Joie is prone to seasickness, and prefers to ride on Penobscot Island Air when she visits her owner, a lobsterman on Matinicus Island.by L. Jaye Bell
Midcoast Maine contributor
ROCKLAND — Two airlines fly passengers out of Knox County Airport. One of them, Cape Air, brings passengers in from Boston three times daily, five times in the summer. A small commercial airline best known for its commuter routes in the Caribbean and along the East Coast, Cape Air is just about the best travel bang for the buck. Within 45 minutes, you’ve flown from Boston to Owl’s Head with nine other people and laid eyes on some of the most stunning coastline you’ll ever see.
Cape Air helps folks get to Maine, but Penobscot Island Air helps people get around once they are here. They offer a more intimate view of Maine’s 10,000 islands, flying everywhere there is an airstrip. For places without a runway, two of the company’s five Cessnas are equipped for amphibious landings, yacht-side or dockside. These are the same planes that fly in Alaska’s outlying territories. They are best for taking off and landing in places with short runways. The Cessna 206 and 207 can carry about 1,600 lbs of cargo and up to five passengers. The Cessna 208 can carry seven passengers, and carries about 4,000 lbs.
While the planes may seem small, the heart of the operation is big. PIA’s heart, brains and backbone are its owner, Kevin Waters. As a pilot for Maine Atlantic air service, Kevin flew the islands for 11 years, and saw how crucial the service was, especially to year-round residents. When the company abruptly stopped service, Kevin secured freight contracts and began service with one leased plane. Today, PIA flies freight for the U.S. Postal Service, Federal Express, Federal Express Ground, United Parcel Service, U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
A Penobscot Island Air Cessna on the Metinicus Island air stripWith a fleet of five planes available upon very short notice, Penobscot Island Air is the sole air carrier transporting both two- and four-legged passengers to the islands. Dog doesn’t like the ferry? No problem, put her on the plane. For example, Joie is an exuberant blonde lab whose owner is a lobsterman on Matinicus Island. Joie is not one to ride the ferry – in fact, she hates it. She howls, whines, whimpers and carries on. Rather than make her and everyone on the boat miserable, Joie flies instead. She happily jumps in the plane, sits in the back seat, and minds her manners, just like any good dog riding in a car would do. With only a 15-minute flight instead of a ferry ride, Joie is one happy beast.
Need to get something mailed overnight? The airline handles all mail and overnight shipping to and from the islands. When the weather is not suitable for flying, they handle transporting the mail to and from the ferry service. But they don’t just deliver the mail; they’ll also deliver your mainland grocery order or even your laptop from one place to the next. They’re flexible.
If a serious medical emergency happens on one of Maine’s islands, PIA provides the plane and a pilot for “life flights” that do not necessitate transporting via helicopter. When the emergency is not so serious, PIA picks up the patient and flies them wherever needed. About 160 flights a year are for medical emergencies.
If the ferry service is delayed or cancelled, Penobscot Island Air provides transport for stranded islanders in need of getting to the mainland a lot faster than the ferry can handle. Mark and Ellen Hoffman were staying on Vinalhaven with their two children, Isaac and Izzy. They had a wedding to go to in New York for the weekend. They were planning to ride the ferry to the mainland and catch a flight from there. Due to two medical emergencies the previous night, the ferry’s first two trips were cancelled. So to make it to that wedding, the Hoffman’s flew from Vinalhaven to Owl’s Head via PIA, then on to Portland, where they picked up a commercial flight to New York. With zero stress or hassle, they made it to the wedding. There was an unexpected bonus as a result of this transportation switch; daughter Izzy was afraid of heights, but after flying from Vinalhaven to Owl’s Head, she’s beaming. Pilot Thomas Sowles took a photo of the family in front of the plane, and they would soon be ready to go again.
The Hoffman Family: Isaac, Mark, Ellen, and Izzy. Izzy's fear of heights is no longer an issue, thanks to a fine ride on Penobscot Island Air.The bonus for anyone flying with PIA is the unobstructed view of Maine’s coastline in an entirely different way. Because of this, Penobscot Island Air provides “flightseeing” services for up to six people. It’s one thing to drive to a lighthouse and tour the inside or walk around it. Better yet to sail by one, and see it as sailors did years ago from the water. Flying over one close enough to see foamy waves crashing upon the jagged edges of the rocks is nothing less than breathtaking. Tours are custom designed for each group, so they vary in the number of lighthouses to see and flying time according to the group’s needs.
In about 10 minutes, you can be touching down on one of Maine’s fabulous islands.
The advantages of a five-minute flight over an hour and fifteen minute ferry ride are huge in respect to time, place and experience. Want to go kayaking around the islands but don’t want to paddle there? Up to six people and kayaks can fly out on the Cessna 208. How about camping on an island sans boat? Fly out with your gear, let them know when to pick you back up, and enjoy the solitude. For day trips, take a bike and a picnic basket to a secluded beach. PIA’s pilots land near some of the most beautiful beaches in Maine. They will even fly a wedding party out for an unforgettably romantic experience.
Penobscot Island Air flies seven days a week, including holidays. With six full time pilots and 11 per diem pilots, they are ready to go at literally a moment’s notice. This allows PIA to offer flexibility along with excellent service and a breathtaking experience. These pilots realize that they are lucky to be behind the controls of a real plane, instead of a commercial airline. Many are retired from professional flying and work with PIA to stay sharp. One pilot, Mike Falconeri, is spending the summer flying the same kinds of planes in Alaska. Because of flying here in Maine, Falconeri fit right in immediately. Smaller planes allow pilots and passengers to interact during the flight. This makes for a more personal experience that one can’t get on a commercial airline. The pilots are friendly, knowledgeable about the area and are happy to answer questions on the trip.
Flying with Penobscot Island Air is an unforgettable way to see Maine’s 10,000 islands.