Kenmore Air Harbor Inc. Business Information, Profile, and History
Kenmore, Washington 98028
Our airline is different. For starters, we build our own planes ... our fleet is the envy of pilots worldwide. Tickets aren't necessary. Just tell your name. Don't look for departure gates. There aren't any. We'll direct you to a picnic table where you'll meet your pilot and fellow passengers. Feed the ducks 'til it's time to go.
History of Kenmore Air Harbor Inc.
Kenmore Air Harbor Inc. is the largest seaplane-based airline in the world, offering flights from Seattle, Washington, to a variety of locations in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Canada. Kenmore Air offers scheduled flights, charter service, and packaged excursions. The company's fleet of 22 aircraft, most of which are de Havilland Beavers and de Havilland Otters, carry more than 60,000 passengers annually, logging more than two million air miles. Kenmore Air also makes a substantial amount of its annual sales from repairing and restoring seaplanes. The company specializes in restoring and modifying de Havilland Beavers, stripping the aircraft down to the bare frame before restoring the seaplane and modifying it by increasing the aircraft's carrying capacity, climb rate, and cruising speed. In the aviation industry, these modified de Havilland Beavers are known as "Kenmore Beavers."
The largest seaplane operation in the world began on the shores of Lake Washington in Kenmore, a small community northeast of Seattle. The business was founded by three high school friends, Reginald Collins, Jack Mines, and Robert Munro, who combined their complementary talents to start an aviation business in the shadow of one of the world's premier aviation companies, Boeing Co. The three friends did not intend to create a rival to the behemoth Boeing; floatplanes could never match the commercial potency of airplanes. Instead, the business they started on Lake Washington was an extension of their passion for aviation, a hobby made into a business that, if successful, could only achieve modest growth. At the company's inception, Collins, Mines, and Munro were investing their time and money in a labor of love, but of the three founders, Munro demonstrated the greatest devotion. He spent more than a half-century nurturing Kenmore Air's development, leaving behind him a pioneering legacy and the world's largest seaplane operation.
Robert B. Munro was born in 1917 in Olympia, Washington, the state's capital located 60 miles south of Seattle. During the early years of World War II, Munro was living in Oakland, California, where he attended the Boeing School of Aeronautics, studying mechanics with his friend Reginald Collins. After completing their coursework, Munro and Collins worked for Pan American at the airliner's maintenance base at Boeing Field, located in Seattle. While working for Pan American, Munro and Collins bought their first seaplane, an Aeronca Model K that was in serious need of repair. "We found one that was turned upside down in Lake Union," Munro recalled in a June 1, 1996 interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "So we bought it for six or seven hundred dollars. Just for the fun of it we rebuilt it."
Collins and Munro's decision to spend their off-hours from Pan American rebuilding a floatplane spoke of their passion for aviation mechanics. Their high school friend Jack Mines had a similar passion, but his skills were expressed in flying planes rather than in fixing them. While Collins and Munro exercised their skills on the Aeronca Model K, Mines was using his talents in the Pacific, flying patrol planes for the U.S. Navy. After the war, the three high school friends were reunited in Seattle, where the two mechanics--in possession of a restored seaplane--and the pilot decided to turn their mutual interests and skills into a business. The trio searched for a location for their proposed flight service and found one in 1945 on the north shore of Lake Washington, where they purchased property occupied by a defunct lumber mill. The company was initially named "Mines Collins Munro," but the corporate title only existed for several months before the founders decided to affiliate their enterprise with the local community, renaming the fledgling concern "Kenmore Air."
The corporate life of Kenmore Air officially began on March 21, 1946, when the Aeronca Model K first lifted off Lake Washington in service of the company. Weeks later, the founders purchased three more seaplanes, giving the nascent Kenmore Air its first, modest-sized fleet of aircraft. During its early years, the company earned its money by accessing remote and sometimes dangerous locations. It was in such service that one of the founders died fours months after the company's first flight. In July 1946, Jack Mines lost his life flying supplies to a search and rescue team bivouacked in the Cascade Mountain Range east of Seattle. Mines's widow sold her late husband's interest in the company to Collins and Munro, who worked together briefly before Collins decided to accept a job offer in California. Collins sold his interest in the company to Munro, leaving Munro, by the late 1940s, as the sole proprietor of Kenmore Air.
