Taking Wing: New Adventure

Fortune landed us an undeveloped lot with deeded airstrip rights. Courtesy Sam Weigel

It’s a beautiful late-fall day: warm and clear with a hint of breeze, a cherished last vestige of summer this time of year in the Pacific Northwest. “The Mountain is out,” as the locals say—the mountain in question being Rainier—and its 25 glaciers glittered in the sun as we made our way across the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. Other mountains are out too; the jagged wall of the Olympic Range rises above the tree line at the far end of the idyllic 2,400-foot grass airstrip on which Dawn and I are walking. Birds are singing, butterflies are flitting. A dog romps in the tall grass to one side of the runway, a future playmate for Piper perhaps. There is no sign that downtown Seattle is only 16 nautical miles away. One of the hangar doors is open, the nose of a Cessna 180 protruding and a restored Stinson 108 tucked carefully behind. My kind of people, clearly. Two-thirds of the way down the tree-lined strip, a grass taxiway branches to the south. At the intersection of taxiway and runway is an undeveloped plot of land, 2.3 lightly sloped acres in all, with a small meadow clearing ringed by tall handsome firs. In my mind’s eye, I see a cozy timber- frame home rising amidst the trees and a hangar at the edge of the taxiway, an old taildragger of our own out front. This is my dream, but I am not dreaming. An hour ago, we signed the closing papers on this land; it is the site of our future home.

When Dawn and I sold everything and moved aboard Windbird to cruise the Bahamas and Caribbean in 2016, it was never our intention to sail off into the sunset forever. I sold Dawn on the idea by stressing that it was a flexible plan of one to four years; if she (or I) hated it, we’d abort the experiment and sell the boat. It was also a plan with an endgame, an eventual return to land living—the exact nature of which we could figure out during our time afloat. As it turned out, we spent three seasons in the Bahamas, Greater Antilles and eastern Caribbean and, until recently, were planning a fourth and final season in the western Caribbean. But while we enjoyed the sailing lifestyle, we both missed GA flying a lot, especially Dawn. The little bit we managed to sneak in during our busy summers off the boat was never enough, and we found ourselves increasingly drawn to the Pacific Northwest, where we’d lived from 2004 to 2008 and still have good friends. The fact that my airline’s Seattle base has grown and become more junior (and thus easier to hold as a line pilot) in the past few years suggested the direction of our “return-to-land” plan.

This past summer, while Windbird was tucked away on the island of Curaçao for hurricane season, Dawn and I spent five weeks living with our friends Brad and Amber Phillips in Vancouver, Washington. One reason for doing so was to scout out communities in the Puget Sound area. The idea was to narrow our search area, buy land in a year or so, and eventually design and build our own house—something that’s been on my bucket list since my teens (along with flying the Boeing 757 for a major airline and sailing around the world). The really ideal scenario was to find land with a private airstrip or on an airpark. As we investigated potential areas, we began to focus mostly on the Kitsap Peninsula, from just north of Gig Harbor up to about Poulsbo. Other areas were too crowded, too expensive, too far from salt water or too long of a drive to my employer’s base at SeaTac. Unfortunately, there are only a few existing airparks on the peninsula, and all were long since developed and unlikely to have vacant land for sale anytime soon.

Selfies were a must for this occasion. Courtesy Sam Weigel

All except one, that is. I’d first seen Leisureland Airpark on Google Earth a few years ago and had grown curious about it. WA96 is situated a few miles northwest of Bremerton in the middle of the peninsula, nestled among forested hills on the north side of Wildcat Lake at 430 feet elevation. None of the local pilots I talked to knew anything about it. County records showed fewer than a dozen existing homes around it, with some land still vacant. When Dawn and I dropped by on a scouting trip, we didn’t get beyond the south fence but liked what we saw. The kicker: There actually was one lot for sale, but it had sat on the market for six months and was well out of our price range, and in any case, we were still a year from being ready to buy.

We put the lot out of mind—until a few days later when the listed price dropped significantly. I was on a Seattle overnight for work and called the listing agent to arrange a showing for the next morning; Dawn drove up from Portland, Oregon, and we took the 8 a.m. ferry over to Bremerton. As soon as we saw the land and walked the airstrip, we knew it was exactly what we were looking for. I did some snooping around and found that it was the last undeveloped lot of only eight with deeded airstrip rights, and I heard scuttlebutt that the sellers were fairly motivated. Dawn and I sat down, took a good look at our finances, and had a long talk about our plans and priorities. Ultimately, we decided that the property was worth moving our timeline up by a year and that we could afford to do so, up to a certain point. We put in an admittedly lowball offer and held our breath. Two days later, the sellers accepted our offer as written.

Read More from Sam Weigel: Taking Wing

Every major life decision involves trade-offs, and purchasing our land a year early prompted an immediate change to our carefree sailing lifestyle. For the past three cruising seasons, I have dropped or traded away most of my work trips from November through May, flying only enough to maintain landing currency, keep our health benefits and occasionally top up the cruising kitty. Now we’ll be buckling down for the next few years, working hard and living frugally while we pay off the land and save for construction. Accordingly, we canceled our plans to cruise the western Caribbean this winter and spring. Instead, in December, we sailed Windbird on a 1,300 nautical mile, 9-day passage from Bonaire to eastern Florida. Around the same time, I bid for, and was awarded, a position as a New York-based Boeing 737NG captain (yes, I’m aware that I just bad-mouthed the 737 a couple months ago in my column extolling the 757’s virtues). I head to upgrade training soon, and assuming I survive the ordeal, I should be getting on the line right around the time you read this. Dawn and I will continue to live aboard Windbird on the East Coast until we build, docking her in Florida the next few winters, and sailing her up to New York City from May through October.

We hope to build in summer 2022, by which time my seniority should be able to hold Seattle 737 as captain. In the meantime, we have plenty to do: designing our new house and hangar, selecting an architect and builder, pulling permits, and preparing the land. We’re still in the early stages of design, but our goal is to build a cozy, chalet-style, timber-frame home that blends well with its Pacific Northwest surroundings. We’ll be keeping it fairly modest, around 2,000 square feet (as befits a couple with a dog and occasional visiting friends), but will build it to be extremely energy efficient and to last well beyond our lifetimes—which, along with the timber framing and the general high cost of construction in the Seattle area, makes saving up now that much more imperative. The hangar too will be an area of increased expenditure, with room for several airplanes, a couple motorcycles and a shop. The home we are designing is meant, above all else, to be a base for future adventures far and wide—aerial, seaborne and terrestrial—with each other and like-minded friends.

As we go through the design-and-building process, I’ll be sure to fill you in on progress made, lessons learned and so forth. Truth be told, I immensely enjoyed the years we spent cruising and find myself a little wistful that it ended so soon and so suddenly. But I’m hugely excited for this next chapter of our life, a grand adventure in its own right, and I’m particularly looking forward to getting back into general aviation and eventually owning another airplane of our own.

This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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