A look at a Kenmore Air de Havilland Beaver on floats. The company celebrated 75 years in business in May 2021. [Credit: Rebecca Rambal]
The sun streamed in under the cloud layer as we idled from the dock, the Wasp Junior canning along easily as the before takeoff checks were completed. The silver of the water shimmered through the quiet mid-week afternoon as we motored away from the shore into the midst of the finger of lake. Then, throttles up and—for a brief interlude we plowed through the rippled surface then came quickly up on the step. In less than 2,000 feet we’re into the air and soaring past the deep evergreens and oranges of the lakefront trees.
Self-sufficiency. Taking calculated risks. Delivering with integrity. Putting the customer first—truly. These attributes get thrown around a lot when folks talk about what makes a business, or its founder, successful. Not a whole lot of people measure up, in reality, and the day-to-day grind gives companies a ready excuse when they fall short of achieving the image they say they want to project.
To those who worked for and with Robert “Bob” Munro, he was an exception. The heart and soul of Kenmore Air Harbor, Munro lived his core philosophy in his actions consistently, whether he was flying the floatplanes upon which he built his business or working to find a solution for a customer, an employee or a friend.
In February 1946, now 75 years ago, Kenmore’s trio of founders—Jack Mines, Reg Collins and Munro—successfully applied for permission from the King County Planning Commission to renovate an old shingle mill on the northern shore of Lake Washington, near Seattle. Kenmore Air Harbor officially took flight on March 21 of that year, when Mines lifted off the water near the new base in an Aeronca Model K—Eight-Five-Five, for its registration number—that Collins and Munro had rebuilt.
The plan: Collins and Munro would fix up floatplanes, and Mines would give flying lessons from the harbor.
Approval as a commercial seaplane base came first, with maintenance and aircraft rebuilding alongside it, then aircraft storage and, in February 1947, Corporate Aircraft Association-approved flight instruction under the GI Bill. Munro’s son Gregg put it succinctly: “[Dad] lived the golden rule: to do unto others as you would have done to you, and that was a big part of the success of the business” from the beginning. Over the years, that success would segue into refurbishing special airplanes for pilots and dreamers.
Gregg tumbled down the stairway of the boathouse at the air harbor into the water at age 3 in 1958—an auspicious beginning to a lifetime spent at the seaplane base. “I had the same address for a long time,” he likes to joke. He ended up following in his father’s piloting footsteps, but it wasn’t until a friend in high school came out to get his private certificate at Kenmore around 1972—and Gregg saw the fun his friend was having. Gregg flew consistently over the years, with a quick stint in the Army when his draft number was called for the Vietnam War, and most recently served as director of flight operations. He doesn’t fly quite as much as he used to, but he still enjoys it. Of the de Havilland Beaver, he simply says: “There’s nothing else that’s been able to match it. It’s a workhorse, and it flies like a big kite.” But it wasn’t those awesome Beavers on floats that started it all for Kenmore.
In order to understand Kenmore Air, you really need to begin with the Republic Seabee. Gordy Barnes took his first airplane ride in a Seabee out of Kenmore Air Harbor for $5 as a young lad. Barnes went on to work as a lead maintenance technician for the company for nearly 45 years. He recalls seeing whole rows of Seabees lined up in the yard and hangars—and the somewhat ungainly looking craft with a forward fuselage shaped like a bulbous ship’s prow formed an important part of Kenmore’s business for its first 10 years.
Because of the affinity both the airplane and Munro had for the outdoors, the Seabee felt like a natural for the fledgling business. Kenmore salesman Joe Crosson acquired the local dealership rights to the seaplane in summer 1947, just as the last Seabees rolled off Republic’s production line in late 1947. A total of 1,060 were built—enough to keep the model of interest to Kenmore. Munro saw an opportunity. Unexpectedly, Crosson had died that summer, and the decision was made to take over the dealership. But it was even more alluring to become the go-to expert shop for the high-maintenance seaplane. Kenmore focused in on parts and service—and a true specialty in the reliable-if-it’s-well-cared-for Franklin engine. About five Seabees were already parked at the base when the decision was made, and Kenmore went forward with the plan in August. The modifications Kenmore would eventually make to the model set the stage for the company’s niche in overhauling and improving existing seaplanes and amphibious aircraft.
Kenmore needed something other than those recreational aircraft, however, to establish its charter business carrying anglers and hunters around Washington, Alaska and British Columbia, and so it cast around for the right mount. A flirtation with the Pratt & Whitney R-1340[AC2] -powered Noorduyn Norseman worked out for a while, and then the Cessna 180 on floats proved reliable and relatively fast from the time it was adopted by the company in 1958.
However, the aircraft that would soon become nearly synonymous with Kenmore came to Munro’s attention as the result of a missed opportunity. In early 1966, Kenmore lost out on the bulk of a lucrative US Navy contract with the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory to a Canadian outfit that was using the brand-new de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver.