An important part of Kenmore Air's business from the start was the company's involvement in seaplane repair and restoration. Although Munro obtained his pilot's license and earned recognition as a skillful aviator, his first passion was in fixing planes, a quality of his character that was reflected in his company. Kenmore Air gained its greatest global renown and a substantial amount of its revenue by repairing planes and, later, restoring planes. Munro's interest in airframe and engine mechanics prompted him to establish a parts department not long after Kenmore Air was formed. By the end of the 1950s, after a decade of servicing seaplanes for an expanding customer base, Kenmore Air became an official aircraft and parts dealer for Cessna Aircraft Company. During the 1960s, the company cemented its reputation for master mechanics and design with the de Havilland Beaver, an aircraft of singular importance to Kenmore Air. The company purchased its first Beaver in 1963 and shortly thereafter created a rebuilding and modification program for the seven-passenger seaplane. Kenmore Air built its fleet around the versatile Beaver, despite the fact that de Havilland ceased production of the model in 1967. After de Havilland stopped making Beavers, Munro and his team of mechanics stepped in, asserting themselves as expert refurbishers of the aircraft. The company modified and rebuilt the seaplanes to such an extent that throughout the global aviation community the aircraft were referred to as "Kenmore Beavers."
Against the backdrop of Kenmore Air's growing prowess in aviation mechanics, the flying side of its business developed. During the 1950s, the company began chartering flights, offering trips to fishing and hunting locations throughout the Pacific Northwest. Kenmore Air also secured its first contract with the federal government early in the decade, leasing a restored plane that was used for a mapping survey in Alaska. The company's first contract with the federal government led to numerous other government-sponsored contracts, particularly with the U.S. Navy. The company attracted industrial customers during the 1950s as well, drawing business because of the unique capabilities of its growing fleet. In 1953, for example, a Canadian mining operation turned to Kenmore Air for help in establishing a mining camp north of Ketchikan, Alaska. The mining company wanted to establish a camp on Leduc Glacier, a massive operation that required the use of three Kenmore Air aircraft over a two-month period. The company's planes delivered several pieces of large equipment to the glacier, including diesel engines, railroad cars, and tractors.
Kenmore Air established a stable business foundation in the 1950s, giving the company the opportunity to expand its base of operations during the 1960s and 1970s. As the company gradually expanded its fleet of de Havilland Beavers during the 1960s, concerns about the availability of space prompted Munro to expand Kenmore Air's physical operations. A new hangar was built as well as new office space, giving the company much needed room to accommodate its future growth. During the 1970s, as "Kenmore Beavers" entered the lexicon of the aviation community, Kenmore Air's aircraft flew for both institutional and private customers. In the early 1970s, the company strapped unarmed torpedoes to the floats of its seaplanes and hauled the weapons to a joint U.S.-Canadian test range facility near Vancouver Island, British Columbia. For a five-year period during the decade, Kenmore Air pilots transported scientists and supplies to the Olympic Mountain Range, located west of Seattle. The pilots' duties bordered on stunt work, requiring them to land on a glacier located at the 6,800-foot level of Mount Olympus. To take off, the pilots aimed their craft down the glacier and slid for 4,000 feet, pulling back on the flight stick just as the glacier dropped off to the valley below. The company's chartered flight service also expanded during the 1970s, when Kenmore Air offered roundtrip service through three- or five-day packages to fishing resorts in British Columbia.
