10:14 PM

Around the
San Juans
and Inbound
to Seattle

(part two of two)

If you're looking for part one of this post, find it here.

Visit the photo gallery for this trip here.

In part one of this post, I told you how my pre-conceived notions about seaplanes were blown apart on my first leg of this wonderful ridealong with Kenmore Air in one of their turbine Otters. I found out that seaplanes with really large jet engines hanging on the nose get up on the step big time in about the length of three really fine Halibut laid end to end. I also found out that unlike some of the tiny fishing boats I've owned that rattled your teeth at any speed over five knots, landing a big multi-passenger seaplane – if in the right hands – can be smooth enough to leave the champagne glass atop the instrument panel still full of bubbly as the floats kiss the water.

I was rewarded by the WX Gods with near-perfect flying weather to see the sights on this trip. As we bopped between the islands of the San Juans, I tried to imagine the same flight with 25 knot crosswinds, rain trying hard to become snow, and temperatures toying with the freezing mark. On the first leg, Kenmore pilot Chuck Perry delivered me and one paying fare into Friday Harbor like a pro...but this multi-stop jaunt was only just beginning.

Leg 2: Friday Harbor to Deer Harbor, Orcas Island

After boarding three fares and their luggage, our pilot went through the obligatory safety briefing with about the same excitement that you get from the flight attendants on the big airlines. Doors, seat belts, escape hatch, earplugs, yada, yada, yada. From the looks on the passengers' faces, all they really wanted to hear was the sound of a PT6 spooling up for departure. But rules ARE rules, and Chuck made damn sure everyone aboard knew where the holes were in the fuselage in case we had to bail out fast. Oh, and don't be the idiot that pulls the red handle on your life vest inside the plane or the people stuck behind you will have to slap you silly.

As we were loading souls and Samsonites into Otter Eight Seven Kilo Alpha, the Friday Harbor to Seattle ferry boat slid by outbound. We will pass up this particular ferry boat an hour later as we return to Seattle in the Otter, proving that the De Havilland is a much more efficient island hopping machine then a boat loaded with cars and people.

The short flight over to Deer Harbor was a non-event, with Chuck gaining only enough altitude to keep from scaring the people in back. Landing in this scenic port was also without surprise, until we tried to taxi into the dock where two more fares were waiting. Since the Otter makes a nice wide swing to the right towards the dock, it helps the pilot to have a healthy amount of clear water to swing that spinning prop around in:

But as we s-l-o-w-l-y taxied in, a sailboat was attempting to sail somewhere, directly at our twelve o'clock. The trouble was that Chuck wasn't sure where they were going to aim their bow. Would they sail right into our path, or drift left? As the Otter crept closer, Chuck was verbally making up “plan B”, which was to swing wide right of them, then hook it back left and then hard right to begin the docking dance. And that's the way it came down, too, a non-event that was handled very well by a guy who had obviously done this a few times before.
Interesting note: As we approached the sailboat, I asked who had the right of way, the plane or the boat. I expected there were some sort of complex set of maritime regulations, but Chuck simply said “no difference, if my floats are in the water...I'm a boat.” So much for pre-conceived notion #5.

Leg 3: Deer Harbor to Westsound, Orcas Island

With a couple more fares strapped down in back, we gently taxi out of Deer Harbor on water as smooth as glass. As the dock slips farther away, Chuck brings up the power, drops the yoke into his lap to get the Otter up on the step, and in moments, the fish get smaller as we begin a shallow climb out. The reason we are not nose high and climbing like a homesick angel is that our next stop – Westsound – is just one tiny island away.

The short hop over to Westsound takes you over some of the most scenic islands imaginable. The sun was now beginning to hide behind the Olympics to the West, and reflections gleam off the calm waters below. We arrive without so much as a splash dead in the center of West Sound, and taxi in to pick up enough people to fill the Otter's seats. Again, Chuck drives the nose towards the dock, rips hard right, jumps out, and manages to catch the wing rope as it meanders by. I am now convinced that it could get pretty messy when a rookie tries to learn the intricate seaplane docking maneuver because to my untrained eye, there sure seems like there is lots to go wrong here. Maybe that is why the dock is lined with tires, hmmm?

Leg 4: Westsound, Orcas Island to Lake Union, Seattle

Now with all the seats full and the aft baggage hold full, Chuck and the Otter must work a bit harder to get on the step and in the air. With full power, our pilot yanks back on the yoke, but must hold it there maybe four seconds in order for the Otter to get up on the floats. Once the step is assured, Chuck moves the yoke forward, but wrestles with the Otter a bit coaxing both floats to leave the water simultaneously. He throws in full and HARD left aileron to correct whatever he was feeling wasn't right with the floats. I am amazed at how keen this pilot's seat-of-pants flying must be, and can only imagine the rodeo this max gross weight takeoff might be in choppy water and vicious winds.
We lumber off westbound, into a sunset that is truly a photographer's dream. As the last beams of a late winter sun bounce off the many inlets, sounds and bays at our twelve o'clock, I am making my Canon 10D digital SLR glow, snapping images so fast the flash card cries for mercy. In all, I will end up shooting almost 400 images on this 2.75 hour ridealong.
With the winds at 2,000' msl out of the east at maybe 25 knots, Chuck chooses to make the return trip to Lake Union at 500' instead. He tells me that Kenmore's pilots put safety first, and often times will not fly when the winds are too strong or to variable. I also get the feeling that it wasn't the case way up in Ketchikan where Chuck learned to fly floats. Up in Alaska, I am told with grin, they'll fly through just about anything.

We soon overtake the Friday Harbor ferry, plowing through the water towards Seattle. I am glad to be riding in the De Havilland this day, because the alternative, down there plodding along, seems far too slow. All along the route, the sunset just keeps getting more dramatic, and I keep stuffing more pixels into the 10D's memory. The Otter proves to be a smooth and stable photo platform, and the Gods were cooperating with a majestic show as the sun melted into the Olympics.

As we approach the Seattle metro area, Chuck points out “company traffic”, a Beaver outbound passing right to left, high. Too cool. I get the impression the sky is thick with Kenmore Air seaplanes up in these parts. We sneak up on Seattle, and I pick out Lake Union, which looks small from 20 NM out and appears to be sandwiched right in the middle of town. Chuck pulls power and follows the I-5 freeway down to final, landing a little south of east. As we descend, I remember thinking the lake is really NOT getting any bigger.

At this point, I am shooting pictures a million a minute. Chuck scans the water for boats, and picks out a nice fat corridor between any floating traffic to set down the Otter. Without a splash, we arrive, the sun's last remaining rays teasing us as they reflect off the high-rises of downtown and the Space Needle. As we taxi to the “gate”, we pass another outbound Kenmore Beaver, off to somewhere, making me think that DAMN, these guys are BUSY!

With my ridealong concluded, I thank Chuck for a job well done, and thank Brandon for hooking me up. It was a scenic ride I will never, ever forget, and one I recommend highly to anyone who ever gets into Seattle. If you love airplanes, you MUST book a scenic flight with Kenmore Air, you will not regret it. Or, if you want to leave a great amount of troubles behind and sneak off to the San Juans for a little R & R, flying there by seaplane with Kenmore is the way to go.

Visit the photo gallery for this trip here. Book that flight with Kenmore here.

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