Seaplane Airline

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I had no preconceived notions or expectations as I rolled into the parking lot at the northern end of Lake Washington. The Seattle sky was a typical mixture of grey confusion, the clouds in various meteorological forms. A small swath of orange glowed in the distant northwest, a feeble reminder that the earth still revolved around the sun.

I glanced toward the docks. The scattered froth of white streaks on the choppy, dark blue water was an indication of the wind's intentions.

I refocused my attention back to the parking lot as I brought the rental car to a stop. My eyes widened. I realized that I was not really on a parking lot at all. I was on an airplane ramp, but not your typical garden-variety airplane ramp. The ramp was populated with organized rows of towering floatplanes perched on their wooden platforms as if they were giant creatures poised to begin pursuit of their prey. Way cool.

The scene begged for a camera. I reached into my bag on the car seat and yanked out my trusty travel Nikon.

So, why was an airline guy cavorting with seaplanes? I had been extended an invitation by 23-year-old Jamie Anderson, who was a chief flight instructor and pilot for Kenmore Air. The company has been in existence since 1946. In an e-mail, Jamie insisted that his employer was every bit an airline, and a fun airline at that. I had traveled to Seattle from our winter home in the Florida Keys to find proof of his claim.

Well ... there's a little more to the story. I was enticed by an offer to train for my seaplane rating. The rating was another square to fill on my dream checklist, so the magazine assignment was even more attractive. Although I've had limited experience flying friends' J-3 Cub on floats off our lake in Connecticut, my knowledge base on this aspect of aviation was thin. I felt a little unprepared, but my young flight instructor had indicated that prior study wouldn't be necessary. I liked this kind of flying already.

Shortly after an exchange of greetings in the main building of Kenmore Air, Jamie and I walked upstairs to the small office that housed the flight instruction staff. Jamie is immediately likeable. He has a casual flair to his disposition and a dry sense of humor with a self-deprecating style. If I had to guess, he inherited these traits from his father -- a retired airline pilot from Alaska Airlines. Not surprisingly, Jamie's father has returned to his roots and is flying for Kenmore Air also.

After completing the standard training paperwork, Jamie and I walked outside where I was introduced to a yellow Super Cub. The first ritual of my seaplane initiation began. I was given a hand pump. The two Wipline floats each had 10 compartments that needed to be free of excess water. With Jamie seemingly enjoying the experience of observing his new student, I went to work. He was not fazed by the fact that I considered aiming the discharge end of the pump toward his deck shoes. I'm sure it had been done before.

With preflight duties complete, a lineman maneuvered a forklift into position and lifted the yellow Cub off the tarmac and over to the launching ramp. After a lesson on dock handling and starting, Jamie and I prepared ourselves to get underway. Although my airline pilot mentality insisted on use of a checklist, it was obvious that certain items would have to be completed by memory. A light airplane in choppy seas and a steady breeze was not going to wait for me to position switches while I read from a laminated card.

Our escape from the dock was completed with careful planning on Jamie's part. We were soon underway. I pushed the starter button and the engine of the 180-horsepower Super Cub came to life. Without prompting, my survival instinct had me maneuvering the airplane via the water rudders.

After a quick run-up and a clearing turn, Jamie explained the takeoff procedure. We were airborne using very little of Lake Washington real estate, thanks to a Super Cub that had probably drunk the same coffee I had that morning.

It took only a moment or two for me to become reacquainted with the airplane. Other than an embellished yaw tendency, the only sense that the Cub wore floats rather than wheels was when I looked out the side windows.

Jamie directed me over the top of Microsoft's complex to nearby Lake Sammamish where we began my training. A few takeoffs and landings later, it was hard to dismantle my grin. Jamie seemed pleased with my performance. Perhaps he maintained low standards. Actually, his relaxed instruction style was making the experience easy.

Approaching the lunch hour, we returned to Lake Washington and the Kenmore Air base. My arrival at the dock was a lesson in momentum and airplane tacking. I wasn't going to enter an accuracy competition any time soon, but no floats were harmed in the process.

Prior to our departure for the local restaurant, I took advantage of the free time to meet with Gregg Munro, president of Kenmore Air. As expected, Gregg's office had the best view. The largest window faced the dock area and the "concourse." The concourse consisted of neatly arranged circular picnic tables on a wooden deck. Each picnic table was assigned a number. The number signified the departure gate. Missing was the maze of TSA security screening belts and magnetometers. Considering all the departure lounges I have transited, I couldn't think of one better.

Knowing that my own home office view of our lake in Connecticut can be a pleasant distraction, I asked if Gregg had the same experience. He agreed. But with a smile and a glance at one of the docked airplanes, he added that on some occasions the view was not necessarily positive.

