Growing up in Oak Harbor was a treat. It was a small, safe town. It was also somewhat isolated. The nearest major airport was SEATAC some 100 miles by road. In spite of a nice big airfield that could accommodate most any jet, people assigned to the Naval Air Station just north of town would ordinarily arrive via commercial aviation. That meant they flew into Seattle. Getting the rest of the way was the challenge. So in 1964, local businessman Wes Lupien modernized the small local airport, and founded Whidbey Flying Service. Within a few years, WFS transformed into Harbor Air, and was regularly shuttling from Lupien Airport to SEATAC.
Harbor Airlines Islander N68HA taxis at Wes Lupien Airport on Whidbey Island on 17 Dec 1983. The Islanders were later replaced by Pipers, which in turn later changed to Cessna Caravans. – Rick Morgan at Rickmorganbooks.com
The first ride of Harbor Air was the trusty Britten Norman BN-2 Islander. The Islander was a great, reliable plane that was easy to operate and fit into the tiny airfield at Oak Harbor. But it wasn’t certified to operate in icing conditions, which occasionally crop up on the Northwest, so the company eventually switched to the Piper Navajo.
Most of the Harbor Air Piper Navajo fleet at Lupien Airport in 1997. Photo by Rick Morgan.
Eventually, Lupien would sell the airline, and it would reequip once again with the turboprop Cessna Caravan.
Harbor Air Caravans on the ramp at SEA in 1999. Photo by Rick Morgan.
The airline business is tough, and margins are always thin. Rising costs, an ill timed attempt at expansion, and mismanagement by the new ownership lead to the airline closing shop in mid 2001.
You probably don’t really care about the fate of a small commuter airline in a small town in Washington. But I have a few fond memories.
Air travel in the 1970s and 1980s was a tad different from the humiliation of today. It was a somewhat more relaxed environment. First, take a look at the picture of the Navajos. That’s a tiny little airstrip. There’s a reason the locals called Harbor Air “White Knuckle Airlines.” Lupien was challenging enough to fly in and out of in fair weather like that. On a dark and stormy night, the fun meter would just about peg. Not surprisingly, an awful lot of of its pilots were retired or former A-6 or EA-6B pilots. *
The Islander held one pilot and nine passengers in five rows of seats. What that worked out to was, the first passenger to reach the plane was seated in the co-pilot’s seat. You guessed correctly if you guessed that as a young lad, I sprinted to the plane every time. And, as things were a bit more relaxed back then, it wasn’t unusual for my friend Jerry Patterson, a retired A-6 squadron commander, to put a headset on me, and chat with me during the half hour hop to SEATAC.
Harbor Air was nominally a publicly traded stock (though I’m not sure it was listed even in the pink sheets). And one of the perks of ownership was a free pair of round trip tickets annually. Which I found out when my friend Brian casually invited me to spent a day in Seattle. Mind you, were were about 13 at the time. In this age of parenting where letting your child walk to school is worthy of a criminal investigation, imagine letting two young boys fly to Seattle early in the morning, spend all day unsupervised in a major metropolitan city, and fly home later that evening.
Of course, after that grand adventure, I had to buy my own stock! What meager earnings I had quickly went to buying five shares in Harbor, at a price of about $20 a share, I think. In the event, the free tickets usually went to my dad during his many trips to care for his family in the South, but still, I had my own stock portfolio!
Any time dad came home via Harbor Air, it was an occasion for a party. Friends and family would gather at the airport, just by the fence right next to the runway, and unveil an enormous banner saying “Welcome Home, Art!” Very often, champagne in the parking lot with canapes would be followed by a cocktail party or dinner at home. Of course, sometimes things didn’t always work out. I recall waving the banner and watching the passengers deplane one time, only to find that dad wasn’t aboard. Turns out, his flight from Atlanta was delayed, and he’d missed his connection. No problem, we just packed up and moved the party to the house, and eventually dispatched someone to pick him up later that evening on the next flight.
That banner came in handy again in 1991. Returning from Saudi Arabia after Desert Storm, I finally was able to take some leave at the end of May. Long flights from Germany to New York to Seattle left me anxious to catch the very last Harbor Air flight of the day, departing at about 10pm. And my “confirmed” ticket bought through SATO** turned out to be “standby.” Fortunately, there was a no-show, and I made the flight.
And sure enough, there was a crowd of about 60 well wishers watching the Navajo taxi back to the ramp. The pilot saw that huge banner welcoming Art home, and asked which one of us was so popular that evening. And my fellow passengers, mostly sailors returning the air station, kindly let me deplane first. And so it came, that I triumphantly stood at the top of the steps waving a “V for Victory” and stepped down.
And promptly tripped and fell flat on my face on the tarmac.
*Stephen Coont’s novel The Intruders begins with his hero, Jake Grafton, in a SEATAC bar waiting for a Harbor Airlines flight.
**Scheduled Airline Ticket Office. A kind of government run travel agency, where tickets for official travel are issued, and tickets for personal travel may be purchased. It is run with the usual government efficiency.