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Channel Hopping : 2 Veteran Bush Pilots Take Scientists, Hunters and Others on E-Ticket Rides to the Rugged Islands

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is a bumpy ride down the dusty runway that cuts a long, straight line on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. But for some of Tom Driscoll’s passengers, that line is just not long enough.

Before any of them can say anything about it, Driscoll lets out the throttle of his trusty old twin engine Britten-Norman Islander, and the plane is bouncing down the football field-sized runway, kicking up dust.

Driscoll fiddles with the tail trim, looking at his controls as the plane picks up speed. When it hits about 60 knots, he pulls back on the controls and the plane lifts off. It’s not as jarring as many of his liftoffs, but swift enough to shift some internal organs.

For more than 20 years Driscoll and his partner, Mark Oberman, both 49, have been ferrying hunters, ranchers, biologists, students and National Park Service personnel out to the wave-cut and rugged Channel Islands.

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The trip, which takes just 20 minutes to the nearest strip on Santa Cruz Island, is routine for the two veteran bush pilots, but still holds plenty of surprises for passengers.

“It’s an E-ticket ride, that’s for sure,” said Jenny Dugan, a researcher and lecturer at UC Santa Barbara and a former park service biologist who has worked on the islands for years.

“I’m still trying to get used to that steep descent when they land,” Dugan said. “I’m always astounded that with the right wind they can take off in the distance it takes to cross a street.”

For all the drama of dropping from great heights above the blue-green Pacific to land on dirt strips as short as 800 feet with only an orange wind sock for guidance, the trip has been extremely safe.

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Apart from a few episodes of air sickness, Channel Islands Aviation hasn’t had a serious mishap since it started flying to the islands in the early 1970s.

Driscoll once got stuck in the mud on the west tip of Santa Cruz Island with his family and his in-laws when he tried to take them to a remote beach for a picnic.

“Well, that was before we had good communication equipment on the island, so we ended up having to hike about five hours to get to the nearest ranch house,” he said. “Believe me, they haven’t forgotten that.”

Still, such mishaps are rare.

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“I feel very safe with those guys,” Dugan said. “Even when we have had to circle a strip waiting for the fog to clear before we could land, I’ve never felt my life was in danger. They’re pretty careful and they all have military or bush flying experience.”

Jaret Owens, a guide who takes hunters out to shoot wild sheep and boar on the east end of Santa Cruz Island, said he has no worries with Driscoll and Oberman at the controls.

“I’ve lost a lot of friends flying in Alaska,” Owens said. “I mean there’s no such thing as a landing strip up there, they’re landing on sandbars with over-inflated tires. Flying with these guys is like going through LAX.”

Still, the pilots have to contend with fickle wind and fog. Except for the Navy’s runway on San Nicolas Island, none of the strips are paved, have lights or radio towers. The runway on privately owned Santa Rosa Island used to have a huge dip. And before landing on many of the strips, pilots say it is wise to keep an eye out for wild horses, sheep or pigs.

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“I guess this is pretty unique for Southern California,” said Driscoll, who earned his wings piloting military flights in Southeast Asia in the 1960s. “It can be very challenging.”

Oberman agrees, saying he wouldn’t trade in the dirt strips for a regular pilot’s job.

“I just had to fly some people to Nogales, Arizona,” Oberman said. “It’s basically you get up to altitude, fly in a straight line for three hours and land. It was pretty boring.”

Channel Islands Aviation’s business has steadily grown, and the partners have hired more pilots and started a flight school. Just four of the 10 pilots, including Oberman and Driscoll, fly to the islands. The rest work as instructors out of Camarillo Airport, logging flight time with the hope of going on to bigger and better things.

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The few that end up ferrying passengers out to the islands in specialized “Short Takeoff and Landing” airplanes usually have military or bush pilot experience, Oberman said. After a few years, some will end up piloting for major airlines.

The park service recently awarded Channel Islands Aviation exclusive rights to provide charter flights to the islands.

However, the company recently stumbled on the down side of government work when stalled budget talks resulted in the shutdown of the federal government. The budget battle translated to very few flights to the islands and very little money coming in, Driscoll said.

Usually the team has at least two or three flights a day, moving rangers from the mainland to the islands or ferrying in equipment to researchers.

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On one brilliant day, Driscoll and Oberman flew out a group of hunters and naturalists with the Nature Conservancy. Flying over the craggy outcrops of Santa Cruz Island, looking down at the steep cliffs that drop off into the emerald blue waters churned white by pounding surf, it is easy to see what keeps bringing the partners back.

Both Driscoll and Oberman said they are committed to preserving the islands’ natural beauty, belonging to the advisory boards of the Santa Cruz Island Foundation and the Friends of the Channel Islands.

Sitting in the cockpit, Driscoll peered out and said all he had to say about the subject: “It is beautiful, isn’t it?”


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