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

April 24, 1986|ERIC BAILEY | 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.

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