By Flight Training Staff
Some destinations seem like they’re made for pilots.
Sure, flying can get you most places faster than driving, and with a better story to tell. But when the place you’re going is surrounded by water, flying beats driving every time.
Flying to island airports is a great way to exercise your skills while enjoying the perks of being a pilot. Whether you’re getting away to sunny Catalina off the California coast or want to walk the cobblestone streets of Nantucket, each island has a character a little different from the mainland—and its own real-world flying challenges to keep you on your toes. So, brush up on overwater flying considerations (see “In the Drink”) and get ready to stretch your skills at these five island destinations.
Not all island airports are surrounded by crystal-blue water and warm, sandy beaches. A few combine the challenges of flying over water with the fun and excitement of an international airport and busy airspace. You’ll have to fly north of the border for one of our favorites. The Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (CYTZ) is a rare breed—a downtown city airport that serves international destinations from an island. The longest of the airport’s three runways is 4,000 feet. Oh, and don’t forget about the seaplane landing lane.
To land here you’ll need to traverse Class B airspace, comply with international arrival and departure procedures, and be prepared to make approaches near tall buildings and over water. But the reward is worth it. You can jump across the channel via free ferry or the new passenger tunnel and be in downtown Toronto in minutes.
U.S. sectional charts cover Toronto, so only a Canadian Flight Supplement is needed to make the trip. Read about international procedures on AOPA’s website. The safest route to Toronto calls for staying over land and flying along Lake Ontario, which makes visual navigation a breeze. Get flight following before crossing the border and ATC will hand you off all the way to Toronto. Google the airport in advance to get an idea of where it lies in relation to the city and you’ll be able to spot it easily. After landing, plan to park at Porter FBO and enjoy your quick trip to one of North America’s most dynamic cities, knowing that you tackled an island landing at an international airport.
When you think “island getaway,” you may not think of the Great Lakes. But Put-in-Bay, a village on South Bass Island off the Ohio mainland, is a popular Midwest summer vacation destination known for its restaurants, nightlife, and recreation. With a year-round population of about 150, the village comes to life in the summertime, teeming with golf carts and tourists on foot.
Most visitors ride a ferry to the popular island, but pilots can arrive by Put-in-Bay Airport (3W2). If you’re landing on Runway 21, you’ll get a prime view of Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial, a 350-foot-tall monument established to honor those who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812—but be sure to stay 1,000 feet clear of the obstruction. Landing to the north, the approach is over the water. The 2,870-foot runway may not sound short, but a 450-foot displaced threshold on one end and a 657-foot displaced threshold on the other reduce the available landing area.
Confident in your short-field landing abilities? Put-in-Bay Airport is just one of four public-use airports serving the Bass Islands of Lake Erie. The others—two on Middle Bass Island and one on North Bass Island—will make you want to double-check your performance numbers. North Bass Island Airport (3X5) has a 1,804-foot runway, while Middle Bass Island-East Point’s (3W9) turf runway measures 2,085 feet and Middle Bass Island Airport’s (3T7) runway is 1,852 feet. If you and your airplane are up to the task, you’ll be rewarded with a quiet, relaxing setting and plenty of wildlife in 593 acres of public land on North Bass Island.
Nantucket, Massachusetts, and other islands off the Massachusetts and Rhode Island coasts welcome general aviation pilots with well-kept airports and lots of amenities. Some things to keep in mind: These are highly popular summer vacation spots. Air traffic, particularly in and out of Nantucket Memorial Airport (ACK), can be heavy during the peak season. The airport operates in Class D airspace and sees a whopping 62,997 air taxi operations per year. Cape Air and Nantucket Airlines run in and out of the airport all day long, all year long; American, Delta, JetBlue, and United offer seasonal service. So keep your head on a swivel. Be sure to follow the noise-abatement procedures, which are published on the airport’s website. Parking and landing fees will apply.
As you depart the East Coast and turn on your heading for ACK, you can minimize your time over the Atlantic Ocean by flying first to Martha’s Vineyard and then to Nantucket. Keep watching for traffic.
While summer will provide the most enjoyable climate—sunny and breezy—it can also produce the damp and foggy weather for which Nantucket is infamous. And the fog tends to hang around, so VFR pilots will need to be flexible. September and October offer warm daytime temperatures as well as a respite from the onslaught of summer visitors.
About 18 nautical miles from the closest point on the California coast, Catalina Island is host to buffalo, prickly pear cactus, and unlimited stargazing from its windswept 1,602-foot-elevation Airport in the Sky. Steeply carved, craggy cliffs drop into cobalt water; underwater kelp fields sway in a sea of emerald; and the curvaceous Two Harbors and its sister Isthmus Cove beckon to pilots inbound to the 3,000-foot-long asphalt strip.
DC-3 restaurant is a popular fly-in lunch spot at the privately owned, public-use Catalina Airport (AVX), but visitors also can stop in the city of Avalon or explore the island’s natural beauty on an extensive trail system. The island harbors several species of flora and fauna including island scrub oak, mariposa lily, and tiny foxes that silently sneak into campsites looking for handouts. Buffalo were brought in for a movie at some point in the past and they flourished among the rocks and rolling hills.
Pilots flying into Catalina Island have the unique experience of approaching the rocky outcrop from the ocean before the terrain quickly rises in front of them to 1,600 feet. The airport has steep drop-offs at both ends, and beware of illusions that can make the runway seem small. Watch out for downdrafts on final approach, and be prepared for a hump in the middle of the runway that obscures the opposite end. Carry money for the $25 landing fee.
Ah, the Pacific Northwest. There was a popular television show in the 1970s whose theme song began with these words: “The bluest skies you’ve ever seen….” The show took place in Seattle, but it was a homage to the entire region. On Vashon Island, just south of the coast of Seattle in Puget Sound, is one of a few public airports with just a grass runway. Runway 17/35 is 2,000 feet of smooth turf surrounded by the towering pine trees native to the Pacific Northwest. Vashon Airport is 20 acres of green grass and everywhere are views of the water and mountains. The island itself is just 13 miles long and 8 miles wide, but there are 45 miles of shoreline. The island is called the “Heart of the Sound.”
The airport (2S1) has 34 based aircraft in colorfully painted hangars along the runway and serves an average of 27 operations per day. The airport was established on the island in 1949 by Japanese-American strawberry farmer Masa Mukai and the island citizens made it a “real” (public) airport in the 1950s. The field contains a flying saucer sculpture commemorating a UFO sighting.
Vashon Airport is due west of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) and Boeing Field so pilots should consider the Class B airspace. Vashon is the initial reporting point for traffic going into Boeing Field so as a result there is a lot of activity. Pilots report it can be “a little sporty” on a sunny day. The runway slopes so local practice is to land north and depart south regardless of the wind. Be aware of strong crosswinds—and an occasional large animal on the grass. Oh, and mountains—fly just 20 miles west and you’re in the Hood River Canal where the Olympic range climbs nearly straight up from the Puget Sound to 9,000 feet.