San Juan Islands, WA.

By admin on July 23, 2010

Sunday 18th saw a small Antique Aircraft Club fly-in at Nehalem Bay (Manzanita) in aid of charity. We had made plans to fly to the San Juan Islands in Washington State and decided, as Nehalem is on the way, to fly up with some friends to see what was happening and to support the event.

Scud running along the Oregon Coast.

Low cloud (1,200ft) and a stiff headwind (24 knots) up the Oregon Coast were negotiated and after a quick fuel stop at Tillamook, 15 miles to the south of the destination, we arrived at the airport. Due to the weather the turn out was not as hoped but everyone seemed in good spirit with plenty of food on supply. After a few hours of talking and looking at aeroplanes we said our goodbyes to our friends and continued our journey, this time through the mountains of the Coastal Range. At times it looked like we would have to turn around as the cloud ceiling started lowering but every time this happened it started rising again and after 40 miles or so of heading due east we spotted blue skies. Soon we were out of the gloom and into sunshine and heading north to Chehalis for a weather check and 2nd fuel stop. We wanted as much fuel on board as possible as AVGAS prices in the San Juans are significantly more than inland, we paid $4.45/gallon, in the Islands it is currently $5.30.

Some of the 20 or so aircraft that made the Nehalem Bay fly-in. Some just so happened to be visiting at the time but this helped boost the number somewhat!

As we climbed out of Chehalis and towards the Olympic mountains the cloud base was only 1,800ft but our headwind had changed to a 12 knot tailwind which was very welcome. The weather ahead looked clear which was a relief as earlier Whidbey Island was reporting OVC003 (overcast 300ft), this had apparently burned off leaving completely clear skies.

We navigated around the restricted area P-51, a trident submarine base!, a ‘sensitive’ naval base just to the east of Port Townsend, and the Naval facilities at Bremerton Harbor by heading east and then north. The west and northwest of Seattle has more than its fair share of sensitive spots and it’s best to tread carefully when flying in this area. We were travelling through the Seattle Mode C veil but under the Class C airspace which starts at 8,000ft on its west side. I wanted to cross the water to the islands at a narrower point than that from the south and chose on coasting out from Whidbey Island which is 10 miles to the east of Lopez Island. I contacted NAS Whidbey Island Approach (on 118.2), the large airbase which is home to EA-6B Prowlers and P-3 Orions, for flight following and zone transit and even though the controller was busy he dealt with my request in good humour.

There are two MOA, a restricted area and an auxiliary airfield called Coupeville NOLF to the south of NAS Whidbey Island but these were inactive and I routed right through the area at 3,000ft. A beaver flying boat was flying the same route as us but he was a mile ahead and 1,000ft below us, it was nice to know that someone very near to us would be able to come and pick us up if the engine decided to call it a day.

NAS Whidbey Island. Their airspace stretches across the Strait to the Islands and provide an excellent flight following service for the area.

We passed by the isolated Smith Island after a few minutes and ten minutes more the controller was clearing me off his frequency as we reached the shores of Lopez Island.

Smith Island, a handy island for pilots (just in case!) in the Juan De Fuca Strait

The common San Juan Island CTAF frequency (128.25) was buzzing and I felt like a complete stranger (I was!) on the radio as I did not know any of the reporting points everyone else was using, reporting points not mentioned on the local sectional. I resorted to distance to/from airports and altitude calls hoping that everyone else was understanding where I was and what my intentions were. Our destination was to be Orcas Island (KORS) and I was unaware that many locals use the term ‘East Sound’ instead of ‘Orcas’ (the airport being Orcas/East Sound Airport!). I must say that after 4 days of flying around here you start to understand what locations are where and even to recognise all the commercial pilots who are continually flying between the islands on freight and passenger flights. I also found a map in a local tourist magazine that detailed the various island, harbor and cove names and locations which was extremely helpful.

Looking over to Mount Baker on the mainland over some of the easterly San Juan Islands.

General view across the San Juan Islands.

The approach to Orcas is a pretty route down a sound which lays between Mount Constitution, the highest point in the Islands, and more high terrain to the west of the horseshoe shaped island. The preferred approach is from the north and over the water to runway 16 and there is quite a slope up to the south. The area is busy most days with visitors, FEDEX freight Caravans and aircraft from the three airlines that provide services to the airport. Approaches are made from both north and south depending on who is flying in and how behind schedule they are. After landing we soon got our tent up and we made the short 10 minute walk into the quaint town for food and drink.

East Sound as seen from left downwind for runway 16.

Approaching Orcas Airport over the water.

Over the next few days we took things easy, got into the local way of things and flew to the neighbouring islands of Lopez and San Juan. There are many more islands, both tiny and quite large, but many are private and you need an invite from a local to visit. It’s a shame as many have their own grass airfields and Blakely Island even has its own asphalt runway which all look very inviting. Sea fog and low marine layer can always be a problem around the Islands and it is not unusual to take off and be confronted by a mass of fog covering the vast majority of the Juan De Fuca Strait, in which the Islands sit. Luckily the main Islands seem to remain relatively clear but the fog can look threatening all day jut hanging offshore.

Roche Harbor

Roche Harbor is a private airport that asks for a $10 landing fee which goes to help keep the airport open. It has a narrow, uphill, not so straight runway which is usually one-way-in/out in all but the strongest winds. It’s common to have to wait for back-tracking aircraft but there is a holding area at each end of the runway to help everyone avoid each other. It has a tricky parking area up a steep taxiway and it’s well worth remembering some chocks when visiting. A short walk takes you into the immaculate marina area which has plenty of bling to look at, some touristy shops and a good restaurant. Even for someone who isn’t really into tourist destinations there was enough things of interest to keep me occupied for a few hours.

Roche Harbor Airport.

Roche Harbor.

Roche Harbor Runway 25.

Friday Harbor

Friday Harbor is the major town in the Islands and it has a well equipped airport. Visiting aircraft have their own parking area`to the east with a very sweet smelling porta-potty and access gate which allows you to walk into the nearby town. If money is not an issue there are plenty of nautical activities available down at the harbor and some very nice looking restaurants. The roll-on/roll-off ferries which sail around the islands calls at this town and when one arrives visitors flood off in their hundreds heading, presumably to the shops and eating places.

Friday Harbor Airport.

Town of Friday Harbor.

Lopez Island

Lopez Island is one of the more quiet islands, although it has quite a large population. The airport is less busy than Orcas and Friday Harbour, presumably as it is quite a distance to the main town. It has a fair number of parks to visit but is large enough to be difficult to get around without transport. There is a decent looking nine hole golf course right alongside the airport, and an ominous golf ball warning sign pinned up on the airport terminal building wall! The best way for non-car visitors is to hire a couple of bicycles from the town, which is a three mile walk from the airport, and cycle around for a day or two.

Lopez Airport about to be covered in fog.

Here are some pictures to give you more of a flavour of the area;

One of the ferries that run between the mainland and many of the San Juan Islands.

A typical San Juan Island, Canoe Island, with a few houses on it and yachts moored up around it.

Shoal Bay on Lopez Island.

Lummi Island in amongst the Juan De Fuca Strait fog.

Leave a Reply