Heart Bigger Than the Bay

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor lack of money deters the pilots of Penobscot Island Air

August 1, 2006

"I've always wanted to get a photo of waves crashing over the end of the runway on Matinicus as an airplane was coming in to land," says Brud Folger on the short hop from North Vinal Island to Matinicus Island. From the air you can see how that might happen. Matinicus Island sits in unprotected Atlantic waters 19 miles off the Maine coast. Its 1,800-foot uphill gravel strip juts out into the sea for its northern 100 feet. Even on this relatively calm day, ocean spray would hit anyone standing on the threshold.

Folger flies for Penobscot Island Air Service, driving Cessna 206s or a 207 on 10-minute flights between Knox County Regional Airport in Owls Head, Maine, and several of the Maine sea-coast islands. This is southern Maine. Fly 100 miles southwest and you could land at General Edward Lawrence Logan International Airport in downtown Boston, but lining up on final to Matinicus you might as well be flying in the Alaskan bush. Today is a good day since the crosswinds aren't too strong and we can land uphill. That means we can land long, avoiding the end of the runway exposed to the ocean, and use the shelter of trees to cut down on the crosswind.

Our passengers are waiting for the return trip to Owls Head and the mainland. Other than a private boat, the air service is the only way they can get off the island today. Matinicus Island gets ferry service once a month.

A history of service

Kevin Waters is the man behind Penobscot Island Air in its current form — and its president, although he rarely uses the title. He's a big man with a huge smile and warm, friendly presence that you can't help but like. Waters' operation builds on a long history. "We have people in their 60s who remember flying out to the islands sitting in their mother's lap in the J-3," says Waters. Since there also was a pilot on each of those Piper J-3 flights, that qualifies as an overloaded Cub flying over 19 miles of cold ocean.

That tells you a bit about the Maine seacoast islanders: They're rugged individualists who understand the math of risk and gain. They live on the islands because the fishing is good and the influence — and rules — from the outside world is limited.

Choosing to live apart, however, doesn't mean you prefer a two-hour boat ride to a 10-minute flight and, since the 1950s, air service has been an integral part of island life. The J-3 flights were flown by the pioneer of air service to the sea islands, Arthur Harjula. His routes were taken over by Herb Jones, who founded Stonington Flying Service and operated a Cessna 182 and 206 out to the islands. Jones' son Charlie renamed the business Penobscot Island Air and moved mail, freight, groceries, boat parts, animals, and people back and forth to half a dozen islands and unimproved strips. Clint Demons, a line pilot for the service, took over from Jones and ran the service until 1999.

Penobscot Island Air was then sold to a major corporation that ran several FBOs, contract cargo operations, and other aviation interests. This brought Cessna Caravans to the route. Waters was a line pilot during this time. "We actually brought out a complete house, one load at a time, on the Caravans," he recalls. Operations boomed, with a peak year seeing around 12,000 passengers moved in addition to all the freight.

In August 2004, the air service was sold again, this time to a private individual, but this situation was short-lived. The new owner decided that the economics of moving everything by boat looked better than moving it by airplane. On December 13, 2004, the pilots who showed up for work that Monday morning were told to go home. The flying business was shut down.

A different business plan

Tipped off by the new owner's attitude from the start and a brief flight shutdown during Thanksgiving, Waters and three other air service employees already were working to start a flying service of their own. Even so, the December shutdown was a surprise. "There was a concern for the people out on the islands," says Waters of this time. "We had their medicines, groceries, parts for their boats, packages. We carried their children to see parents on the mainland. And all this was right before Christmas."

"My first thought was, 'What are you talking about?'" says Wanda Philbrook, the postmaster on Matinicus Island who suddenly wasn't getting the daily mail by air. "Everybody panicked a bit. The Rockland [Maine] post office let private individuals take some mail on the December ferry, but nothing could go 'unaccompanied' since September 11, so we couldn't send anything that wouldn't fit in someone's car." Other islands had more frequent — sometimes even daily — ferry service, but the movement of people and cargo to and from Matinicus slowed to a crawl. There was a secondary concern for Matinicus too. Without regular mail service, the islanders could lose their island post office and, possibly, their public school.

Waters and company started flying again the next day using a leased Cessna 206, but without a Part 135 certificate that would allow them to fly for hire. They accepted donations instead. Mail still traveled by boat as the former owner still had that contract. The Portland FAA Flight Standards District Office rallied behind the new operation and got it a Part 135 certificate in a mere two weeks. Unfortunately, Waters was the only pilot on the certificate for the first three months so he did all the flying — even on Christmas day.

Then three things happened that gave the reborn Penobscot Island Air a chance. The first was that the contract to deliver the mail was up for renewal. "The mail contract is really the heart of the operation," Waters confides. "January through March will kill you without that." The new Penobscot Island Air put in its bid, but it was competing with the former owner who had a bid in to deliver the mail by boat — at significantly less cost.

