OWL’S HEAD, Maine
With cartons of groceries and mail, cases of soda and boxes of computer equipment neatly stowed behind the seats of his Cessna 206, pilot Kevin Waters fires up the engine and proceeds down the runway.
Soon, the plane is soaring over rocky shores and harbors dotted with lobster boats and buoys. Then the small plane angles southeast toward the island of Matinicus, 17 miles out to sea.
With three planes and a team of four full-time pilots, Mr. Waters’ Penobscot Island Air provides a year-round lifeline between the mainland and some of Maine’s most remote islands. In addition to bringing food and mail, they fly 120 medical evacuations a year.
They bring in nurses and therapists for older and ailing islanders, contractors who are needed at once and can’t wait for slower or infrequent ferry boats and others who need a quick lift for business, recreational or personal reasons — such as missing a ferry ride.
Actor John Travolta, a pilot himself, hitches a ride from time to time to Islesboro Island, where he has a home. Families of Fortune 500 company executives who have island homes get hops with Mr. Waters’ service to and from larger airports in the state. One islander flies her dog to the mainland to get its nails clipped.
Wealthy estate owners make up much of the summer business, but it’s the lobstermen and local business owners who provide the bulk of the wintertime traffic, Mr. Waters said from the service’s home base at the Knox County Regional Airport in the coastal town of Owl’s Head, about an hour’s drive from Augusta.
“It’s a mission-oriented business,” said Mr. Waters, who worked as a bush pilot in Alaska for one of the 30 years he’s been flying. “It’s the closest thing that we have in the lower 48 for this type of mission.”
The islanders aren’t dependent solely on Penobscot Island Air, which Mr. Waters sees as an alternative service that’s found its niche. The islands are still served by a patchwork of state-operated ferries and private boats for the necessities of life.
And sometimes the weather, which can be harsh and fickle offshore, shows a preference for the old methods. While the sun baked away a morning fog on a recent fall day, it lingered stubbornly offshore, keeping Mr. Waters from landing on Matinicus and forcing him to move on toward two other islands — North Haven and Vinalhaven — to check on weather conditions there.
Still, islanders have grown to depend on the Penobscot planes.
On Matinicus, the 65 or so year-round residents get many of their goods by mail order, and some prefer traditional mail service to the Internet, said Wanda Philbrook, postmaster on the 2.6-square-mile island of traditional clapboard New England-style homes and lobster shacks — a place where license plates are not seen on vehicles.
Ferries stop only three or four times a month in the summer and once a month the rest of the year, so mail service would be irregular at best without the planes, Mrs. Philbrook said.
“We’d be in a real hard spot,” she added.
“We’ve got the one-room schoolhouse and the mail” to hold the lobster-fishing community together, Mrs. Philbrook said. “If we didn’t have the mail, we’d probably have to turn our tails and go back to the mainland.”
Maine’s coast is dotted by more than 1,100 islands, some of which were settled more than two centuries ago. About a dozen of the islands are inhabited year-round.
Penobscot Island Air flies to eight of them, which have a combined year-round population of fewer than 4,000, in a pair of six-seaters and one seven-seat plane. In addition to being a licensed air ambulance service, the small airline flies for government agencies that do wildlife monitoring. And it has contracts with cargo carriers UPS and FedEx.
Air transport to Maine’s islands started in the 1940s, with a succession of companies providing the service through the years.
Last December, a company called Maine Atlantic Aviation abruptly terminated service from Knox County Regional Airport, citing losses of more than $100,000 from servicing the islands. Matinicus was especially hard hit because of the ferries’ light winter schedules.
Islanders, teaming up with a mainland business group, the nonprofit Island Institute, and elected officials, set out to restore air service. Matinicus residents alone raised more than $17,000 to get the enterprise off the ground, and Mr. Waters, a former Maine Atlantic pilot, launched Penobscot Island Air.