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The Real Catalina

Fly to this island in the sea and land at the "Airport in the Sky."

If you were a teenager in 1958, then you think Santa Catalina Island is “26 miles across the sea” from Los Angeles because it’s in the song of that year by the Four Preps. It’s actually 22 miles, says The Library of Congress, and the island’s Web site. And many official Catalina Island brochures claim it is less than 20 miles.

Maybe we need a new song, Not Too Far Across the Sea. However far it may be, it is an experience pilots will remember for a lifetime, as a pilot at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad  noted, but like all great experiences, it takes preparation.

Getting there and getting down

If ever there was a community heavily dependent on daily service by airplane, this is it. A Catalina (or Santa Catalina) Web site offers some good information for pilots online. Pacific fog can roll in quickly and depart just as fast at Catalina. It’s a good idea to call the airport’s automated surface observation system for weather at “The Airport in the Sky” at 310-510-9641, or you can call the airport itself at 310-510-0143. The runway length is 3,000 feet (thresholds were displaced from the original length of 3,240 feet because of the steep drop-off at each end), but you’ll wish it was longer. With an elevation of 1,602 feet (traffic pattern 2,600 feet), you might question the airport slogan, but then you realize the airport was made by blasting the tops off two mountains and filling in the gap between them. For Catalina residents, who all live at lower elevations, the airport really is in the sky. This nontowered airport has a towerlike structure, and you need permission from the unicom operator before landing. On the day I arrived there, other traffic included a Cessna Caravan and a cargo Douglas DC–3 with “Catalina Flying Boats” painted on the side.

Asked what pilots should watch out for, airport van driver and local ultralight enthusiast Frank Strobel had this advice: “The thing to watch for is that our runway is higher in the middle than it is at both ends. That’s usually where people get into trouble. Most of it is low-time pilots. They get their license on Friday and rent a [Cessna] 172 on the weekend: They grab their whole family, the dog, everything, and fly to Catalina. When they fly over, the runway looks like an aircraft carrier to them—it isn’t very big. The runway we use due to the prevailing wind is normally 22. They will either firewall it [and go around] because they think they are running out of runway, or [land and] slam on the brakes. When they slam on the brakes they usually blow a tire and sort of ground loop the airplane. We take them down in the van, they take a boat back, and two days later, the mechanics come over, fix it, and fly it back.” At the time of that interview, Strobel was a 50-year Catalina resident, and former seaplane company owner.

You’ll notice that AOPA’s Airport Directory says the runway is rough, and that was true the day I visited. The top layer of asphalt had lost a few chunks here and there, revealing the asphalt layer below and thus creating potholes. A state inspection had found the runway condition to be “poor.” Since then the runway has been patched and given a black protective covering, but it is still said to be rough.

The privately owned airport is not eligible for state and federal funds that could be used to repair it. However, negotiations are in the exploration phase to see if the city of Avalon can become a sponsor of the airport, thereby clearing the way for FAA funds. Then it also could be eligible for state funding and get a badly needed resurfacing. Currently the airport is owned by the Catalina Island Conservancy, which at this writing had balked at accepting FAA money unless it could remain free of all federal restrictions that come with the funds—something the FAA is not likely to do.

Once you’ve landed safely, climb the steps to the control tower and pay the $20 fee (there are overnight fees as well). When I arrived, the $17 round-trip shuttle bus to Avalon, the main city 10 miles away, wasn’t due for 30 minutes, and I had business later that day in Long Beach. So I opted for the only other alternative—an on-call trip for the van costing $85 round trip. If you are there for only a day, go early enough so that you can explore both Avalon southeast of the airport and Two Harbors northwest of the airport. Bro-chures for both destinations are available in the tower.

The history machine

It’s too bad you can’t meet Frank Strobel, because he knows the behind-the-scenes sorts of things about Catalina. As he wound down mountainous roads, which look like a scene from the Mediterranean, toward Avalon, he spun a tale or two, and he knows a few. In addition to being a past island merchant who has owned several businesses, his wife, Irene, was the only woman mayor Catalina ever had.

The real history, the one you may already know, can be summed up in a really long sentence (take a deep breath): Catalina was once populated by fishermen and later used by crooks to hide smuggled goods, then grazed over during various attempts at farming and finally saved when chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. bought it in 1919, and his heirs in 1975 put 88 percent of it under the protection of the Catalina Island Conservancy. Whew!

Now that the history is out of the way, here are Frank Strobel’s little-known facts about Catalina: Wrigley’s 1921 home, once visited by presidents and now known as the Inn on Mt. Ada, has only six rooms, ranging from $320 to $675 a night, and reservations must be made one year in advance. Ada was Wrigley’s wife.

Two weeks prior to my visit 70 buffalo, descendants of buffalo brought to the island for a movie in 1924, blocked the road from the airport to Avalon. Cars had to wait—no match for buffalo.

Grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Wrigley have homes on the island and visit often. One is remodeling a 1932 Wrigley home, and another home was built only a few years ago. Built on a hillside, its retaining walls alone cost $250,000. A third Wrigley designed her house with a 360-degree view.

Many years ago Strobel passed up an opportunity suggested by his wife to buy what appeared to be a run-down home for $22,000. That house later sold for $485,000, and Strobel stopped driving his wife past it so as to avoid the subject. The price is typical of homes in Avalon.

An 85-year-old rock quarry on the island owned by the Santa Catalina Island Co.—the president is Wrigley heir Paxson Offield—has supplied nearly all the breakwaters from San Diego to San Francisco, including the breakwater around the RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach. (That’s the same quarry that could be used to build a beautiful concrete runway, if federal funds were available.)

Strobel once owned Catalina Flying Boats, but he was forced to sell at a loss when his wife said, “Your dream has become my nightmare.” The new owner continues to operate it under the same name, supplying goods to Catalina. It was that company that paid for the bulk of the recent runway resurfacing.

Private cars are limited. New residents enter their name in a book and are told the wait to have a car will be 12 to 15 years. You can have an electric or gasoline golf cart, however, and motorcycles are unlimited. But there is no place to ride them. Residents must stay off private property, and that means staying in the one-square-mile town.

The cost of living is 33 percent higher than on the mainland, and Los Angeles firefighters and teachers who agree to go to Catalina either get a cost-of-living increase or they get rent-free housing. Many residents who are not wealthy must work a 40-hour-per-week job and an additional 20-hour-per-week job to overcome the high cost of living there.

When the cruise ships began stopping every Tuesday and Wednesday, disgorging 2,500 people each, Catalina changed from a summer resort to a year-round resort.

During a flight around the island, I noticed an expanse of condos around a private harbor. It turns out to be Hamilton Cove, and the apartments rent for $152 (efficiency) to $700 a night in winter and $300 to $1,000 per night in summer. Call 310-510-0190 for information.

Most striking from the air is the round building well toward the water of the Avalon Bay known as the Catalina Casino, but it features a ballroom, a movie theater, and an art museum. It was finished in 1929, and its art-deco theater was among the first to accommodate “talking” pictures.

The island is beautiful to explore by airplane, foot (there are numerous trails, especially at Two Harbors), bicycle, or golf cart (if you make friends with a permanent resident). It may sound expensive, but there are enough fish and chips or hamburgers there to keep those on a tight budget happy as well. 

E-mail the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.

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