2018-12-08 / People

Paul Fullerton Retires After 38 Years of Flying at the Straits

By Stephanie Fortino


Paul Fullerton, pictured with his former Cherokee 6 airplane, has sold Great Lakes Air after 25 years. He will continue to serve as the manager of Mackinac County Airport. Paul Fullerton, pictured with his former Cherokee 6 airplane, has sold Great Lakes Air after 25 years. He will continue to serve as the manager of Mackinac County Airport. Paul Fullerton is a fixture at Mackinac County Airport in St. Ignace, where he manages the facility and has provided air service to Mackinac and Bois Blanc islands via his company, Great Lakes Air. He started the airline in 1983 and sold it last month to Bob Currier. He will stay on as airport manager for the county, accompanied by his golden retriever Sally, an airport fixture in her own right.

The deal to sell the airline was signed Friday, October 19.

“I’m 64 years old. I’ve done it 38 for years,” Mr. Fullerton told The St. Ignace News. “It’s time. Am I going to miss it? …Yeah, I’m going to miss it.”

His father, Robert, was also a pilot, and Mr. Fullerton grew up in Detroit, where his father was a homicide detective. When the family moved to Fowlerville, he began flying.

Paul learned to fly in high school at the airport in Wixom, where he rented airplanes to practice. He would accrue $50 or so in debt, take a break to save more money, then head back into the air. Saving up to go flying was hard work, he said, especially when he was making only about $1.25 an hour. Eventually he and his brother, Bob, purchased a plane together so they could fly even more.

“It started as a hobby,” Mr. Fullerton said of his career. “I’ve always liked antique and classic airplanes.”

His mother, Anna, was a hairdresser in Indian River when she met her husband. The family spent many summers in Indian River and on Beaver Island. After Paul was graduated from high school, his parents moved to Mackinaw City, where his father served as police chief. By the mid-1970s, Paul moved north, too, and worked at Shepler’s Mackinac Island Ferry and Proctor and Gamble in Cheboygan, and on Environmental Protection Agency research vessels on the Great Lakes, testing the water quality of Lake Erie.

During this time he continued flying, obtained his commercial pilot’s license, and, in 1980, went to work for Philip’s Flying Service, a Harbor Springs-based charter service that provided air taxi service between Mackinac Island and St. Ignace.

When Philip’s was sold and concentrated its service in the Harbor Springs area, Mr. Fullerton organized Great Lakes Air and, with the help of his father, bought his first Cherokee 6 plane. He also contracted with Mackinac County to manage the airport.

Mr. Fullerton credits his success in the early days to a few key employees - longtime administrator Sheryl Schairer, who retired in October, Clark Smith, who manages the freight and facilities, and pilot Ken Smith, who flew with the company for about 10 years before becoming a state trooper.

“Without Sheryl I don’t know how I would have done this,” Mr. Fullerton said. “She was the boss, the general manager. There was no way I’d have had half of the success I did, without her.”

Mrs. Schairer was with Mr. Fullerton from the beginning and the two became close friends.

Clark Smith has also been essential to the smooth operation of the airport, Mr. Fullerton continued, which he’ll continue to do.

“I was very fortunate to have the employees I did early on,” Mr. Fullerton said.

Through Great Lakes Air, Mr. Fullerton also spent a lot of time on Mackinac Island, which is where he met his wife, Emily, whose aunt and uncle had a cottage on the East Bluff. Mr. Fullerton loves to tell the story of how the two met, as Emily would have her friends call her whenever Paul was on the Island so she could meet him. For many years, she operated the Jaunting Cart Gift Shop and is now retired from teaching at St. Ignace Area Schools. The two were married in 1995 and have two sons, Joe and Sam.

Over the years, changing Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA) regulations and hefty fines have made providing air taxi service more complicated and require more paperwork, which Mr. Fullerton says he won’t miss. In 1974, the Federal Aeronautics Regulations Part 135 passed, which changed the requirements for pilots providing air taxi service. Before then, all a pilot needed was a commercial pilot’s license and an airplane, Mr. Fullerton said. One of the requirements of Part 135 is that there can’t be a set schedule of flights, which is why flights are available on a first-come, firstserved basis and by special charter.

