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
IN 1948 ROY FRANKLIN ESTABLISHED SCHEDULED flights from Friday Harbor, a tiny fishing village on San Juan Island, to Seattle and a few other airports on the Northwest coast. His home airfield, the 80-year-old pilot recalls, was a cow pasture on a neighbor’s farm, ice-crusted in winter, unlit, and congested with mounds of dozing cattle. In an unpublished memoir, he tells of his heart hammering against his ribs every time he felt his way back down to that field in a four-place Stinson 108 while his wife Margaret Ann sat in the family car, children bundled in the back seat, trying to illuminate the pasture for Roy’s night landings. “I learned pretty quickly that you shouldn’t buzz the middle of a herd of cows and separate them,” Roy recalls, his hands and beefy arms flying in front of his barrel chest, in the aviator’s universal simulation of flight. “You want to get alongside them and push them as a group away from where you want to land or they’ll just bunch up again.”
A cow pasture was not the future Franklin had imagined when he moved from the mainland to fly small transports in the San Juan Islands. He had worked for six years without a single day off, and even so, he could have gone broke had he bent a propeller. He decided he’d have to find a way to build an airport with a lighted, hard-surface runway, a heated hangar, and a fueling facility. In 1954 he made a down payment on 66 heavily timbered acres a half-mile west of downtown Friday Harbor, and he spent two back-breaking years cutting a hole in the forest for a 2,300-foot runway. Help from his dad and a U.S. Forest Service contract to fly fire patrols got him to the point where he could buy Island Sky Ferries (ISF), the operation that had employed him, and its two Stinson 108 Voyagers. The Franklin family always maintained that “ISF” stood for “InSufficient Funds.”
Franklin held on through the booms and busts of the 1960s and ’70s, acquiring more aircraft, selling them off, merging with several small mainland-based lines as San Juan Airlines, and later dissolving the mergers. He held on to the airport until 1983, when he sold it to the Port of Friday Harbor with the stipulation that the buyers never change the name to Franklin Field, a name they had considered.
Today, hundreds of private pilots and several small airlines fly in and out of the airport that Roy Franklin built. Though the town of Friday Harbor is still small (population 2,045), San Juan Island and the other scenic islands in the archipelago have been developed into summer resorts, havens for boaters—and pilots. San Juan County, which comprises the four large islands—San Juan, Orcas, Lopez, and Shaw—and 168 others, if you count at low tide, has one of the highest concentrations of pilots in the United States.
“We’ve got a lot of line pilots who retire here because they’ve flown to Seattle or Salt Lake from Asia or Anchorage and they usually see a hole in the clouds over the San Juans,” says Ray Bigler, president of the 67-member San Juan pilots association. When Bigler says “a hole in the clouds,” he is speaking literally, describing a weather phenomenon that bestows on the islands an average of 247 days of sunshine a year. Frequently the islands are sunny when the coasts of Washington and British Columbia—and even southern Alaska—are socked in with fog or rain. The islands get less than half the rainfall of Seattle.
“Rain shadow,” says Dodie Gann, the widow of the best known line pilot ever to have retired to the San Juans. Her husband, Ernest K. Gann, wrote several of his 16 books from the comfortable farmhouse the two shared a couple of miles outside Friday Harbor. Dodie Gann has the handshake of an athlete and exudes the self-assurance it took to hurtle down Olympic ski slopes in 1948. Last October she once again, at 80, passed her flight physical. She talks weather with gestures that sweep out over her dining room table. “Lows from the Pacific and down from Alaska butt up against the Olympic peninsula west of us and go counter-clockwise and dump a bunch of rain and make their way inland and butt up against the Cascades and dump more, and they come back at us depleted, from 140 degrees.” She regards her non-pilot audience and adds, “From the southeast.”
Weather on the mainland is good enough for the islanders to fly frequent errands there. “I make Costco runs once a week with a couple girlfriends, or head over for lunch, or just fly to be flying,” Gann says. “We can be in Bellingham [Washington, 10 miles south of the Canadian border] in 20 minutes.”
Ray Bigler and his wife, Julie Palmer, fly their Cessna 182 on errands to the mainland as well, frequently for what Palmer calls “retail therapy.” Bigler’s favorite flying is with the Eagles, a group of roughly 40 volunteer pilots who fly cancer patients to the mainland for treatment. “We pick them up and take them to the airport and fly them to the mainland and drive them to the hospital and wait and take them all the way home,” says Vicky Thaliker, a pilot for 30 years who organizes the group. “It’s very hard on these [patients], but you get to fly with some very dignified people.” The trip by air is faster and more comfortable than the expensive, awkward, all-day ordeal it becomes if undertaken by ferry and taxis.
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.”
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.
“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.
“The word ‘freedom’ comes to mind,” says Gregg Munro, explaining why he chose flying seaplanes in a place like the San Juans instead of seeking a job with one of the major airlines. With all the growth surrounding it, Friday Harbor is still an airport of small airplanes, short flights, uncontrolled airspace, and pilots who just want to be in the air over one of the most magnificent island chains on Earth.
Sidebar: The Details
THE SAN JUAN ISLANDS lie in the Strait of Georgia, between Canada’s Vancouver Island and Washington state. On the westernmost of the four large islands, Friday Harbor can be reached by ferry or small airliner. For travel information, visit www.guidetosanjuans.com.
Sidebar: Vital Stats
3,400-foot runway; 45 spaces for guest aircraft
Dining: The locals say the best food is at Cafe Vinny’s (Italian) and the best view is from Downriggers. There are 25 restaurants in walking distance of the airport—and 22 espresso machines.
Don’t Miss: The 20th Annual Orcas Island Fly-in, this August 6 through 8, or a trip on one of the commuter lines, whose pilots will divert for whale sightings.