Air taxi service carries life's needs to the Penobscot Bay islands
Owls Head — Kevin Waters is a man who likes doing things the hard way — like restarting an airline that had just quit and getting it airborne again on borrowed money.
There had been air service to the Penobscot Bay islands since the early 1940s when Arthur Harjula flew an air taxi service in a single 13 cub. Over the years, different owners flew to the islands, until December 2004, when Maine Atlantic Aviation ceased operations.
A pilot with Maine Aviation, Waters recognized how essential the air service was to life on the islands for getting food, mail, medical supplies, and equipment. On Matinicus, there was no mail boat, most residents did not have their own boats, and the state ferry came by 32 times a year, mainly in the summer.
When Matinicus islanders found out that Waters was trying to revive the air service by leasing one plane, they passed the hat among themselves and raised $17,000.
Since 2004, when Waters started Penobscot Island Air on borrowed money, he has built the service to a company that employs 17 people and provides daily transportation to the islands.
Today his airline, which is classified as an air taxi service, has five planes, including a seaplane for landing in a pond on Isle au Haut, which has no runway.
The air taxi service is licensed to fly anywhere in the United States, Canada and the Bahamas. Locally, it serves Islesboro, Matinicus, North Haven, Vinalhaven, Criehaven, Big Green, Swans Island, and Isle au Haut.
The airline averages 14,000 emplanements, or landings and takeoffs, a year, Waters said.
Recently, Waters flew to White Plains, N.Y., from Knox County Regional Airport to pick up a party bound for the Island Institute in Rockland. He left Owls Head at 1:30 p.m. and had his passengers back in Knox County by 9:30 p.m.
Waters, 54, is the sole owner. His wife is a registered nurse at Pen Bay Medical Center. The couple has no children.
Essential Air Service Program
The idea for the small plane Essential Air Service program was the brainchild of the late U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska in 1978 to guarantee that small communities in the U.S. were served by airlines.
In fact, Waters sometimes calls his service an “Alaska-type operation” in reference to Stevens’ idea.
Waters said Knox County Regional Airport benefits from the federal Essential Air Service program of the U.S. Department of Transportation but Penobscot Island Air does not get any of that help
“The U.S. Department of Transportation selects those routes, and we don’t meet their criteria,” he said. Knox is considered an entitlement airport. It gets more than $1 million a year in Federal Aviation Administration funds for airport improvements.
“Knox does more than 10,000 emplanements a year to justify that money,” he said.
“Yet, we contribute the most out of here,” he said. “It sounds as if we didn’t exist.”
Shaw’s Supermarket in Rockland makes up boxes of food orders for Matinicus Island residents daily. Pilots can be seen at Knox County Regional Airport loading the food in Garden Way hand carts from the truck to the plane.
In Maine, airports in Augusta, Bar Harbor, Presque Isle and Rockland receive USDOT subsidy for flights under the Essential Air Services program. Cape Air flies commercial flights to Boston from Rockland, Augusta, and Bar Harbor, and Peninsula Airways flies to Boston from Presque Isle. The annual FAA subsidy for Rockland, or the Knox County Regional Airport at Owls Head, is nearly $1.4 million.
In 2009, the state of Maine did help Penobscot Air with a matching grant for runway maintenance on four of the islands.
“It was a $250,000 transportation bond for island airports,” said Waters. He credits former Speaker of the House Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, for her support in getting the bond.
Of the total bond money, Matinicus airport received $145,000 for additional gravel, grading the runway, improving the drainage and putting in two concrete turnaround pads at the ends of the runways. Another $80,000 was dedicated for the Swan’s Island airport to recondition and grade the runway, $15,000 for the Vinalhaven airport for a new top coat, and $10,000 to grade and smooth airstrips for the North Haven airport.
“Normally, these are projects we would have had to pay for ourselves, but the bond money did help,” he said.
They were 80/20 grants, with the towns putting up 20 percent in matching funds and the remaining 80 percent coming from the bond, Waters said.
Swan’s Island still has not used its grant, he added.
“A lot of those outlying areas wouldn’t have air service if it hadn’t been for Essential Air Service. EAS funding gave people in rural areas access to air services,” he said.
“If you take away subsidized airports in Maine, you are left with Portland and Bangor,” he said.
Penobscot Island Air leases its space from the Knox County Regional Airport for the acreage the buildings are on and 2.5 percent of gross receipts.
“We’re not in the $3.5 million airport building,” he said. “Our buildings are reclaimed from the dump.”
Waters serves on two committees for the regional airport, the Safety Committee of the Airport Advisory Board and the Airport Advisory Board.
Matinicus Island resident Eva Murray survived one of two crashes in July 2011 when pilot Robert Hoffman crash-landed a plane into the ocean.
Just as the plane left the island, something went wrong, said Waters, and the plane lost its power. The pilot turned the plane to the wind and ditched it into the ocean. The pilot and its three passenger survived.
“I was one of four to surface,” said Murray in an interview this week. “Yet, I will get back into that plane. In fact, I’m taking flying lessons,” she added. “I still use that air service all the time.”
Murray said the air service is essential to life on the islands, where she has lived with her family for 25 years as a teacher and a writer.
She said a spirit does exist among the pilots and crews. “Kevin does a good job of inspiring his crews,” she added.
Jim Nichols, a dispatcher for Penobscot Island Air, is also a writer. He recalls when the air service started, there was no money to meet payroll.
In the Penobscot Island Air office is a photograph of five crew members, including the late Don Campbell, a pilot whose plane crashed in October 2011 while delivering groceries. Campbell, a resident of Waldoboro, was one of the original crew members when Penobscot Island Air started in 2004.
Emergency services from Camden extricated Campbell's body from the wreckage and took it to the church on Matinicus, where he reposed until his family came.
Waters gets choked up telling that story.
“I’m very proud of our crews,” Waters said. “We did more than 150 medevacs last year. They do their jobs. They’re problem solvers.”
Courier Publications reporter George Chappell can be reached at 207-594-4401, ext. 117, or at email@example.com.