January 1, 2005
By Barry Schiff
It is nice to put a face to a name. After writing checks bearing his last name every month for more years than I care to remember, it was especially nice to meet John Nils Nordstrom, whose flying career was late in blooming.
Nordstrom lived most of his life on Lake Washington near Seattle and became enamored with the seaplanes flying by his home. He was most smitten by the de Havilland Beaver, perhaps because he found the sound of its radial engine so alluring.
In 1991 he knew that he would be retiring in four years and began to review his options. Nordstrom had always enjoyed driving things, so it seemed natural to learn to fly a seaplane, an appealing and enjoyable challenge. He visited nearby Kenmore Air Service but not to begin flying. He wanted first to buy a Beaver. "There is something romantic about how that big round engine sings to me. It is an ugly duckling, but I was infected with Beaver fever."
Kenmore had a wreck, a crop duster from Australia. Bob Munro, the legendary seaplane pilot who founded Kenmore, showed Nordstrom a large collection of seemingly unrelated bits and pieces spread across a hangar floor, part of a restoration project. "It was not a pretty picture," says Nordstrom. Nevertheless, he agreed to buy the restored airplane for $400,000 (including Wipaire amphibious floats, IFR avionics, a STOL kit, and a Pratt & Whitney R-985 engine).
The Beaver was finished later that year, and Nordstrom watched his pristine airplane go into the water for the first time. He sat in the right seat during the test flight, and the emotional experience made him teary-eyed.
He then learned to fly in a Cessna 172 floatplane and got his initial private certificate with a sea rating. One of Nordstrom Inc.'s business jet captains, Mark McIntyre (now chief pilot for Microsoft's Bill Gates), then trained Nordstrom in the Beaver and on wheels for his commercial certificate and land and instrument ratings. He obtained his multiengine land rating in a Beechcraft Duchess. Nordstrom has yet to obtain a multiengine sea rating, but his dream machine is a twin-engine turboprop de Havilland Otter on amphibious floats.
Nordstrom's wife, Sally, enjoys flying with her husband and has taken 60 hours of flight instruction but not to get a certificate. She wants only to feel confident about landing the Beaver in case her husband becomes incapacitated.
Did I mention that Nordstrom bought a second Beaver? This ensures that he will have one to fly when the other is in the shop. The second aircraft originally was used to haul fishermen to backwoods camps in Alaska and has been similarly restored.
Nordstrom has logged 2,100 hours; most of his landings have been on water.
Movie director Ivan Reitman was walking through Signature Aviation's hangar in Santa Barbara in 1995 and saw Nordstrom's Beaver. He had been looking for a bush-type airplane to use in his upcoming movie, Six Days, Seven Nights, and was attracted to the Beaver, a rugged, unique airplane. He contacted Nordstrom and arranged to meet him for a closer look at the airplane. Reitman was accompanied by the film's star, Harrison Ford. The rest is history. The Beaver became Ford's co-star. Much of the film was shot in Kauai, Hawaii, where Ford checked out in the airplane and decided that he had to have one, too. Nordstrom and Ford have become close friends.
The Nordstrom success story began when teenager John W. Nordstrom emigrated from Sweden to America penniless and without speaking English. He worked at an assortment of jobs but eventually made $13,000 during the Alaskan gold rush, a princely sum in 1901 that he used to open a shoe store in Seattle. His sons, Elmer Nordstrom and his brothers, expanded the fledgling business to seven shoe stores.
John Nils Nordstrom began working for his father, Elmer, as a stock boy but advanced rapidly. He and the family took the business public in 1971 and expanded it into a $7 billion business with more than 100 stores nationally.
Nordstrom's elder son, Jim, has since followed in his father's footsteps and recently transitioned from floats to wheels. In a Beaver, of course.
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