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 4 of 5)
“Hard by the Canadian border and off the Washington coast there lies an archipelago known as the ‘American San Juans,’ ” Ernest Gann wrote in 1974 in Ernest K. Gann’s Flying Circus. “Islanders set their clocks by the initial growl of the 450-horsepower Wasp with which the Stinson Gull Wing is now powered. About the time the island farmers are finishing their first quota of morning chores, the Gull Wing is returned with the mail. Most islanders take its departures and arrival for granted unless they happen to become involved while it is performing its secondary role as an ambulance plane. Even Roy Franklin, pilot-boss of San Juan Airlines, has lost track of the number of about-to-be mothers rushed to the mainland.”
Franklin does remember the night he flew three women on three separate trips to the mainland to deliver babies. “It was in the days after World War II,” he explains. “Everybody was having babies after the war.” A few days later, he had seven people in his Stinson Voyager: all three mothers and their new babies flying home. Small aircraft still carry folks to the mainland for medical attention, and the mail is still delivered in an old transport on its nth career with its nth owner. Today it’s a twin-engine Beech 18 operated by Methow (pronounced “MET-how”) Aviation. But Friday Harbor has more fancy restaurants and B&Bs and a thousand more people than it did when Franklin’s outfit was flying the mail, and many more pilots coming through the airport.
Sixty percent of the people in Friday Harbor have lived there less than five years. Locals still give out four-digit phone numbers, but the community has lost some of its small-town intimacy. “An airplane engine used to be music to folks’ ears,” Mayo laments. “In Roy Franklin’s day it meant a medevac or a long-awaited trip to the mainland. Now they’re considered a nuisance and we have some knock-down-drag-out battles over noise. We have to pay attention. Dozens of airports have been shut down over noise. All the local pilots really try to tiptoe in and out. Blair Estenson, the guy for Methow Aviation who flies the mail in at 5:30 a.m. in the Beech 18—all you hear is his tires meet the ground.” Estenson confirms that he pulls the power way back “to keep the neighbors happy.”
But the noise from an airport averaging 65,000 ops per year can be intrusive, so Mayo treats seriously every noise complaint that comes in. “We bought up all the adjacent ground we could to keep people from moving in,” he says. “Plus we need the ground to build more hangars.”
Locals and frequent visitors practice noise abatement by flying to line up with the runway via a series of right turns that keep aircraft over less populated areas. But since the airport has no air traffic control, there is no one to guide newcomers in. “Sometimes a pilot comes in without making radio contact, or they’re on the wrong frequency and they don’t know to come in on right turns,” Mayo explains. “I can’t tell them what to do, but usually, once they’re parked, someone mentions the frequency and tells them about our noise abatement.”
The airport, says Mayo, is caught in something of a paradox. Transient pilots like what they see, and many have moved to Friday Harbor. “The airport contributes a lot to the local economy, but it also is partly to blame for the way the town is changing,” Mayo admits.
Visitors can still find traces of the old Friday Harbor, according to Island Air owner Jackie Hamilton, who moved to the islands right after high school. It’s still “the classic small town,” she says. Hamilton doesn’t bother to advertise her business, because she knows that if somebody needs a charter or is interested in flight instruction, the word will travel—or she’ll run into the potential customer in the grocery store.
There’s also a certain continuity in Friday Harbor because people who move to the San Juans tend to stay. Originally from New York, Chris Pagnotta began flying in the islands in 1995. “I’ll never leave,” he says.