Air Service To Islands
Requires Special Skills
by FV Staff
The inhabited islands of mid coast Maine have always been relatively remote places to live. Powered ferry service has made them a little less remote. Air service has made them somewhat less remote again.
Penobscot Island Air serves as a link to the mainland for the islands of Vinalhaven, North Haven, Isleboro and Matinicus, Criehaven and Isle Au Haut. PIA flies out of the Knox County Airport on Owls Head just south of Rockland. There is regular ferry service to these islands, but it is the air service that brings the U.S. Mail daily, UPS and FedX freight, grocery air service, serves the emergency transport of choice and regularly flies passengers 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
Air service to the islands started in the 1940’s when J3 Captain Arthur Harujula flew to the islands from Rockland. Over the decades the operation of island air service changed hands four or five times. Maine Atlantic Air bought the business in 2002 and put it up for sale in 2004.
Kevin Waters began flying to the islands in 1997 and when the business came up for sale 2004 he scrambled to put the money together to buy the business. Waters said he cashed in his 401K and utilized the equity I his house. But it was the people of Matinicus who “passed the hat around” on the island to the tune of $17,000, helping Waters raise enough cash to get a required Federal Aviation Administration Air Carrier Certificate. At the time there was a mail contract coming due in 2 weeks and winning the bid was essential to the financial success of the business plan in those early days.
With the mail contract in place Penobscot Island Air took off. Since they have grown to be an important component of the transportation network in mid coast Maine. Waters said PIA has expanded the role air service has plays in the region. In addition to mail and freight contracts, the air service has agreements or contracts with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and serves as an air ambulance that backs up Life Fight. PIA also has an agreement to provide air service “pro bono” to law enforcement agencies including the state police, coast guard and Knox County emergency services.
Vans are kept on the islands to deliver mail and freight. In the winter they make 15 to 20 flights a day and in the summer months 50 to 60 daily flights.
Last year two accidents got PIA into the news. A plane had to be downed in the waters off Matinicus during take off and a grocery flight to Matinicus was blown off course when landing. In the first case Waters said, “the engine began to lose power 15 seconds into the take off and the pilot had to decide in seconds the safest course of action. The decision was to ditch the plane on the water where they could be picked up by local boats rather than attempt to make it back to the airport.” That turned out to be the best decision. “The pilot who made that decision has 20,000 hours of flight experience and is a Vietnam and American Airlines veteran,” said Waters.
The same winds that have always made the Maine coast good for sailing vessels can create unexpected challenges for aircraft. “The grocery flight to Matinicus encountered sudden low altitude winds around Matinicus Island that tossed the plane during an approach and a pilot and good friend was killed”, said Waters.
Waters said, “It is a privilege and a challenge every time we fly. We are landing on dirt airstrips, dealing with mud season, and flying in rain, snow, and windy conditions. There are definite parallels with the work of the Alaskan bush pilots. However, we have the equipment to do the job.”
“Island flying demands experience of a particular kind. These pilots are not flying by computer with air traffic controller guidance, etc. It requires the kind of thinking used in the early days of flying. The pilots have the technology to use now, but they have to have their head in the game at all times, said Waters. Waters said he could not be more appreciative of the support from customers and the general public regarding the two accidents last year.
Waters cited the 14,000 take offs and landings PIA makes every year to underscore the experience of the pilots and crew. Times have changed since the days when one pilot was the entire crew out of Owls Head. PIA has 14 pilots, 5 full time and 9 on a per diem basis. The chief pilot was the chief pilot for Maine Fish and Wildlife. The credentials of the other pilots include a retired American Eagle pilot -American Eagle is the commuter side of American Airlines; a former chief pilot for the Maine Forest Service; a retired pilot for Bar Harbor Airlines and Continental Airlines, and the owner/operator of Katahdin Air Service.