Staying Afloat : Seaplane Venture Flies Only Remaining Air Cargo Link to Catalina

Times Staff Writer

With the steady grip of a veteran flier, Jim Poste dipped the Grumman Goose seaplane toward the craggy coastal bluffs of Santa Catalina Island. Skirting the shoreline, Poste gently 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 chunky white plane plowed a foamy trough 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.

'We Love Seaplanes'

"We basically do it for fun," said Poste, a commercial pilot who moonlights for the 2-year-old cargo airline when he's 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 prove a formidable task. While swarms of seaplanes once buzzed through the pristine 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 on a daily basis.

In the years since regular seaplane service was first 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 framing 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 has always been seaplanes. Shortly after arriving on the island in 1956 as a self-styled beach bum without a pair of shoes, Strobel began work as a baggage man for a seaplane firm.

"I fell in love with seaplanes and always wanted to own one," said Strobel, 47. "It's a bug I've had for 25 or 30 years."

Something of a dreamer, Strobel decided to take the plunge in April, 1984. With the blessing and help of his wife, Irene, Strobel sank the family savings into the seaplane venture, purchasing a 1942 Grumman Goose for $150,000 and leasing hangar space at Long Beach Airport.

In the months since, the business has managed to stay aloft and break even while delivering thousands of pounds of cargo to the island, everything from United Parcel Service packages to movies for the island cinema at the Avalon casino.

Despite such success, Catalina Flying Boats still faces a major challenge. The tiny cargo airline could be squeezed off the taxiway because of plans by the giant Douglas Aircraft Co. to expand operations at Long Beach Airport.

With virtually no affordable hangar space in Long Beach, Strobel is searching for another niche on the mainland to house the seaplane operation. His hope is that a spot can be found for the firm at the Port of Long Beach, but as yet no deals have been struck.

If the firm has to move its mainland cargo base farther inland or to another coastal airfield, such as John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Strobel worries that it could force him to shut down. Other facilities, he said, lack Long Beach's central location to the businesses that send shipments to the island.

"It's a worry," Strobel said. "There's a distinct possibility that we would have to go out of business if we can't get space in the Long Beach area."

As Far Away as the Clouds

But on a sunny day with a slight breeze out of the southwest, such problems seem as far away as the clouds sitting transfixed on the horizon.

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 few crew members work hurriedly to fuel the Goose and check its engines and other equipment.

"There's a lot of maintenance on these planes because they're going into the salt water all the time and there's a lot of corrosion," said Fred Meyer, 65, a balding fellow with a white goatee who serves as the firm's chief mechanic.

His is a busy schedule. For every hour of flight time, Meyer must spend between three and five hours on maintenance. A major overhaul of the plane's undercarriage and other structural components must be completed every three to five years.

Wooden pallets holding the day's cargo sit on the concrete outside the firm's aluminum hangar. There's everything imaginable. Besides serving as the island's principal UPS carrier, the firm hauls the mainland newspapers, fresh produce, meat and bread for about a dozen island restaurants as well as cases of liquor and other fragile items.

As workers loaded the seaplane's cargo hold to the brim with about 2,000 pounds of cardboard boxes and packing crates, crew chief Wally Marshall lent a hand. Squinting into the sun, he explained how the firm makes two or three round trips a day to the island during the winter, but up to six trips during the summer tourist season.

'A Little Bit Dingy'

The firm's stable of four pilots, he said, are veterans with thousands of hours in seaplanes. "Seaplane pilots are in a class by themselves," Marshall said, grinning weakly. "They're a little bit dingy."

Poste has flown seaplanes since the 1960s for a variety of 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. He is paid about $50 per trip.

Given his druthers, 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 of his destiny, 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 a 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 an uneventful 15 minutes. With the island looming 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."

The secret, he said, is knowing how to read the swells--and knowing when it's too rough to land. A one-time surfer, Poste said he has used his knowledge of the waves to help perfect his seaplane landings.

"It's a lot like surfing," he said. "You play the water just like you're on a surfboard."

Nonetheless, Poste admitted he has had his share of rough landings. While cargo doesn't complain about a few bumps during touchdown, the passengers used to.

"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 said, eyes twinkling. "The sign of a really rough landing was when the pilot was still screaming."

In the old days, some island residents actually would grab a chair and head to Pebbly Beach to "watch the seaplanes crash," Poste said in jest.

Plane Can Glide to Water

Few of the planes ever encountered such a fate. In fact, the seaplane has an enviable safety record. When the engines quit, Poste said, a seaplane can simply glide down to the water and land safely.

Nonetheless, some routine--and unusual--precautions are taken before landing on the churning waters near Pebbly Beach. On one recent morning, Poste sent the aircraft swooping low along the island's edge, scaring off a flock of sea gulls roosting along the cliffs.

"We don't want them wandering over and getting tangled in the propellers," he said. "I'd hate to say I hit Jonathan Livingston Seagull."

Landing flawlessly, Poste maneuvered the plane onto the shoreline, where Strobel stood waiting.

"It's not like flying a Lear jet," Strobel said, smiling. "It's noisy. It's rickety. But it sure is fun."

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. Indeed, the company has gone to extremes to complete its duly appointed rounds.

During storms, the seaplane generally lands at Catalina's Airport in the Sky where Strobel dispatches the firm's brown delivery van up the narrow, winding road to the airport to retrieve the packages. On some occasions, the plane has landed on the sheltered back side of the island and taxied about four miles to Pebbly Beach. Other times, the pilots have chosen to tackle the rough swells.

"We've had a few thrilling flights where the plane has caught a wave and the nose pitches up toward the sky," Strobel said. "I call it 'going to the moon.' It happened about a month ago. I was standing there watching. My heart just about stopped as I saw my plane ricochet by."

Generally, however, 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 single 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 says 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."

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