At the same time the islanders on Matinicus held a meeting at the island school and decided to collect money to support the new air service. Tina Stewart remembers the meeting. "I'm not sure who called it...people put in different amounts. For some it was $100; for others it was $1,000." The total was more than $17,000, and it was handed over to Waters without any terms for repayment. "We never expected to be paid back," says Stewart. "It was our way of saying, 'We trust you and know you'll work hard for us.'"

A last key item came from the owner of the airstrip on Matinicus. She forbade any commercial operator to land there except Waters' new company. Without any option for air delivery, competing bids for the mail were not as attractive. Penobscot got the contract and was back in business.

Day in the life

Jim Nichols worked as dispatcher for the old air service and now does it for the new one. "I was actually the only guy not to get fired [when the air service shut down]," says Nichols. "I tried to get fired after that, but they just wouldn't do it...finally, I had to quit." Quitting was a brave move because the reborn Penobscot Island Air couldn't pay its staff for the first three months. The pilots lived off savings and flew anyway.

The wealth of flying experience among the pilots is impressive. Rich Wright and Don Campbell, the two other pilots who formed the new flying service with Waters and Nichols, retired from careers flying Hawker jets and military helicopters, respectively. Folger finished a career as a University of Maine professor and flew Beavers in Alaska before coming back to Maine to fly. Rod Barrow also returned to Maine after flying for several years in Alaska. "This is as challenging as anything I did in Alaska," says Barrow.

The day starts for the crewmembers at 5:30 a.m. when they pick up the mail and other cargo that needs to be delivered to the islands that day. The first runs are to North Haven and Vinalhaven islands, and the total load may depend on the wind direction and weather. "Sometimes you have to break up the load so you can go around," notes Folger.

Landing downhill at Vinalhaven, you can see the reason. The 1,800-foot gravel strip ends at a hill of imposing New England granite. Winter landings at North Haven are a cakewalk on a 3,000-foot grass strip owned by the family of Tom Watson (the founder of IBM). In the summer, the family allows landings there only for medical emergencies. Regular traffic moves through another strip that's only 900 feet long.

The airplanes return to Owls Head to load up for the 8:30 a.m. run to Matinicus. This flight carries mail, packages, and often groceries. The islanders fax their orders to the local Shaw's market where Shaw's employees do the shopping. Penobscot pilots pick up the groceries in town and load them onto the airplane. Seats for passengers are available only if cargo permits, but some folks will fly "standby" because the fare is cheaper for a scheduled flight than one on demand. That's true of cargo too. "We only charge $7 to carry something like a boat part on a scheduled flight," says Waters, "but it's more than $100 if you can't wait."

When the airplane arrives at Matinicus, people meet it to pick up their gear. The mail gets loaded onto a battered Chevy Suburban and driven — by the pilot — into town. Philbrook takes it into the post office and people from all over the island gather to read mail and socialize.

One morning before the mail arrived Stewart was driving her boyfriend's pickup to the post office and lost her brakes at the top of a hill. Unable to stop, she jumped out. She hit the ground and the truck hit a shed. Philbrook ran out and found her just as Waters arrived with the mail. The return flight turned into a medical evacuation, and 30 minutes later Stewart was at the hospital. Any flight can be diverted for a medical evacuation, as the air service provides backup for medical helicopters and does more than 100 medical flights each year. These get interesting at night because runway lighting is minimal and, on one island, is done with fires burning in smudge pots.

Minimum ceilings for trips to the islands are 2,500 feet, but mist, rain, snow, or just flat light can make lining up to the islands a challenge. Penobscot created a set of VFR GPS waypoints to line up to each island. These aren't for homemade instrument approaches. They are for added awareness and safety in what can be a risky business. "It can be calm in the morning and blowing 40 by the afternoon," says Waters. "It takes a special breed of cat who wants to put it out there like that."

Getting it done

Penobscot Island Air is all about people doing what it takes to get the job done. Even its office and storage shed hold to this thinking. You wouldn't know it by looking, but both buildings were made from donated materials and lumber salvaged from construction site trash bins. The total cost: about $1,000.

"We're in the black now and plan to pay [the loaned money] back to the islanders by the end of the year," says Waters. Penobscot Island Air now holds the contract for FedEx and UPS service to the islands and is looking at bringing a single-engine turboprop or light twin online. In the meantime, everyone in the company does his or her part in lifting packages, greeting passengers, giving sightseeing tours, or doing maintenance — whatever it takes to get the job done.

"That guy's got a heart bigger than the bay," says one of the airport regulars while watching Waters head out to an airplane. "The people out there love him, and they're not a pushover crowd. He earned it. It doesn't come easy."

Jeff Van West is editor of IFR magazine and a freelance writer in aviation and computer technology.