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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“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.

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