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Vital SignsVital Signs

Keeping the heart of the island beatingKeeping the heart of the island beating

On this damp, overcast morning you would think that nothing is going on at tiny Friday Harbor Airport on San Juan Island in the Pacific Northwest. But you would be wrong — by 9 a.m.

A Day in the Life of America's Airports

On this damp, overcast morning you would think that nothing is going on at tiny Friday Harbor Airport on San Juan Island in the Pacific Northwest. But you would be wrong — by 9 a.m. two flights had left the island bearing patients bound for hospitals on the mainland and the first of five scheduled flights from Seattle via Kenmore Air had landed, as had a San Juan Airlines flight from Anacortes. On this remote saltwater island general aviation is hard at work today as it has been every day since airport founder Roy Franklin carved an airport out of a forest in 1948. Franklin first flew on San Juan Island from a cow pasture, but the continual need for air ambulance service, often flown at night between the 20 inhabited islands in the 172-island archipelago and Seattle and Bellingham, Washington, convinced him of the need for a paved, lit runway. In 1959 the first airplanes began using Friday Harbor and, like today, residents used the flights for supplies and visiting neighbors. But in the beginning it was the local doctor and his patients who made the most use of Franklin's air service. And even now there are no medical facilities on the San Juan Islands.

Unfortunately and ironically Friday Harbor Airport faces the same issue as other general aviation airports — new residents who dislike the airport noise. Airport Operations Assistant Manager Stuart Hansen, cleaning bathrooms in the modest terminal on this unusually quiet day, has been verbally abused on more than one occasion about the noise despite the airport's best efforts — noise-abatement-procedure signs and posted rules are everywhere, including wallboard cutouts of Snoopy the Flying Ace pointing out the procedures at each end of the 3,400-foot runway. The airport residents want to open their hangars, put on airshows, and welcome the community to the airport, but the local port authority isn't buying in. The much larger ferry system may transport approximately 5,000 people daily around the islands, but Kenmore Air and San Juan Airlines can contribute nearly 500 a day during peak season.

And then there's Island Air. This family-run air-charter system founded by Jackie Hamilton — it's the only air-charter company founded by a woman in the country — recently received FAA approval of the first small aircraft certified for air ambulance service in the continental United States, a stretcher-equipped Cessna 206. It was first out this morning and last out at night. "Some people throttle aviation — until they need it," says Emergency Medical Technician Robert Benton.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

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