A seven-place, heavy-duty, aluminum-skinned airplane with an all-metal wing, the DHC-2 is normally powered by the stalwart Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior radial engine. Originally designed to fly with an engine that only produced 250 hp, the DHC-2 with the 450 hp Wasp powerplant growls off the water into the sky with ease. It took its first flight on August 16, 1947—and two years later, it was picking up military contracts left and right as the L-20.
Munro knew of the Beaver’s success but for a handful of years felt it was too much airplane for Kenmore’s operations. (They’d shrugged off the bulky Norsemen for this reason, in favor of the 180—even taking on a Cessna dealership in 1964.) But after the initial loss of that Navy contract, Munro’s view changed, and by December 1966, Kenmore had its first DHC-2 on the books—Six-Four-Zulu, after its registration number, N9764Z—and had the Navy contract back again.
While the Canadian manufacturer eventually built 1,676 of the DHC-2, the stock floatplane was merely a starting point for Kenmore to transform, creating an almost irreplaceable workhorse for charters in the Pacific Northwest as well as a private owner’s showpiece.
From reading C. Marin Faure’s comprehensive and lively book on Kenmore, Success on the Step, I had a sense of what I would find when I pulled through the gate and up to the office at Kenmore Air Harbor in fall 2020. The lay of the land and the buildings upon it have evolved over the years, however, since Munro first made a deal to fill in the swampy turf well enough to provide the foundation for his seaplane base and maintenance operation. But the company inhabiting these hangars and warehouses still labors according to his work ethic.
Jan Fields took on a summer job in the reservation office in 1972, and during the 28 years she worked for Kenmore, she saw the genuine concern Munro had for folks on the payroll. “When we had difficulties, he would work with them,” she says. “In hindsight, I realized just how much effort he put into it.” Munro would personally lend an employee the funds to get through a rough patch, and Fields felt like she could talk with him as a father figure in her life. “I felt I could talk with him about hard subjects,” she says.
Tim Brooks joined the company as a pilot in 1976, after learning to fly in Colombia and host of other adventures. He learned to fly floats, signed on as an instructor before moving into the Cessna 180s and Beavers, and then transitioned into public relations and legal efforts. In particular, he helped to negotiate around sensitive noise issues spurred by floatplane operations in the heart of what was becoming a densely residential area that had sprung up around the air harbor. He retired as vice president of flight operations in 2012. “There’s a sense of family in the organization,” Brooks says. “I lost my father early in life, and Bob was a father figure to me.”
Kenmore evolved into turbine operations, culminating in the Beaver Super Turbine supplemental type certificate on April 25, 1988, with a Pratt & Whitney PT6A-135 hung on N1455T. At about this same time, the company began consideration of the Otter—the de Havilland DHC-3—which suffered a bit because of the paucity of horsepower from its Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp engine. De Havilland introduced a gear box to the powerplant in order to lower the propeller speed, but even 600 hp turned out to be not quite enough. Kenmore put an Otter on Bristol floats and then made a turbine transition to the PT6A-135 that had worked so well on the Beaver.
Munro’s grandson Todd Banks is now president of the company. He started out in 1992, selling parts, and ended up computerizing the ledger his grandfather had kept—referred to as “the Brown Book”—when the need for a new accounting system drove the change. Banks’ interest and pride in Kenmore restorations was honed during the fishing trips he’d guided in Alaska, when he’d use one of Kenmore’s Beavers to get to remote angling spots. He spent seven or eight years working side by side with Munro—and of the 20 years since his grandfather’s passing, he says: “Our fundamental values haven’t changed. You treat people the way you want to be treated.”
Banks notes that the Beaver-restoration side of the business has remained steady throughout 2020, with a half-dozen airframes in progress of updating—or a complete overhaul—at any given time. “Some customers are interested in finding their own core,” Banks says, “or they have their own aircraft that needs a warm-over.” The company used to regularly source core airframes for clients, but now, “in the age of the internet,” Banks says, “that has changed. [Customers] love researching about the story.” Still, Kenmore will acquire a good, solid core in anticipation of matching it with the right client. With more than 100 Kenmore Beavers in the wild, the floatplane’s reputation as the pinnacle of DHC-2s remains solid—which has kept the company afloat, alongside its charter operations using the Beaver as well as Otters and the Cessna Caravan.
Eric Ellison, director of maintenance, explains the standard process Kenmore follows when contacted by a customer for a complete restoration of a DHC-2 airframe they have already sourced. “Typically, a custom build will be in the $800,000 to $1.2 million range, depending mostly on the complexity of three things: avionics package, interior and paint,” Ellison says. “This is for an aircraft that is completely rewired and has had all sheet-metal issues corrected prior to painting.”
