With the steady grip of a veteran flier, Jim Poste dipped the Grumman Goose seaplane toward the coastal bluffs of Santa Catalina Island. Skirting the shoreline, Poste nosed the aircraft downward, sending it dancing atop the choppy ocean swells.
As the 41-year-old pilot cut power to the twin 450-horsepower engines, the white plane plowed through the waves, settling into the water like an overweight mallard. Catalina Flying Boats Flight No. 2 had arrived.
Motoring the seaplane onto a concrete ramp at Pebbly Beach, a lonely stretch of cobbles about a mile south of Avalon, Poste had the look of a man who wouldn't trade places with anyone.
Love for Seaplanes
"We basically do it for fun," said Poste, a commercial pilot who moonlights for the 2-year-old cargo airline when he is not in the cockpit of a DC-10. "We're doing it because we love seaplanes and we want to see this business succeed."
That could be a difficult task. While swarms of seaplanes once buzzed through the coastal skies of Southern California during the halcyon days of the aircraft, Catalina Flying Boats is today the only cargo firm making the 26-mile journey between the island and the mainland daily.
In the years since regular seaplane service was introduced to the island in 1919, numerous entrepreneurs have tried to keep a flying boat firm airborne, but all have been grounded by business woes.
Enter longtime island merchant Frank Strobel. A wiry man with a head of white hair and a deeply tanned face, Strobel through the years has owned and operated various firms on Catalina, among them a tourist tram service and a rental car agency.
But his first love had always been flying boats.
"I fell in love with seaplanes and always wanted to own one," Strobel, 47, recalled."Its a bug I've had for 25 or 30 years."
Strobel decided to take the plunge in 1984. With the blessings and help of his
wife, Irene, Strobel used his savings to purchase a 1942 Grumman Goose for $150,000 and to lease hangar space at Long Beach Airport.
In the months since, the business has managed to stay afloat and break even while delivering thousands of pounds of cargo to the island, everything from United Parcel Service packages to movies for the cinema at the Avalon casino.
Despite the success, Catalina Flying Boats still faces a major challenge. The tiny cargo airline could be squeezed off the taxiway because of plans by Douglas Aircraft Co. to expand operations at Long Beach Airport.
With virtually no affordable hangar space in Long Beach, Strobel is searching for another place on the mainland to house his operation.
But on a sunny day with a slight breeze out of the southwest, such problems seem as far away as the clouds on the horizon.
Start for the Day.
Those are the days Strobel likes best. Each morning, he wakes up early, hoping for good weather and flat water. He turns on the weather forecast, then heads for the ramp at Pebbly Beach to make his own assessment of what Mother Nature has in store for the day.
Across the swells, on the mainland, the firm's crew members work hurriedly to fuel the Goose and check it's engines and other equipment.
"There's a lot of maintenance on these planes because they're going into salt water all the time and there's a lot of corrosion," said Fred Meyer, 65, a balding fellow with a white goatee who is the firm's chief mechanic.
For every hour of flight time, Meyer must spend between three and five hours on maintenance.
As the workers loaded the cargo hold, crew chief Wally Marshall lent a hand. Squinting into the sun, he explained how the firm makes two or three round trips to the island during the winter, but up to six trips a day during the summer tourist season.
Switch From Big Jets.
Poste has flown seaplanes since the 1960s for several passenger airlines, among them Golden West and Air Catalina. Nowadays, he brings home a paycheck flying big commercial jets, spending his two days off as a pilot for Catalina Flying Boats, getting about $50 per trip.
Poste would pick a seaplane over a jumbo jet any day. While the pilot of a commercial airliner does little more than supervise an on-board computer as it flies the aircraft, an aviator behind the wheel of a flying boat has full control, Poste said.
Rolling onto the runway and roaring into the skies above Long Beach, Poste pointed the seaplane toward Catalina and did his best to explain.
"You never look here," he said, pointing to the aircraft's instrument panel. "It's seat-of-the-pants kind of thing. That's what makes it so fun, I guess."
Flying at about 150 m.p.h. at an altitude of 1,000 feet, the seaplane cut across the channel to Catalina in 15 minutes. With the island approaching below, Poste adjusted his black aviator glasses. Now, he said, comes the hard part.
"It's totally different than landing a plane on a concrete runway," Poste said, explaining how a pilot must carefully judge the water conditions. "In a seaplane, every runway is different. You're learning something new, it seems, with every landing." "Its a lot like surfing," he said. "You play the water just like you're on a surfboard."
Nonetheless, Poste admitted that he has had his share of rough landings. "We always used to say that the sign of a rough landing was when you rolled up on the ramp and the passengers were still screaming" Poste joked. "The sign of a really rough landing was when the pilot was still screaming."
Actually, the seaplane has an enviable safety record. When the engines quit, Poste said, a seaplane can simply glide down to the water and land.
Nonetheless, some precautions are taken before landing on the water. On one recent morning, Poste sent the aircraft swooping low along the island's edge, scaring off a flock of seagulls roosting along the cliffs.
In the two years since the firm started operating, the seaplane has missed flying only three days because of bad weather or mechanical problems, Strobel said.
Generally, the landings are smooth, something the firm's day-to-day business operations have not always been. Strobel said he has yet to take a day off or even give himself a salary, putting all the earnings back into the firm, which grossed more than $250,000 last year.
In fact, the Strobel family has helped with the business. Strobel said his wife, an Avalon councilwoman, is the "real brains" of the outfit. His daughter, Kim Saldana, helps with the books.
"It's been a struggle. Any business is," he said. "I want to see seaplanes continue to fly to Catalina. It's a dying art, but I don't want it to die."