Islands, as every child can explain, are bits of land you get to by boat. Everybody knows that. On a few fortunate islands there are airstrips.

There has been some sort of air service to and from Matinicus for a couple of generations now, since pilot Arthur Harjula began flying to the island in the 1940s from the airport behind Dave’s Diner (now near Flagship Cinema on Route 1) in Thomaston. When I moved to Matinicus in 1987 “Stonington Flying Service” had just been renamed “Penobscot Air” (no “island” in the name), although many locals still called it “Stonington Flying Service.” Since then, the air taxi and freight company that brings our mail and most everything else that’ll fit in a small Cessna has changed ownership, and sometimes name, roughly a half-dozen times. Through each change of management the pilots, and the aircraft, would generally overlap.

Fifteen years ago, in the holiday rush of mid-December, Matinicus got hit with the sort of emergency that only an islander might panic over. The then-owner of what was called Maine Atlantic Aviation decided he was all done. No more islands. “I quit.”

Aware of nothing amiss, I happened to be on the last Maine Atlantic flight home to Matinicus. I had never seen Kevin Waters, the pilot, in a bad mood before; even when things were obviously stressful at work, Kevin always had a smile and a lighthearted greeting for the flying public. Later that day I heard that his boss had decided to drop the ball and, despite it being Christmastime, the mail and the UPS and the FedEx contracts, too.

Kevin and some of the other guys scrambled to get at least a rudimentary air service back up and running as soon as possible. Holiday freight was piling up! Penobscot Island Air was founded by Kevin with pilots Don Campbell and Rich Wright and dispatcher Jim Nichols. Community members contributed small sums to help the start-up, homes were mortgaged, and the Knox County Flying Club allowed them use of space for a while. There were jokes about it being called “Homeless Air Service” because we heard it began with dispatcher Jim sitting in a parked freight van with his mittens on, his office a cell phone and a clipboard, taking reservations.

Kevin would roll his eyes if I went too far with the lionizing. The air service is a business. It is not, by the way, any part of a public transit system; they receive no subsidies. PIA is a mom-and-pop store. But the “it’s only a business” attitude is probably what encouraged the previous owner (who was not one of the pilots or somebody we passengers ever saw) to quit suddenly back in that dark December of 2004. The mindset at PIA is customer-service-oriented to a fault. The pilots, ground crew, dispatchers, and mechanics go above and beyond for us again and again. They carry the heavy boxes, they smile at the children and let them sit up front and “fly the plane” (don’t worry), and they take gentle care of their older and infirm passengers. They manage kindness toward people who are not always the easiest customers. They remain patient with the usual idiots. They are good at reassuring new flyers, entertaining experienced ones, and educating the likes of me. They make living in a remote place a good deal safer and a hell of a lot easier.

In recent years their business has become heavily focused on freight-handling, as folks ordering everything from prescriptions to kitchen appliances online has changed what “parcel delivery” means. In addition to transporting passengers and carrying the mail to island post offices, PIA takes tourists and photographers sightseeing. They engage with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service to support those agencies’ work, and assist island-based emergency medical services who bring sick and injured islanders to the mainland.

Keep in mind that frequently a patient will need to get off their island without being “critical” or in a life-threatening situation. More sophisticated, resource-intense, and distant air-ambulance services are not always required, or even available. When advanced care en route is not needed, the fastest option for the stable patient may be to hop on “the mail plane,” or to call for a medevac (which means other flights may be delayed, other passengers have to wait). Ten minutes by air is also a far more humane trip than an hour or two boating over rough seas for the patient who is anxious or in pain. Several times a week it is the pilots who bridge the gap between island and mainland ambulances, and islanders — patients and EMTs alike — are grateful to them for it.

On a lighter note, it’s also a beautiful ride across our bay. Happy 15th anniversary, Penobscot Island Air!