He continues: “Probably the largest single factor is the serial number. De Havilland made a lot of small improvements to the airframe over the production run, known as ‘mods.’ A later serial number will have [had] most of the factory mods already installed. Another factor is whether or not the aircraft has been in commercial service. There will typically be more wear and tear on these aircraft. Finally, [there’s] the refurbishment and accident history. Have there been any major accidents or rebuilds? If so, who did the work, and was it done correctly? Most other issues can be corrected without great expense.”
The customer can select from a long list of STCs and other upgrades to the airframe, avionics, and systems (see: “STC List” sidebar). Ellison notes that several key decisions drive others downstream in the process. “There are some large-scale configuration decisions that must be made prior to the sheet-metal-work stage of the refurbishment,” Ellison says. “These include: gross-weight modifications, cabin configuration—such as lower baggage, extended baggage and Alaska door mods—STOL kit, [and the] level of finish desired in the sheet-metal skins. Are we re-skinning the entire aircraft, or are a few minor dents and dings acceptable?”
The latest project on hand is one that Kenmore bought on spec—mainly because the airframe was too pristine to pass up. The main reason: The fuselage was still straight and hadn’t suffered enough damage over the years to require a rebuild of the aft sections of the airplane. Rob Richey, Kenmore’s vice president of sales, took me on a tour of the new project. He pointed out one of the tells on a skin panel on the empennage—the original x/x rivets, as opposed to newer 1/8 rivets, indicating the fact they’d been placed by the factory.
No one expects three days of sunshine in late October in Seattle—perhaps a lashing of rain or a slow drizzle that drains away thoughts of flight and makes you want to curl up with a book or movie instead.
But I was handed a treat during my visit this past fall: After a morning of low ceilings and mist, the sun broke out from beneath the overhang of clouds and gave us the green flag for a flight in Kenmore’s sole Beaver still active on their Part 135 certificate during the pandemic.
Kenmore has always been a seasonal business, one that has fluctuated significantly with the economy. When Fields started work in the early 1970s, Kenmore only had the base at the Air Harbor, as well as about 60 employees. At its height, before the 2008 recession, Kenmore had as many as 350 people on the payroll. Not all were full time, and the company would contract to a core team over the winter months, with around 80 full-time workers. Keeping the artisans such as Barnes employed consistently in the maintenance hangars has been critical to the company’s success—and according to Fields, who retired as Kenmore’s human-resources director in 2019, “rehires were treasured” for that reason as well.
In 2020, because of the reduced demand, the company took its Beaver with dual controls out of service for a few months. So during my visit, I was happy enough for the chance to fly in N900KA, equipped with the standard throw-over yoke. Kenmore instructor and charter pilot Riley taxied us out and demonstrated the takeoff run and solid liftoff from the water. Practically as soon as we were airborne, he threw over the yoke so I could fly us around Lake Washington and feel for myself why the Beaver has the reputation it does. It was my first Seattle aerial tour, putting myself in the mindset of a Kenmore pilot.
And that type of flying’s a little bit different than landplane pilots might expect from often-IFR Seattle. When I asked Riley how much instrument flying he did, he replied, “Almost none.” Anyone familiar with the Pacific Northwest would understand that it couldn’t be for lack of IMC. But for most of their flying, the Kenmore pilots don’t need to go into the clouds; they fly low VFR, mostly over the extensive water along their normal routes around the Seattle metro area and northwest Washington up to British Columbia. Flying around at 500 feet agl (or less) is generally considered safe—when you can touch down just about anywhere in the event of an emergency. In fact, up until 2019, Kenmore Air had a waiver to operate with ceilings as low as 200 feet, according to Gregg Munro, but that was raised to 500 feet because of changing attitudes.
Back at the harbor, I managed to disembark without getting wet, and I was already primed for my next flight. We watched as a forklift maneuvered another aircraft into position in the ramp area. Kenmore has been using the system since it first repurposed a heavy-duty war-surplus machine acquired for $2,950 in 1958, solving the problem of moving the heavy aircraft around the lot. Dollies and beaching gear didn’t work consistently well; the application of a bit of ingenuity did.
That ingenious spark that Munro nurtured began in 1947 and continued into the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, when he found similar solutions even more complex scenarios, such as hauling scientists onto glaciers using floatplanes—starting with the Norseman and Seabee, then culminating with a bold takeoff down the steeply pitched Blue Glacier in the Olympic Mountains with a straight-float Beaver. Now, the spark continues in today’s projects, such as Kenmore’s adaptation of Garmin’s integrated flight decks to the classic Beaver—and in whatever comes next to keep the 60-year-old de Havilland DHC-2s up to date. “Be willing to take risks, and be confident in your ideas,” Munro once wrote on a piece of paper, along with three other principles, that Banks found stuck in the back of a file folder years later. Inspired by Munro, I would add a fifth: Deliver to your customers according to the golden rule.
The standard package that forms the starting point for a restoration project begins with this list:
Price range: $800,000 to $1.2 million, depending on the initial state of the airframe and options desired
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