Flying across the Straits of Mackinac is challenging, especially in winter, which can be the busiest season.

“Our environment is tough,” he said. “It’s windy and icy.” But the runways and equipment have been improved over the years.

Providing safe and efficient air service to Mackinac Island is essential, Mr. Fullerton said, and having a well-organized crew is key. He and his staff have learned how best to handle busy days at the airport, especially during the winter, when Mackinac Island’s construction season roars into gear.

“You have to move them safely,” he said. “You have to put a program together to move them better. You have to have Sheryl and Clark to organize it.”

Pilots must be ready to go early in the morning, and they have to arrive at the airport well before the first construction crew arrives, which is usually shortly after 6 a.m. It takes about 45 minutes for a pilot to prepare the airplane and get ready for the flight.

“You’ve got to be ready when they get here,” he said, adding that billing out flights must also be organized and billed to the right constriction project.

Using an airplane that can haul five passengers at a time, it takes a well organized and coordinated effort to get crews to work on time. By 8 a.m. many days, 100 people will have already been brought to the Island, ready to start their day.

Mr. Fullerton would often say, “It’s my job to keep Mackinac Island serviced. These guys have to get to work.”

Having someone like Sheryl Schrairer to do billing, weigh passengers and gear, organize flights, direct pilots, all while answering questions in person and on the telephone, is essential. Having someone like Mr. Smith is also necessary, as he keeps the freight organized and is excellent at packing airplanes. Taking the burden off the pilots is important for an efficient operation, Mr. Fullerton said.

Winter air service is dependent on the weather, and Paul Fullerton compares himself to a farmer. When he first started Great Lakes Air, Arnold Transit’s last boat to the Island was on Christmas Eve and the boats started back up April 1. As more hotels started offering guests New Year’s packages, the winter boat schedule was extended to January 3. New Year’s Day was a busy time at the airport, too, since the boats didn’t run January 1. Now, a boat runs as ice allows, sometimes throughout the winter, as required by the City of Mackinac Island.

Some years the boat never stops, some years ice clogs the route for several weeks, and sometimes a cold winter can stop boat service for several months. Demand for air service, therefore, can be unreliable, and that creates a challenge, since pilots are strictly regulated.

“It’s very different now,” Mr. Fullerton said. “Now you can’t have a pilot sitting around. They’re on your payroll. It’s very difficult to budget.”

As manager of the Mackinac County Airport, he estimates he has obtained about $5 million in grants for facility improvements, equipment, and other airport-related expenses.

Some of the biggest improvements include the new runway and the new terminal building that was built in 2001. The old terminal was on the south side of the runway along North Airport Road. It was cold and drafty and arriving cars and freight shared the tarmac with the planes. The parking lot was small and muddy in the spring, and one year a wrecker from George’s Body Shop had to pull cars out of the muck. The building was small, built of stone as a Works Progress Administration project in 1934, and lacked hot water. A stone fireplace provided some visual comfort, if not a lot of warmth.

“Now, it is so much safer,” Mr. Fullerton said of the new facility, where delivery vehicles would sometimes get in the way of the planes. “We had a couple of close calls, we really did. To have the cars and trucks separated from the terminal is much safer.”

While he is no longer a part of Great Lakes Air, Mr. Fullerton will continue to improve the county airport and ensure it operates well.

“We’d like to see some things improve here,” he said. “The county has been very good to work with, and they want to help Mackinac Is- land however they can. The county understands the Island is a big tax base with very little expenses; they don’t have any county roads over there. So what they do need, the airport, they understand the airport needs money to be plowed and to keep the service the best they can.”

Flying has been a big part of life for the Fullerton family, and will continue to be. Beyond the busy times when Mr. Fullerton would spend long days at the airport, the family also has made annual trips to the EAA AirVenture show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Paul has a vast knowledge of airplanes, flying, and regulations, Emily said, adding he’s able to identify almost any part just by sight.

“The stuff that’s in his head about airplanes is amazing,” she said.

Reflecting on her husband’s career, Mrs. Fullerton wiped away tears while explaining what Great Lakes Air has meant to her husband.

“Not many people get to do a job that’s [also] their hobby,” she said.

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