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.

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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 In an unpublished memoir, he tells of his heart hammering against his ribs every time he felt his way back down to that field in a four-place Stinson 108 while his wife Margaret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.”

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