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Beaver Island's Airlines

One of the many aftermaths of the terrible events of September 11th was the grounding of all air traffic across America, including to and from Beaver Island. Just as happened all over the country when the large passenger jets went into limbo, no one complained. After all, what was a little inconvenience, compared to the tragedy in Washington and New York?

While pulling together and waiting out the three-day delay, many of us thought about the gradual evolution of the Island's commercial flights, from Bud Hammond to Joe McPhillips to Bill Welke to Island Airways. Today, in the heart of the summer, there might be ten flights a day, but it wasn't always so. When Joe got the mail contract and took up this run after W.W.II, he frequently sat next to his plane for hours, hoping someone would appear with a need to go over. As time went by, the Island came to depend on him, and when his flying service finally became a profitable operation nobody begrudged him because everyone remembered the long hours he'd been on call, available day or evening for one person or a crowd wanting to go home.

In the early 70s Bill Welke arrived and began doing a little bit of everything, installing wells and septics, sawing timber, and strapping on his gun to greet the ferry and urge anyone who looked like a ne'er-do-well to go back up the gangplank and wait on board for the return trip. He loved to fly, and started a competing flying service. He was always ready to drop what he was doing and fire up his small plane. But even though he was here, and had an airport closer to town than the one Joe used, the Islanders were loyal and it took a decade for Bill to become established. Finally Richard Hodgson threw in with Bill. They bought out Joe, and Island Airways was formed. Over the last fifteen years we've witnessed their continued growth, the expansion of their facilities to include top-notch mechanics, and the acquisition of four ten-passenger twin-engine planes. During their traditional fly-overs on the Fourth of July, we all feel a sense of pride.

Along the way there have been some interesting events, and not just the plane that landed upside down in a Charlevoix field or the one that bumped its tires on the roof of the Masinis' car. Everyone has a story about Joe. He started with a Cessna 172, and moved up to a 195, a sturdy plane that probably should have been retired long before the day its landing supports collapsed while it was idling at the gas pump, taking on fuel for one more trip. Because Joe started out when there wasn't much money to be made, he cut costs by flying low. "Climbing takes gas," he told one nervous passenger.

Phil Gregg likes to tell the story of Joe picking up him and Lil and another couple on a snowy day in March. They had all boarded, filling the plane to capacity (although he had a "rumble seat," a board that went between the two seats behind his, to accommodate a fifth passenger), when smoke began spewing from the engine. "Everyone out," he said, and out they flew. He raised the cowling, sprayed the carburetor with the fire extinguisher, rubbed it off with his glove, and told them to climb back aboard. "Except you, Phil," he said. "Stay out there a little while longer to see if she catches fire again."

Joe didn't like to spend the night on Beaver Island, preferring the comfort of his own bed. He would only head this way if the weather was good, but if it shifted, he would search for any excuse to head home. One time, after stalking anxiously around the plane and staring up in every direction, he set off into a murky sky but the only place he could find to put down was a farmer's field outside of Cross Village. Still, he made it home that night.

Finding space for freight was always a problem. Passengers frequently had their laps loaded, not just with luggage but also with the provisions required for survival on the Island. One passenger remarked that he was buried in supplies and knew the plane took off and landed but had no idea if it had gone anywhere or just circled around. One time the luggage door came open midway across and gallons of milk began to slide towards it and fall out. When he finally noticed the trail of bobbing jugs he was leaving in his wake, he turned to one of the two young boys behind him, his only passengers, and said, "Would you mind reaching back there, son, and seeing if you could latch that dang door." Another time he undertook a mission to help the family of a departed Islander by scattering his ashes in the lake. Midway across, he told his passengers what was afoot, hoisting up a small urn for their inspection. Then he opened his window and tilted the container. The ashes spilled out, but hit the prop wash and were blown back in, splattering the four sour faces behind him. Seeing what had happened, he made the only remark possible: "Sorry about that, folks."

He wouldn't fly if there was a snowflake in the air, and he wouldn't fly on Christmas except for someone in uniform. Plowing the Island field was a proposition of diminishing returns as it became narrower and narrower with each pass. There were times when the tips of his wings left marks in the plowed snow furrows--on both sides. He preferred landing on the ice in the harbor, when it would support him (and once when it wouldn't.) Sometimes he'd simply pass over, slow and low, and kick out the mail bag and any other supplies. When Frankie heard them hit he would scurry out to retrieve the delivery. People still talk about the box that spilled open from the impact and revealed a new pair of bright red shoes, or about the ruckus Dick LaFreniere made when the mail's rough landing broke his new glasses before he'd a chance to put them on.

Joe was a wonderful pilot, who lived to fly. When he wasn't in the air he was reading aviation manuals, or swapping stories with other pilots. He had been praised during the war, and people claimed that all his years of flying the Beaver Island run had put him at the top of the list for hours logged over water, of any pilot in the world, After so many years of struggle, the competition for this run was intense and he put off retiring as long as he could. When the time finally came, it was a mixed blessing, but he quickly discovered that his place in the hearts of the Islanders was assured. He had carried them home for years, and they were there for him at the end, to help carry him home.




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