It’s the roar of the engine that catches everyone’s attention. A meaty growl emanating from nine independent cylinders firing in sequence to turn the three large blades of the propeller protruding from the front of a gleaming radial engine. As the pilot gooses the engine to pull the plane forward, the growl gets deeper and more melodic. To the veteran bush pilots of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, the sound of a Pratt & Whitney R-985 is one of beauty, and the plane that it powers, the de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, is perfection.
Owned by Northwest Seaplanes, the yellow and orange plane motoring out over the water is headed north with another group of passengers to unwrap a few of the mysteries of the San Juan Islands from up high. Founded in 1988, Northwest Seaplanes is based in Renton, Washington, and has a fleet of five Beavers and one De Havilland Otter, aircraft called the “best bush planes ever built.” Crafted during a twenty-year span from 1947-1967, they were instrumental in opening up far-flung frontiers and are highly cherished aircraft that pilots still swear by today.
But keeping these workhorses in the air requires constant attention and focus at Northwest. That is done by a dedicated team of five professional mechanics who know every nook and cranny of these almost seventy-year-old planes by heart.
Each plane undergoes an extensive inspection after every one-hundred hours of flight time, which often occurs during the busy summer flying season. That’s when their pilots are ferrying fishermen to remote lodges in British Columbia, taking tourists on sightseeing trips over Seattle, or bringing charter trips to hidden coves on the coast. Keeping the fleet flying requires focus and attention to detail.
“Crafted during a twenty-year span from 1947-1967, they were instrumental in opening up far-flung frontiers and are highly cherished aircraft that pilots still swear by today.”
Someone drops a classic rock playlist into the stereo, and a plan of action is laid out over fresh cups of coffee. The Beaver that they will be working on today was built in the mid-50s and has a motor developed during World War II, something quite common in these planes. The men are all seasoned professionals with the swollen knuckles, grease-stained clothes, and scars common to all mechanics worldwide. After a few good-natured jokes directed at Ben, the apprentice on the team, a twenty-nine-year-old whose father Jim also works and flies at Northwest, they dive into the checklist.
Each man focuses on one part of the list. That way, they can get the plane back out on the water tomorrow. The long lean over the cockpit engine wings is closely examined, the floats checked for corrosion damage, all of the fuselage is gone over closely to look for any abnormalities. While that goes on, the engine cowlings are dropped, and the meticulous work begins on the motor. Spark plugs are pulled and cleaned, the oil is refreshed, and a detailed checklist is completed. That’s on top of the complete off-site overhaul that each engine undergoes after 1,600 hours. It’s a long day, one that is repeated all summer long. The men are not finished until the sun is starting to drop over Lake Washington.
When they are done, the Beaver shines in the setting sunlight. It looks like it just came off the assembly line. Each team member is tired, but filled with pride. They know that because of them, this beautiful machine will take to the skies the next day and the one after that, doing what it was made to do.