An iconic fixture of the Seattle skyline, seaplanes have been landing and taking off from Lake Union since 1914.
Adventure beats through the veins of Seattle like the sound of a piston Beaver ripples across Lake Union. The call of the mountains, the beckoning of the San Juans, and the roar of the Alaskan wilderness makes those in the Emerald City natural born explorers.
For more than 100 years, Seattle seaplane pilots have been answering that call from the tranquil waters of Seattle’s downtown lake. They still do today.
Initial Flight From Lake Union
The lake welcomed its first seaplane in 1914. Hired to fly exhibition flights over the city, Silas Christofferson displayed the military value of an aircraft. The initial flight was a leisurely cruise, during which Christofferson took Seattle Mayor Hiram Gill (1866-1919) on his first plane ride.
From there, Christofferson’s flights took a daring turn. He flew by night with roman candles attached to the underside of his plane. And, he flour bombed the city with 21 three-ounce flour sacks.
Boeing Makes its Mark
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100 years of aerospace history started with our first flight on June 15th, 1916, with our founder Bill Boeing in the pilot seat of the first Boeing B & W airplane, “Bluebill”. After a short taxi along the smooth surface of Lake Union, Boeing gunned the engine and lifted into the air for a brief quarter-mile flight. One month later, Bill Boeing incorporated Pacific Aero Products Co., which would soon become The Boeing Airplane Co. Boeing was convinced that constant innovation and technological advancements would be key to making The Boeing Company a success; 100 years later that belief remains at the core of The Boeing Company. Follow #Boeing100 and journey with us as we share 100 Boeing milestones in a countdown to Founders Day on July 15, 2016. #BoeingLovers, #instagramaviation and #avgeeks: We want to see your Boeing and #aerospace memories. Join the celebration with #Boeing100 for a chance to be featured.
In 1915, Bill Boeing built a three-bay hangar at the base of Roanoke. The hangar was used for pilot training in preparation for WWI. It was at this location Bill Boeing completed the final assembly of his first B&W Seaplane (aka Boeing Model 1).
The plane was nicknamed Bluebill. It made its initial flight in June of 1916 with Boeing holding the controls. By November, Mallard (Bluebill’s brother) had been completed. Both seaplanes called the Roanoke hangar home until they were sold to New Zealand in 1918.
(You can see a model of the B&W hanging at the Museum of Flight. The hangar built in 1915 no longer remains, but the site is marked by s plaque located at the Roanoke Street Mini Park.)
The United States Begins International Airmail Delivery
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On March 3, 1919, Bill Boeing and pilot Eddie Hubbard took flight from Vancouver, British Columbia headed towards Seattle with 60 letters in tow. As part of the Canadian Exposition, their flight marked the first international airmail to reach the U.S. The route was flown in the final Model C seaplane, which had been built for Bill Boeing himself. He named it the C-700 because the last Navy (@usnavy) Model C seaplane had the serial number 699. Follow #Boeing100 and journey with us as we share 100 Boeing milestones in a countdown to Founders Day on July 15, 2016. #BoeingLovers and #avgeeks: We want to see your Boeing, #instagramaviation and #aerospace memories. Join the celebration with #Boeing100 for a chance to be featured.
March 3, 1919, Lake Union became the first international airmail destination in the United States. Flying a Boeing C-700 seaplane, Eddie Hubbard and Bill Boeing carried 60 letters over the border from Vancouver, British Columbia to Seattle.
Following the initial flight, Hubbard purchased a Boeing B-1 seaplane. He began regular delivery between Seattle and Victoria, British Columbia. Over the following eight years, Hubbard flew more than 350,000 miles between the two cities.
The B-1 returned to Lake Union in 2012 when the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) relocated to the former Naval Reserve Armory. Located at the southern-most tip of Lake Union, the B-1 is now suspended from the lofty ceilings as though primed to land.
South Lake Union’s Seaplane Base Established
In 1931, Lana Kurtzer relocated his business, Kurtzer Flying Service, to the southern side of South Lake Union. (Eventually, he renamed the business Kurtzen Marine and Flying Service School.) Kurtzer Flying Service was initially located at Terry Avenue North and Valley Street. The business was housed in a hangar that had originally been stationed at Pier 3 on the Elliott Bay waterfront.
Ed Davies and Steve Ellis reported in Seattle's Commercial Aviation 1908-1941 that the hangar had been towed through the locks by Vern Gorst and was eventually purchased by Kurtzer.
Kurtzer’s flying school was among the largest in the country. He trained thousands of pilots and provided transportation to remote destinations.
Sixteen years later, Kurtzer relocated to the west side of South Lake Union. Constructing a new facility, Kurtzer Marine and Flying Service School continued to operate at 950 Westlake Ave. N seaplane terminal until Kurtzer passed in 1988.
Following Kurtzer’s death, the terminal was purchased by Lake Union Air. A mainstay in the seaplane community, Lake Union Air operated from 950 Westlake until it was acquired by Kenmore Air in 1933.
Seaplanes on Lake Union Today
Today, seaplanes remain a vital part of our city’s unique character. Sharing the water with boaters and kayakers, skilled seaplane pilots take off and land from on Lake Union daily. Seattle Scenic Tours offer once-in-a-lifetime views. International flights to Victoria and the B.C. Islands allow for easy border crossing. And, quick trips to the San Juan Islands let visitors and residents get out of town in just 45 minutes.
The two most common seaplanes you’ll see on the lake are the six-passenger de Havilland Beaver and the 10-passenger de Havilland Otter. Pilots choose their landing zones based on a variety of factors, including wind and water obstructions. However, mid-day you’ll often find them approaching from the south after they’ve passed the Space Needle – creating the iconic skyline view we’ve come to love.
Interested in More Seaplane History?
Known to some as the Harley Davidson of the sky, the de Havilland Beaver’s squat-nosed appearance has a rugged handsomeness.
It wasn’t the first seaplane Kenmore Air ever purchased. It wasn’t even the first de Havilland Beaver. But Six-Six-Zulu is definitely the best-loved member of Kenmore’s fleet.