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 3 of 5)
Though few of the island flights are that short, none is very long. Flying from Friday Harbor to Seattle takes only 40 minutes even in the smallest single-engine Cessna. Ray Bigler has 300 hours but he says he has as many takeoffs and landings as pilots with a thousand hours. “In six to eight hours of flying,” says Chris Pancotta, “you make 30 to 40 landings.”
The short flights typical of San Juan flying can create mechanical problems. Sid Smith, San Juan Island’s only FAA-certified mechanic, replaces a lot of batteries, starters, and magnetos. “People fly short distances, a lot of 15- and 20-minute flights, so [parts] don’t last as long, and valve guides go through a lot of temperature cycling and wear out sooner,” he says. Because of the salt spray that comes off Griffin Bay, Smith also uses a lot of anti-corrosion coating. “You can tell which way a plane is parked on the ramp or an open T-hangar because one side gets corroded,” Smith says.
With the changing demographics of the San Juan Islands, charter services and flight instruction outfits are proliferating, but the heaviest use of Friday Harbor Airport is by day trippers. On the first day of a three-day summer weekend, the airport sees 240 operations during daylight hours. Although there are 30 airfields within a 10-mile radius of the airport, pilots choose Friday Harbor because of its ample parking and because they can walk to any of a half-dozen good restaurants or to a seaside that offers glimpses of seals, whales, and a variety of birds. “Lots of pilots like to eat and then stroll through the marina,” Mayo says.
“You can watch the seaplanes coming and going,” says Russell Williams, a Microsoft programmer who lives in Issaquah, Washington. Williams, who has a collection of four classic tail draggers and four “projects” awaiting restoration, flies his 1958 Bellanca Cruisemaster to Friday Harbor on several of the long days of the northwest summer. “I can leave work by four or five, hop in the Bellanca, and fly up to [San Juan] island or wander around the islands. It’s a fun flight either way.
“The part I like better is to come back to Seattle around dusk. You can see for a hundred miles. The Cascades are on your left in the east and the Olympics are on the right. Then the sun goes down on the Olympic peninsula and everything lights up. Mount Rainier turns pink in the distance.”
Another Friday Harbor regular, retired Air Force pilot Lee Brewer, is one of a few dozen lucky pilots who have hangar space at Friday Harbor Airport, which, according to Pat Mayo, has a 27-year waiting list for hangars.
The 79-year-old Brewer rolls back his hangar’s heavy doors and wheels out his 1,200-pound 1937 Tiger Moth biplane. Brewer flew B-29s in the Pacific theater and jet fighters in Korea, and later spent years stationed in Germany and France. His Tiger Moth is equally peripatetic, having been built in Hatfield, England, in 1937, subsequently shipped to Australia to be used as a wartime trainer, and later bought by the South African air force. In 1975 it wound up in Canada, where Brewer bought it. He had also owned a Ryan PT-22, but shortly after taking off from Anacortes, Washington, in May 1992, a counterweight on the crankshaft came off and the engine literally blew up. As it seized, debris from the no. 4 cylinder tore off chunks of his prop. He glided to a landing on Highland Drive, near the airport, and the airplane burned. “End of a good plane,” he shrugs.
Besides the Tiger Moth, Brewer owns Rain Bird, a 40-foot schooner built in 1949 by William Garden, perhaps the most exclusive boat designer on the West Coast. (Brewer’s expensive tastes extend to his cars: a 1948 Lincoln Continental Cabriolet and a replica of a 1927 Bugatti model 35B that he built himself without plans.) The weather in the San Juans provides him with lots of opportunities to fly, but when he can’t, he works on his boat or goes sailing. “Landing or tying up, either way you know you’re done dealing with Mother Nature on her own terms and it’s a big letdown,” he says.