The crucial role of propeller aircraft
In the San Juan Islands, aircraft are a way of life. No roads or bridges connect the archipelago of more than 150 named islands scattered in the straits between Washington State and Canada’s Vancouver Island. Ferries offer limited service to the four main islands, but they are often full—especially in the summer—and only run on set schedules.
Jackie Hamilton started Island Air in 1992 with a single aircraft, a Cessna® 172, to help make travel between the islands easier. Since then she has built a sizeable fleet, helping passengers get where they need to go, when they need to go.
Based in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, the charter company operates six aircraft, flying residents and their families, tourists, workers and business executives to and from mainland U.S. and Canada and between the islands.
"This is a true air taxi. We really are moving people around to get where they need to go. Like using a car, it’s not a luxury; it’s a way of life."Jackie Hamilton, pilot and owner of Island Air charter
“To show you how much airplanes are a part of everyday life, when the local school close to home wasn’t working for my son, we enrolled him in a small school over on Shaw Island. For about three years, we flew him to school every day. He is now at a private school back on San Juan Island and is getting straight As,” Jackie Hamilton said.
Managing weather, terrain
Today, Hamilton employs five full-time and five part-time pilots, and operates two Cessna 207s, one 206, two 172s and a new Cessna Grand Caravan®. The aircraft can handle the archipelago’s challenging weather.
“We get fog, a lot of rain, a lot of reduced visibilities and freezing temperatures in the wintertime. The new Caravan® can handle that well. Our two Cessna 207s and our 206 are certified for Part 135 IFR, which is fairly unusual. As far as terrain, we fly in and out of everything, from Boeing Field to 1,500-foot marginally improved gravel strips. It’s a little bit of bush flying. Cessna aircraft are well-suited for that,” Hamilton, an experienced pilot with more than 13,000 flight hours, said.
Island Air fleet and crew
Island Air averages 10 to 30 charters a day in summer and five to 10 in winter. Most are short, quick hops with one or two people onboard. The phone and power companies, the sheriff’s department and other businesses and organizations depend on Island Air for quick, on-demand transportation throughout the islands. Most flights are usually scheduled at the last minute. Hamilton says the aircraft have to be dependable day after day to keep customers happy.
“If the phone company needs to get over to the next island, Lopez, they’ll give us a call and we pop them over. The ferry ride itself to Lopez is only about a half hour, but they have to wait until the ferry sails, if they can get on. It’s overloaded a lot of times. With us, it’s only a five-minute flight — a huge time savings for companies. They can get over there and fix whatever they need to fix or fly over in the morning and have us pick them up in the afternoon,” Hamilton said.
“Over the years, we have gotten busier and busier and have won the trust of the local businesses. In our 22 years of operation, there have been no accidents. We’re very safety focused.”
In the summer, mild temperatures, lush scenery, orca whales and eagles draw vacationing families and tourists to the islands.
“It’s an amazingly beautiful part of the world. You can look out and see snow-capped mountains and the ocean. We have more pilots up here than any other place in the United States, with the exception of Alaska,” said Hamilton.
“In the summertime, we have a lot more families that visit. They don’t want to fly into SeaTac (Seattle-Tacoma International Airport), drive up and take the ferry. They just want to get here and start having fun on their vacation. We fly down to Seattle and pick them up. Sometimes, it’s a company coming in for a board meeting.”
Travel options for trips to and from San Juan Island and Lopez
In addition to shuttling passengers, Island Air also helps save lives with its on-call air ambulance service for emergency evacuations and inter-hospital transfers. Hamilton outfitted her newest addition to the fleet, the Cessna Grand Caravan, with a state-of-the-art medical interior. Modifications include a LifePort stretcher system, additional lighting for nurses and a tracking system on the ceiling to hang IV pumps, a LifePak 12 monitor and defibrillator, and other equipment.
“When it came to the Cessna 208 (Grand Caravan), we really did our due diligence. We weighed all the factors. It really came down to the short-bodied Caravan and the Kodiak. We looked really hard at both of those and ultimately decided that the Caravan was the way to go based on our studies. It gives us more flexibility and capability,” said Hamilton.