If the dictionary contained the phrase "low key," Gregg's picture would be an insert. After inquiring about a photo on his desk taken of the members of the African Children's choir, and discovering his involvement with the charitable Restore International organization in Uganda, I had no doubts as to Gregg's unassuming character. A few days later, upon introducing my wife to Gregg as the man who ran the show, I was corrected. With an earnest expression and a grin, he waved his arm around the operations area, explaining that it was his employees that ran the business.

Our mellow discussion began with a brief history of Kenmore Air, named for the town that borders the north end of Lake Washington. Gregg's father, Bob Munro, began as a mechanic for Pan Am. He and another Pan Am mechanic, along with a pilot friend, had grand visions for a seaplane airline. In addition to the seaplane operation, a resort hotel was part of the plan. The hotel never materialized and for various circumstances, the partnerships dissolved. Bob remained the sole proprietor.

Gregg and his sister literally grew up around seaplanes. They had no choice. Their home, as it still remains today, is situated only yards from the water and the Kenmore Air base.

In 1947 Kenmore Air was primarily a flight training and maintenance facility for seaplanes. The company began operations with one 36 hp Aeronca K. One year later, charter flights were added to the operation with Republic Seabees flying the bulk of the trips. Soon, Kenmore became involved in de Havilland Beaver floatplane modifications. As many folks are aware, Kenmore is still considered the authority in this area. The company is a household word in many things seaplane. As a matter of fact, Kenmore purchased Edo Floats as a hedge on that portion of the seaplane market, quality control for their airplanes, and just to keep a great product alive. The floats are now manufactured in China, a reflection on globalization for even small companies.

During the peak time periods of veterans taking advantage of the GI Bill, Kenmore was a major seaplane training facility. At one time, five 172s were part of the instructional fleet. Rental airplanes were also available until the damage history outweighed the revenue and liability.

In 1980, the company added single-engine de Havilland Otters to its fleet. Kenmore presently operates (6) turbine-powered Otters, (2) turbine-powered Beavers, (9) radial-engine Beavers, (2) Cessna 180s, (1) Caravan capable of operating with both floats and wheels, and (2) Super Cubs for flight training.

And of course, Kenmore Air has flown its share of celebrities, past through the present. Most notable, Harrison Ford selected Kenmore for both flight training and the resurrection of a Beaver he had purchased. The Beaver was barely recognizable as an airplane when the actor acquired it.

In addition to numerous locations in the Seattle area that include the San Juan Islands, the company flies to 32 locations in British Columbia. Many destinations are scheduled stops during the peak summer season. Charters are also part of the flying. Not only do charters include people, but supplies also. Boaters are sometimes mechanically stranded in inaccessible areas. A seaplane is the quickest mode to transport both mechanics and parts.

The airline is a FAR Part 135 carrier. Because of the fickle weather in the region, Kenmore is given a waiver in their VFR Ops Specs. The airline is approved to operate in the Seattle area with a ceiling as low as 200 feet and a visibility of three miles. Considering the variable nature of the terrain, those minimums pose a challenging workload for a single pilot. Each pilot relies upon their experience to dictate the go or no-go decision.

Gregg encourages pilots to consider their own personal comfort level. He would rather a newer pilot not complete a mission even if their veteran counterparts are still flying. No questions asked.

What are the backgrounds of Kenmore's pilots? Very colorful. On my first evening, over a pitcher of beer and a pizza delivered to the local watering hole, I had the opportunity to uncover some backgrounds. Although the watering hole was rather "well seasoned," it provided a great vantage point of Lake Washington and Kenmore Air's docks. In between landing critiques of returning airplanes, I conducted some informal interviews.

Many pilots, like Jamie, started from the flight instruction ranks. (Jamie actually began as a line boy at the age of 16.) A Blue Angel pilot and a space shuttle pilot have been on the seniority list. A handful of airline pilots that take a leave of absence are currently flying during the summer months.

Marty, a late 50-ish floatplane veteran of Alaska bush flying, had been a practicing attorney in his former life. He was proud to admit that much of his off-season was spent on the golf course. Thirty-four-year-old Chris had also been an attorney. Judging by the chiding around the table, Chris hadn't quite decided what he wanted to be when he grew up. Stu, a perpetual smile on his face and a black beret on his head cocked just so, had fallen in love with floatplane flying while in Alaska. He had been a computer cartographer for the state of Washington. During the off-season Stu consults for a private company in the map business.