By the late 1980s, Kenmore Air held sway as a nearly 50-year-old seaplane operation renowned for its mechanical repair and engineering, its chartered flights, and its service to commercial and government customers. Munro, in his early 70s by this point, continued to fly for his company, overseeing an operation that counted several of his children and grandchildren as employees. His fleet of aircraft, refitted, refurbished, and restored in large part by Kenmore Air mechanics, took on a measure of youthfulness with the addition of two de Havilland Turbo Beavers late in the decade. In the mid-1980s, Kenmore Air completed an acquisition when it purchased Otter Air. Otter Air offered scheduled service from Seattle to Victoria, British Columbia, routes Kenmore Air operated for two years before selling them to its main competitor, Lake Union Air, in 1988.
Kenmore Air in the 1990s
Expansion continued in the 1990s, as Kenmore Air solidified its position as the world's premier seaplane operator. The company completed another acquisition in 1992, when it purchased its principal competitor, Lake Union Air. The acquisition brought Munro back to the site where he and Collins had purchased the submerged Aeronca Model K that became the company's first aircraft. Aside from eliminating Kenmore Air's only serious competition in the Pacific Northwest, the acquisition of Lake Union Air represented a valuable addition to Munro's operations for other reasons. The acquisition added significantly to the company's fleet and it gave Kenmore Air a terminal on Lake Union, a body of water close to downtown Seattle, that became Munro's second base of operations. A year after the acquisition, Kenmore Air converted one of Lake Union Air's de Havilland Otters into a turbine-powered aircraft, which, after the purchase of several Turbo Otters in 1994, gave the company the largest Turbo Otter fleet in the world.
Kenmore Air turned 50 years old in 1996, an anniversary that was celebrated at the northern end of Lake Washington on June 1. Those who attended the six-hour-long festivities came to pay tribute to Munro and his company, an organization that occupied a singular place in the Pacific Northwest's business community. The company's fleet of 22 aircraft, consisting of de Havilland Beavers and Otters, as well as several Cessnas, carried 50,000 passengers a year, logging two million miles on routes servicing Seattle, the San Juan Islands, and British Columbia.
As the company prepared for the late 1990s, it sought to expand its operations further to compensate for one economic development in particular. Canadian fishing areas, for years a popular destination for Kenmore Air's customers, fell under increasing restrictions during the first half of the 1990s, stripping the company of a mainstay source of business. To counter the decline in salmon-fishing tours, Munro proposed adding flights on Elliott Bay, a body of water that provided access from Seattle's waterfront to the Puget Sound. In 1998, one year after Munro proposed the idea, Kenmore Air obtained a federal permit to float a 25-foot-square dock on Elliott Bay and to begin offering seaplane service. Munro intended to offer as many as 36 daily flights from the Elliott Bay float during the summer, but he still needed approval from Seattle's city council. Although the waterfront's business community welcomed the addition of Kenmore Air to Elliott Bay, the proposed venture sparked vigorous community resistance. In the fall of 1999, Munro decided to abort his plans for seaplane service from Elliott Bay. "It has been up and down for several years," he explained in an October 19, 1999 interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "I'm getting tired," he added. "I don't want to fight people. I want to be friends."
As Kenmore Air entered the 21st century, the family-run business suffered its greatest loss. After an extended illness, Munro died in October 2000, passing away at the age of 83. The challenge of continuing Munro's legacy of success fell to his family members, some of whom had been working for the company for years. Munro's son, Gregg, served as president, while Gregg Munro's sister, Leslie Banks, served as office manager, and was joined by her son Todd Banks, who served as general manager. In the years ahead, the task of maintaining Kenmore Air's premier stature fell to these principal figures.
Principal Subsidiaries: Kenmore Air Express.
Principal Competitors: Washington State Department of Transportation; Clipper Navigation Inc.; National Railroad Passenger Corporation.
- Key Dates:
- 1946: Kenmore Air flies for the first time.
- 1951: Kenmore Air secures its first contract with the federal government.
- 1963: Kenmore Air purchases its first de Havilland Beaver.
- 1986: Kenmore Air acquires Otter Air.
- 1992: Kenmore Air acquires its principal competitor, Lake Union Air.
- 2000: Robert Munro dies after an extended illness.
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