Pilots

Bob Munro

November 1, 1996

Life doesn't always turn out the way you thought it would. For instance, when Bob Munro and two friends founded the Kenmore Air Harbor floatplane business in Seattle in 1946, he never thought he would end up owning one of the largest floatplane FBOs in the world. He also never thought he would be the company's chief pilot or end up tackling jobs such as flying floatplanes off glaciers.

In fact, Munro never planned on becoming a pilot at all. He graduated from the Boeing School of Aeronautics as a trained mechanic three days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and spent the war contentedly working on DC-3 transports. Even when he, Reg Collins, and a pilot named Jack Mines formed Kenmore, Munro expected that he and Collins would do the maintenance and Mines would do all the flying. But before six months had passed, Mines was killed in an accident, Collins left the business, and Munro suddenly found himself in sole charge of a floatplane flying school.

Munro knew very little about flying. But with a resourcefulness that would characterize his operations for the next 50 years, Munro hired another pilot, learned to fly, and set about turning Kenmore Air Harbor into a successful, stable business. The early work was mostly flight training, but over the years Kenmore diversified into maintenance, aircraft sales, de Havilland Beaver restorations, scheduled charters around the San Juan Islands and British Columbia, and FBO services to floatplane owners in the Seattle area.

Yet Munro's renown, as well as some of his most interesting flying, has come from the various custom charters he has conducted over the years. In 1953, a Canadian mining company wanted to be flown onto the LeDuc Glacier in Ketchikan, Alaska, to stake a copper claim. Several skiplane operators had already turned down the work as too difficult, so the company called Munro. The Republic Seabee and Noorduyn Norsemans he was operating at the time were never designed to fly off glaciers, but Munro figured that if there was enough snow to cushion the hull or floats, it could be done. In the course of a month, Munro and two other pilots flew 184 incident-free trips up to the glacier, carrying 200 tons of freight that ranged from food and supplies to dynamite and railroad ties.

Of course, the snow landings and takeoffs did present some interesting challenges. He and his pilots carried smoke bombs or Christmas trees to drop on the landing site, to help them to judge their altitude above the surface more accurately. Takeoffs could be challenging, as well. Blowing snow and wind could give a pilot the impression that he was moving forward when in fact he was still stuck in the snow. Munro's most sporting takeoffs, however, were those involved in a subsequent charter contract to bring supplies to a University of Washington survey team on the South Cascade Glacier at the 6,800-foot level of Mount Olympus. The landing area was on top of a snow dome, with very little level ground and ever-changing natural hazards. Munro would turn the Beaver around to face the edge of the dome before shutting down. The first few yards of the takeoff run were fairly level, but then he'd reach the edge of the dome and the "runway" would become a 4,000-foot downhill ski run angling at least 25 degrees nose down. "Your instinct was to haul back on the yoke," he remembers, "but you wouldn't have flying speed yet, so you had to discipline yourself to keep the yoke forward until you could fly off the slope."

In his 50 years of flying, Munro has racked up 10,000 hours on floats. He has found some of the best remote fishing spots in Washington and British Columbia, figured out the hard way how to land and take off in a swift river current, and carried torpedoes as cargo and live octopuses as passengers. His human passengers can also tell of flights to inlets in front of movie-perfect waterfall backdrops where Munro collected oysters to roast on a sunset beach bonfire, or of flights diverted to give them an up-close view of seals or a pod of killer whales below.

In recognition of his many achievements, the Seaplane Pilots Association named Munro "Pilot of the Year" in 1995. The FAA also gave Munro its Charles Taylor Master Mechanic award this past February.

Today, Kenmore has grown from a struggling flight school with a single 40- horsepower Aeronca on floats to a multifaceted company operating two floatplane bases in Seattle and 22 aircraft. Munro's son, Gregg, and daughter, Leslie, now work in the business with him, and many of Kenmore's early line boys are now veteran pilots with the company. Yet Munro and his wife still live in the small, New England-style house that came with the original property, and he still walks to work every day, accompanied by his loyal German shepherd, Simba.

Munro's life may have taken some unexpected turns over the past 50 years, but he has no regrets. "I've gotten to show people the Northwest, let them do something they enjoyed, and be part of it," he says. "And the flying we've done here...taking people hunting or fishing, delivering airplanes to Alaska...it's some of the last free flying out there."

Maybe life doesn't always turn out the way you thought it would. But, as Munro has found, sometimes that's okay.