Interestingly enough, the pilots at eligible airline-hiring ages had limited career aspirations in my profession. Even Jamie was not overly eager to begin the application process. The realism of his father's career and the current state of the industry had permeated his thought process. Erin, the 27-year-old flight instructor from Park City, Utah, that gave me my seaplane recommendation ride, was considering a future in air-ambulance flying. Her boyfriend, Sean, was an RJ copilot for Skywest. He seemed undecided as to his eventual career path. Twenty-two-year-old Tony, his occasional somber expression a contrast to his actual demeanor, was almost adamant about not considering an airline career.

Regardless of their career goals, the common denominator of Kenmore Air's pilots is that they simply love the job. Work for them is just plain fun. They all share the same twinkle in their eyes, the same spring in their step. Considering the fact that Kenmore Air salaries are somewhere between $25,000 as a flight instructor and $60,000 as a senior Part 135 pilot, money is not the primary motivation. In addition, the major portion of the flying season is limited to half the year.

So ... what's it like to fly for a seaplane operation? I had the distinct honor of experiencing just that. After lunch, and prior to our informal evening social gathering, I became Jamie's nonfunctional co-pilot on a portion of Kenmore Air's scheduled flights to some of the San Juan Island destinations.

I watched as my flight instructor transformed himself into professional pilot mode, sliding his father's Alaska Airlines epaulets on to the shoulders of his white uniform shirt.

Once the Beaver was lifted off its perch by the fork lift and then transported over to the launching ramp, Jamie began the preflight process. As part of the procedure, the 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-985 radial was started and allowed to warm-up. Even though the equivalent of the airplane's brakes (lines tied to cleats on the dock) was set, it was disconcerting to see a propeller turning without a pilot in the cockpit.

On numerous occasions, Jamie exclaimed that Kenmore Air's mantra was flexibility. This day was no exception. At first, Jamie was told to expect to fly direct to one of the San Juan Island destinations. Within minutes of that plan, he was then advised that he would be flying the airline's marketing manager and a revenue passenger to the main Seattle departure and arrival dock on Lake Union. After he dropped off the two passengers he was to continue toward the first of three San Juan Island destinations.

Considering the shuffling that seemed to occur as a normal part of the scheduled flying, I wondered how the logistics were handled in order to facilitate successful service. I had my answer after a brief visit to the dispatch office. Don, a veteran dispatcher, shed some light on the subject.

Communications with each airplane is accomplished via various methods. The VHF radio is utilized for a good portion of the communication. Pilots not only use the VHF channels to broadcast their positions to other traffic, but they also talk among themselves to adjust the efficiency of passenger pick-ups or drop-offs. Dispatch can contact each airplane via a discrete company HF frequency. If all else fails, personal cell phone use at the dock can solve a communication problem.

Although scheduling airplanes and pilots is accomplished via a computer program, Don displayed an organized spreadsheet that he still uses to record the day's activities. A large erasable board behind Don listed the maintenance status of each airplane. If the immaculate condition of the airplanes were any reflection, the maintenance department was top notch. I would find out later that no matter how small the discrepancy, the problem would be rectified.

Dispatch also wears the crew schedule hat. If more pilots are needed for the day, they are called from a reserve list. Most of the reserve pilots are involved with other professions, but often jump at the opportunity to spend the day in a seaplane.

As with most airlines, the pilot management structure is similar. Kenmore Air employs both a director of flight operations and a chief pilot. Their duties and responsibilities include, but are not limited to: operational issues, pilot records and hiring.

It is difficult to articulate the pure joy of merging water with an airplane, so I'll forgo the attempt. For moments at a time, I sat in awe as I viewed spectacular scenery from the unique vantage point of a Beaver floatplane. The diagonal grey slant of nearby rain showers served only to enhance the experience rather than to cause anxiety.

I reveled in the throaty sound of the radial engine while Jamie flew us to Orcas Island and the quaint docks of Rosario, West Sound and Deer Harbor. I watched as he employed his dry sense of humor, developing an immediate rapport with his passengers. Whether Jamie was on his best behavior with me or not, it was obvious that he was enjoying the experience as much as the customers.

Needless to say, when Jamie offered me the left seat for our ferry flight from Lake Union back to the Lake Washington base, I was ecstatic. Aside from fumbling while raising the water rudders and having to make a circle or two, I got us airborne and over to Kenmore Air Operations without too much trauma. The airplane felt immediately comfortable. Perhaps it was my nearly 3,000 hours in another de Havilland product from years past.

The visit to Kenmore Air culminated in one of the most enjoyable check rides of my lifetime. Fred Brink, a veteran pilot for the airline with a colorful and varied life background, conducted the test. The check ride was more a practical application on seaplane flying than it was an examination of precise skills. I slid the temporary certificate into my wallet with pride.

I was now a part of the seaplane world. And in a very small way, I felt as if I was also part of a very professional airline, and a fun one at that.