlines and knows the route. “It was a lot of fun to try to do it as fast as you can,” he says. “There were guys who’d sit out on their porches and time us from one island to the other.”