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Seaplanes return to Oak Harbor

Kenmore Air seaplanes can carry from six to 10 passengers. -
Kenmore Air seaplanes can carry from six to 10 passengers.
— image credit:

For the first time since the 1950s, seaplanes will be flying into the Seaplane Base regularly.

Kenmore Air, one of the largest and oldest seaplane companies in the nation, will be making three flights a day into the Oak Harbor Marina, starting April 8. The 20-minute runs will carry passengers between Oak Harbor and Lake Union, which is just spitting distance to downtown Seattle.

Representatives from the city of Oak Harbor, Greater Oak Harbor Chamber of Commerce and the Island District Economic Development Council worked to bring the Kenmore-based company to Whidbey. The island has been without a regular air service since Harbor Air went belly-up last year.

“We’re absolutely flattered by all the support,” said Kenmore Marketing Director Craig Sternagel. “It made the difference as to whether we would do this or not.”

Oak Harbor Economic Development Director Krista Blackburn said local officials wanted to restore the transportation link to Seattle and Sea-Tac Airport for local travelers, Navy personnel, business people and even shoppers.

Sharon Hart, the director of the EDC, said air service is important for economic development, especially for an island community.

“It will help us negotiate any negativity about being an island,” she said.

Blackburn said, for example, that people who work at Pacific Northwest Bank are excited about the service since they often have to travel to company headquarters in Seattle. Flying, as opposed to driving, will take four hours or so off a day of travel.

Also, Blackburn said the price of a ride on a seaplane is “very comparable” to the cost of flying Harbor Air from the city’s airport.

The cost of a one-way flight, to begin with, will be $65, but Sternagel said the company will eventually set a range of $50 to $75 when they figure out when the greatest demand is.

Kenmore Air will have a free van shuttle between Lake Union and Sea-Tac. Since seaplanes don’t fly in the dark — which means no early morning flights — Sternagel set he set up a deal with the Marriott hotel near the airport so that customers can fly in the night before, stay at the luxury hotel for just $69 and take the hotel shuttle to Sea-Tac in the morning.

Or for local people looking for some big-city fun, Sternagel points out that it’s an easy walk from the Lake Union terminal to the Space Needle, the Experience Music Project museum, as well as downtown stores and clubs.

Flying in a seaplane is a unique experience in itself. Sternagel said the planes are a little loud, but landings are usually much smoother than conventional planes — unless the waves are big. The seaplanes fly low over the water, which means sea life is easy to spot.

But like other small planes, the seaplane flights are weather dependent.

Kenmore has two types of planes in their fleet of 20. There’s the famous six-seater DeHavilland Beavers and the larger, quieter Otters, which hold up to 10 people.

Kenmore Air, which is over 50 years old, is the largest seaplane airline in the continental U.S. The company flies to Victoria and the San Juan Islands all year round. In the summer, the seaplanes head to the Inside Passage of Vancouver Island. Each year they carry about 70,000 people and cover about 2 million miles.

In addition to flying, the company also rebuilds seaplanes (they built one for Harrison Ford) and teaches flying lessons.

“I think this reassures people that we know what we’re doing,” Sternagel said.

Beyond officials, there is also a lot of enthusiasm for the seaplane route among local residents. After all, a lot of people still remember when the PBY seaplanes were based here. A local group is working to build a PBY Seaplane museum on the Seaplane base.

Adolph Meisch, for example, was a PBY flight engineer and mechanic in the 1940s. After retiring from the service, he went to work for Kenmore Air for 20 years as a mechanic. He said it’s “absolutely wonderful” that Kenmore Air is coming into Oak Harbor.

“They fly an awful lot of tourists. They’ll bring a lot of tourists in, which is good for business...” Meisch said. “They’re very good outfit. They’re a legend in the Seaplane business.”

You can reach Jessie Stensland at jstensland@whidbeynewstimes.com or call 675-6611.

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