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.