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Kodiak pilot - and his plane - a staple on Kodiak island

Posted: February 5, 2012 - 1:07am

KODIAK — Steve Harvey is among a rare breed.

The veteran pilot has been flying since 1966, making him the most experienced regular flier on Kodiak Island. He’s a favorite among bear hunters and fishermen, some of whom have been hiring him as a pilot for decades.

His airplane might be even better known. Harvey’s Grumman Widgeon is one of a handful still flying in the United States, more than 70 years after the first one took to the water and then to the air in July 1940.

A twin-engine, five-passenger flying boat, the Widgeon is perfectly suited to Kodiak’s lakes and runways, Harvey said. Unlike floatplanes, which are limited to water takeoffs and landings, the Widgeon can lower a pair of wheels and use any of Kodiak’s runways if conditions change and water becomes impractical.

“It’s extremely suited for Kodiak,” Harvey said.

Beyond that, Harvey said there’s an attraction to owning or flying a Widgeon that doesn’t happen with an ordinary floatplane.

“It’s a classic airplane, it’s never going to be produced again,” Harvey told the Alaska Dispatch in October. “It’s like why do so many people like a 1956 Chevy? It’s just a car. But to a lot of people, it’s more than just a car. That’s the way it is to a lot of people with the Widgeon — it’s more than just an airplane.”

Harvey said Widgeon owners stay in touch, keeping tabs on each other and the Widgeons still flying in the U.S. and around the world. About 280 were built for U.S. fliers in the 1940s, and another 40 or so for overseas customers.

In the 1950s, Widgeons and their larger cousin, the Grumman Goose, populated the skies above Kodiak Island.

The Grummans are faster than standard floatplanes and can carry more cargo than most models, which made them attractive to airlines operating in areas with little infrastructure.

Steve’s father, Bill, flew Widgeons in the 1950s and 1960s under the original Harvey Flying Service banner, but improved runways and aging aircraft meant less need for the specialized aircraft. When Harvey revived Harvey Flying Service in 2000, he did so with the last remaining Widgeon on Kodiak, which lends an attraction found with few other commercial aircraft.

“So many people see his plane, see pictures of it, and want to fly in it,” said Jo Murphy, who serves as a bear guide for the flying service.

She said the aircraft’s history — it operated in World War II and performed antisubmarine patrols — is another attracting factor.

There’s no modern equivalent to the Widgeon; labor costs and limited demand mean the price of a replacement would make it uneconomical, Harvey said. Businesses have sprung up to meet the demand for spare parts, and it’s actually easier to keep the Widgeon flying today than it was in the 1980s, Harvey said.

“Making parts for these airplanes is a pretty good business,” he said.

With his wife, Mary Ann, in the office and “doing everything but flying the plane,” Harvey said his biggest remaining challenge is dealing with Kodiak’s notorious weather.

Icing prevents most flights during winter, but fog, wind and storms are a bane pilots deal with year-round.

“We have bad weather more than anyone else,” Harvey said. “I like the challenge, but it’s like always being behind in a football game.”

Though he admits he’s getting older, Harvey said he isn’t about to stop flying anytime soon.

“It’s a good way to make a living,” he said. “I like to fly, and I like that particular aircraft.”

While friends have asked him to keep working on a long-awaited book about his experiences, he said he’ll have plenty of time once things slow down.

“The little airplane and I,” he said, “oh, we’ll be around forever.”

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