4:33 PM

Seattle and the
San Juans From
the Right Seat of
a Turbine Otter

(Part one of two)

View the photo gallery from this trip here

Each time I travel on business or pleasure, I seem to always try and find something to do for fun that involves airplanes. A trip March 3-5 to Seattle on business would have been the perfect time to tour Boeing's factory, but with just two days in town to play before an agency presentation on Monday, it looked like airplanes would be replaced by flying fish at Pike Place Public Market, shopping, eating and enjoying the Seattle area for the first time since my teens.

But all that changed instantly on Saturday afternoon. As I stood on the Marriott Residence Inn's balcony overlooking scenic Lake Union, a unmistakable sound began reverberating across the marinas below, past the zillion-dollar motoryachts before bouncing off the high-rise condos encircling the lake and arriving at my smiling face. What made me grin widely was the wonderful sound of a large radial engine pulling a beautiful yellow and white De Havilland Beaver seaplane off the lake. To me, it was like going to the symphony.

As I watched the Beaver lumber off across the lake, it dawned on me that I had never been in a seaplane. I remembered seeing a rack card down in the lobby offering seaplane sightseeing flights, and when Julie said I should make that my “recreation” for this trip, without hesitation, my Sunday plans were made. Or so I thought...

The seaplane airline – Kenmore Air – offers one of the finest views of Seattle, Victoria and the San Juans you can find. Their sightseeing flights fill up, so when I called, I told them I was a pilot and was eager to take my first seaplane ride and then post about the experience here. As if determined not to disappoint, Kenmore's Lake Union Supervisor, Brandon Freeman, found a way to accommodate me by slipping me into the right seat of their afternoon multi-stop run from their busy Lake Union Terminal to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island and then on to Deer Harbor and West Sound on Orcas Island. It was one of the most awesome trips I have made by air ever...a “media ridealong” I will never, ever forget.

Here is part one of the story. Please bookmark my blog and check back soon for the conclusion.

View the photo gallery from this trip here

Lake Union departure, outbound

First, a little background on Kenmore Air, from their website:

The airline was started in 1946 by Bob Munro, Reg Collins, and Jack Mines with one airplane flying from a single hangar at Seattle's Lake Washington. Today, Kenmore Air is among the best-known and most respected float plane operations in the world, flying an eclectic fleet made up of 25 piston Beavers, turbine Otters and Caravans, landing passengers on glaciers, lakes and harbors among the mist-shrouded fjords and islands of the U.S. and Canadian northwest.
I had my pre-concieved notions about flight in a seaplane, and all were proven incorrect. My pilot for the ridealong was Kenmore's Chuck Perry, a very capable seaplane stick who began flying floats 30 years ago in Ketchikan, Alaska. Pre-conceived notion #1 was obliterated when I assumed Perry would prefer to be called “Captain”...since a seaplane is really just a boat/plane hybrid. I thought that would be the respectful way to address the guy with the yoke in his hand, but he politely told me he just prefers Chuck. I determined quickly that “captains” drove tugboats, and Alaskans that fly off the water in planes equipped with floats are really just like the rest of us aviators.

Pre-conceived notion #2 came when Chuck lit up the 750-shp PT6 hanging on the Otter's nose. Blindfolded, Perry could have done this maneuver quickly, since it appeared he had done it about ten millions time before. Calmly, he brought up the power, pointed the nose to the middle of the lake where there were no sailboats, and sent the throttle to the forward stop. With just three souls and no luggage on board, Otter November Eight Seven Kilo Alpha was off the water in well under half the distance I expected, wiping out my expectation that seaplanes took forever to launch.

Seattle is the jewel of the Pacific Northwest, and is a very beautiful city from the air. The Lake Union departure takes you a little west of north out over Puget Sound, and everywhere you look, there is something really great to see. Level at 2,000, I watch Whidbey Island slip by under the right wing before we head out over the Straight of Juan de Fuca. We push on gracefully past tiny Smith Island, an ominous chunk of rock far out in the deep water that looks like it's been the worst nightmare of many mariners over the years. This is scenery like you cannot imagine, with small, tree-covered islands off on the horizon, encircling waterways split down the middle by the ocasssional wake of a container ship or ferry boat.

Soon, I see Chuck start pulling back power, and a look at the Garmin 430 tells me Friday Harbor – our first stop – is coming up on the left. Our winds are light and from about seven o'clock, so Chuck drives the Otter straight at the gut of Friday Harbor, trims for 80 knots, and floats in for what I thought to be a greaser arrival...is it even possible to grease landings on the ocean? But apparently Perry missed “one small wake” from a boat, and that tiny bump forced him to call it “the worst landing ever”. Go figure...it was about five times smoother than I had expected, ripping a huge hole in pre-conceived notion #3 that seaplanes landing on water would be rough as hell. I think I got lucky though, because Perry said this was the nicest WX and the best flying day he'd seen in months.

We slowly taxi towards the Kenmore dock, and I notice it is deserted. Where is the “ramp” crew...where are the guys who will tie the plane down? As we get within a few feet of the dock, I remember thinking that we were coming in way too hot, but since all my pre-conceived notions about seaplanes have been wrong so far, I sat back and watched what turned out to be quite a show as Chuck performed a docking maneuver only a seaplane pilot with the legs of a twentysomething could pull off.

Here is the drill for parking a turbine Otter at a dock by yourself: Keep up enough speed through the water to allow authority to the water rudders. Lose that, Chuck warns, and the gigantic tail of the Otter will catch even a tiny amount of wind and weathervane the plane possibly out of control. As you near the dock on the left side, kick in lots of right rudder while pulling the prop to reverse pitch. This puts the plane into sort of a powerslide towards the dock, but wait...the fun is only just beginning:
At this point, Chuck pops open the left pilot's door and vanishes down the side of the plane in a graceful move that if all goes well, will end with his feet planted firmly on the dock. At this point – for about two seconds the Otter is free of any control, gliding along the dock, pilotless. I soon find out what those long ropes hanging from the wings are for...they're what Chuck grabs as the Otter's wing moves over his head. Like he has done so many times before, he reins the Otter in, firmly tugging it back to the dock. A blur of his experienced hands wraps a tiedown rope to the float...and we have arrived.
I have completed my first-ever flight as right seat observer in a turbine Otter, and it was awesome. I expected a slow departure, a rough-and-tumble ride, and a rodeo landing. What I got was an immediate blast off, a perfectly smooth cruise, and a “10” landing and dock arrival that looked easier than it probably was to pull off. All at the hands of a guy who makes driving a turbine Otter look like nothing like work, for an airline who seems – at least on this trip – to do everything right.

In part two of this post, I will tell you what it's like to fly over the gorgeous San Juans, and what life is like for a busy seaplane pilot as he slips in and out of dock after dock picking up fares. I'll conclude with the flat-out incredible experience coming back into Seattle's Lake Union at sunset, and let you know how you too can fly the San Juans with Kenmore Air.

Read PART TWO of this post here

View the photo gallery from this trip here

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