Roy Franklin was a legendary island bush pilot and the primary founder of commercial aviation in the San Juan Islands, the archipelago located in Northwest Washington between the mainland and Canada's Vancouver Island and accessible only by air or water. This People's History was written by John Geyman, a longtime resident of San Juan Island who knew Franklin and edited and published his memoir, Island Bush Pilot: Founder of San Juan Airlines.
Fascinated by Flight
Born on the family farm in Ferndale, Whatcom County, on May 1, 1924, Roy Franklin grew up in an era of hard times, with few amenities and lots of work. He was fiercely independent, fascinated with airplanes from early childhood, and wanted to join the war effort at the outbreak of World War II. As soon as he graduated from high school at age 18, he joined the U.S. Navy, was accepted for flight training at Pensacola, and was soon off to the Pacific flying Wild Cats, Hell Cats, Corsairs, and Bear Cats off of CVEs, the smallest U.S. carriers, also known as "jeep carriers." His wartime experience flying these fighters from such small carriers served him well in flying off small dirt and grass fields in the San Juan Islands.
Returning to Bellingham after the war, Roy worked as a flight instructor for a short time, then came to the islands with an air-taxi service that his friend Bob Schoen (1919-2003) had just started on Orcas Island. Within a few years Roy was running the operation, called Island Sky Ferries at the time, and was flying out of Lyle King's cow pasture on San Juan Island, the start of 32 years of scheduled air service in the San Juan Islands, day and night, all year round, without ever injuring a passenger. His wife, Margaret Ann Franklin, was actively involved with the operation all along the way.
Flying in those days was more than challenging. There were no navigational aids, the weather was often difficult, and the urgency of flights was often high. In order to land on a farmer's field at night, Roy developed a "three-car approach" -- one car stationed at the far end of the landing area with red brake lights on, a second car at the start of the area with brake lights on, and a third car halfway down the "runway" with its front lights shining across the midpoint (Franklin, Island Bush Pilot, 197-201).
In the early years Roy flew Stinson Voyagers, taildragger airplanes better suited to flying on and off beaches and cow pastures, then moved on to nose-wheel Cessnas in the 1960s and twin-engine airplanes in later years. From the 1960s on, his favorite airplane became the Stinson Bushman, modified with a bigger engine and capacity to carry a stretcher case with attendants -- the only one in San Juan County so equipped for a number of years.
Despite the adversities, from the beginning passengers, freight, and mail were flown throughout the San Juan Islands and to and from the mainland for whatever needs arose, including frequent medical-evacuation flights. Many islanders owe their lives to Roy and his fellow pilots. His flying was even more diverse than that. As one example, he regularly dropped supplies to firefighters in the Cascade and Olympic mountains during the fire season.
This is classic Roy, just how he talked and wrote:
"If you have ever tried to beat off frozen snow from an airplane while a doctor is waiting, trying to keep someone alive, you don't have to be a genius to know the first building you better build is an aircraft hangar.
"If you have ever had your heart slamming against your rib cage while you feel your way down at seventy miles per hour onto a black and unlighted cow pasture, there will be no doubt as to the value of runway lights.
"If you have ever worked all night on a sick engine with frozen fingers and lockjaw from holding a flashlight in your mouth, you will automatically be making plans for a lighted and heated aircraft maintenance building.
"If you have ever started out the first flight of the day with fuel gauges bobbing on empty and the closest fuel miles away across the waters on the mainland, you know you will mortgage your soul for a local fueling facility.
"If you have tried to the last ounce of your strength and resolve to maintain an on-time flight schedule with aircraft mired axle-deep in mud or a blown tire from frozen ruts, or watched your few and precious passengers step in cow pies, you will know about drainage, hard-surfaced runways, and airfields that are for airplanes and people and not cattle.
"And finally if you have ever experienced the joy of parents greeting a well and happy child when only nights before the same child was near death; seen the dignity and courage of a senior citizen on his last ride; experienced the thrill and wonderment of a first airplane rider, young or old -- then you will begin to understand how it was with us" (Davies and Quastler, 180).
Building the Airport
As his scheduled operation grew, and as the islanders increasingly depended on it, Roy began to see the need for a real airport. At first the expanse of open land in San Juan Valley in the center of southern San Juan Island seemed attractive, but the more he looked at the frequency of fog rolling in from False Bay just to the south, he gave up on that idea. Instead, despite having little money or savings, he secured a loan from the San Juan County Bank and in 1954 bought 64 acres east of the valley and nearer to the town of Friday Harbor. There he proceeded to plan and build the airport that continues to serve the island today. That required logging a mostly timbered area, during which his father helped a lot and showed Roy how to use two sticks of dynamite to remove stumps.
The new airport opened on January 1, 1960, with a 2,300-foot main runway and a 1,300-foot crosswind runway. The first terminal (Ernie's restaurant today) was soon built, together with hangars and runway lighting.
By the late 1960s, pressure was mounting to call this kind of operation an airline. Island Sky Ferries became San Juan Airlines in 1971. The new corporation soon enlarged its fleet of airplanes to include three twin-engine airplanes, two Piper Aztecs, and a 10-place Britten-Norman "Islander." Scheduled flights by then had been added to and from Seattle.
Franklin sold the airport and terminal to the Port of Friday Harbor in 1981. The Port then lengthened the main runway, took out the crosswind runway, added new hangars, and built a new terminal building.
In the spare time that Roy never had, he was also an avid scuba diver, hunter, photographer -- and a storyteller and writer. I first met Roy in his retired years, when he was living in a cottage on Rainbow Lake on San Juan Island. He had at least a dozen cardboard boxes in the next room with about 40 chapters of his writings over the past 15 years. It was fascinating to read, and hear, about his experiences from the late 1940s to 1980. Each story put me in the moment, in his own special language, each reflecting the difficulties and uncertainties of the events being described, all showing his endless can-do spirit. All true and no boasting.
After selling the airport, Roy remained active in aviation. The new terminal building was named in his honor in 2005 and his excellent book, Island Bush Pilot: Founder of San Juan Airlines, recounting his many adventures over the years, was published in 2006.
The Smithsonian's 1995 book Commuter Airlines of the United States tells the stories of 22 of the most important pioneers in commuter aviation, including Roy Franklin. As a group, they are described as the forerunners of commuter airlines, having "the rugged individualistic style of the nation's frontier explorers and scouts." This is how Roy's contributions to aviation are characterized:
"Roy Franklin has captured the spirit of the true pioneer and epitomized the attitudes of those commuter airline promoters whose instincts were true and whose convictions were strong as they created the nucleus of this definitive segment of the U.S. air transport industry. Franklin's words are an inspired tribute to a special breed of aviator" (Davies and Quastler, 3).
When Roy went west at his home on February 3, 2011, at age 86, he had lived four or five lives in one, all dedicated to serving his community. His wife, Margaret Ann, had died 10 years earlier after 56 years of marriage. He left 5 children, 9 grandchildren, 2 great-grandchildren, and one commuter airline. His family summed up his memory in these words:
"Dad will always be remembered as a true American Patriot, an amazing pilot, fearless and highly skilled. Roy was our Hero, a natural leader and a man that had a limitless capacity for giving" ("Roy Franklin, 1924-2011").