Brothers return to pilot roots with Homer air charter service

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2011

HOMER (AP) -- Brothers Gary and Tim Brandenberg aren't new to airplanes. They flew around the Kenai Peninsula with their father when they were growing up in the Kenai area. As teenagers, after the family moved to Texas, they pursued their own interests in flying.

Ap Photo/Homer News, Mckibben Jackinsky
Ap Photo/Homer News, Mckibben Jackinsky
Brothers Tim Brandenburg, left, and Gary Brandenburg stand outside their Smokey Bay Air charter business in Homer on Feb. 4.

Life took them separate directions -- Gary to accumulate 27 years of flying experience, most recently for United Airlines, based in Denver, Colo.; Tim to work as an engineer for Unocal and now Chevron in Alaska -- but the two are back together after purchasing Smokey Bay Air from Claire McCann.

"It's about quality of life, the freedom to do our own thing," said Gary.

"It's also nice to be part of a community in an integral way," said Tim.

Gary is quick with a follow-up.

"That's the thing that was missing in my life," he said of his lifestyle as a United pilot. "I'd fly a trip and then be shut in for three-four days, doing my own thing. I never had any real attachments to the community. When I came here for (the first) month, people were so nice. It felt like I was home, not just visiting."

It isn't that the two are unfamiliar with the Kachemak Bay area. As youngsters, their family kept a boat in the Homer Small Boat Harbor.

"We spent weekends here, back when you could still go out and catch shrimp in the bay," said Tim.

When they moved to Texas in 1980, Alaska was never far from their minds. Tim continued returning north in the summers to work and earn money for college. When he graduated in 1992, he bought a 16-foot travel trailer and, not waiting long enough to get his diploma, headed for Alaska. He worked as a roustabout around Cook Inlet, settled in Anchorage in 1996 to work as a drilling engineer consultant for Unocal and was eventually hired on as the company's drilling manager, staying put when Unocal was purchased by Chevron in 2005.

Gary maintained his Alaska connection by flying in for visits when his schedule allowed.

In addition to flying, keeping a boat in the Homer harbor is another enduring family tradition.

"I've had a boat here since 2001," said Tim. "No doubt my heart is right here, on the bay."

Tim, his wife, Roxanne, and their two sons -- Daniel, 6, and Aaron, 3 -- will continue living in Anchorage for now, but have a cabin about four miles out East End Road and spend as much time in the area as possible. Gary also has an East End Road cabin.

When the brothers saw Claire's "for sale" sign a year ago, Gary suggested they buy the business. For a time, they thought she had changed her mind about selling, but after seeing the sign again, they decided it was "getting time to put up or shut up. That was the start of it."

The Brandenburgs share ownership of Smokey Bay. Tim's job with Chevron requires him to be in Anchorage, but he is available to "lend moral support and get down as often as I can," he said.

Gary is on a leave of absence from United until April and plans to extend it for a year.

"It's a really good job and I still love it, but I needed to get away from it," he said. "If (Smokey Bay) is growing and things are good, I may stay. If not, I can commute from here, work a minimum number of hours there and spend the majority of my time here."

With the work Claire devoted to Smokey Bay since she began the business in 1998, the brothers have a positive view of the future.

"Claire has grown this into a great business," said Tim. "We don't expect anything but good."

The brothers are focused on continuing to provide service to Kachemak Bay village residents.

"This is their lifeline, us and Homer Air. That's our first priority," said Gary. "In the summer, there's bear viewing, which is very lucrative, and flight seeing, but that's secondary to taking care of the villages."

The company has 10 employees, eight are full-time, four are pilots. They have a fleet of five planes and, if they can secure contracts with area lodges, are open to adding additional, bigger aircraft to accommodate a growing business.

Recent storms that grounded flights and quickly caused mail and freight to back up offered some on-the-job training. The biggest challenge facing Gary and Tim, however, is one they recognized is faced by pilots and commuter companies across Alaska.

"Weather is the big one," said Gary.

The challenges of the business are balanced by the quality of life they're able to enjoy as shared owners of Smokey Bay Air.

"It's funny. I see people come here and then I see them in the grocery store and it's like we're friends, That's the biggest, just to be part of something besides just me," said Gary.



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