For pilot Paul Welke, his wife, Angel, and the residents of Beaver Island, Island Airways is much more than a commuter airline—it’s a way of life and a lifeline.
Featured in the June 2020 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe.
Not only do I love visiting Beaver Island, but I also keep bringing others with me to experience this remote island in the middle of Lake Michigan, about 30 miles from Charlevoix. Each time, I opt to fly Island Airways, maximizing my time for a day trip, while also experiencing the truly spectacular flight there and back.
On every trip, I’ve continued to sense something special about the people who own this little airline, Paul and Angel Welke. Pilot Paul Welke is the owner of this long-established commuter airline and his wife, Angel LeFevre-Welke, is president of Island Airways. But it doesn’t take many trips to realize this charming couple is much more than a pilot and his business-owner wife: The Welkes are an integral part of life on Beaver Island. They’re revered by Beaver Islanders—not only as residents, but also because of their passion for the island, for flying everything from mail to medicine and for showing such generosity to their fellow islanders.
On this trip to the island, I’m joined by photographer Courtney Michalik Kent. Before we board, Courtney confides to me that she’s never flown in a small plane—she admits she’s just a wee bit nervous. I tell her Paul will probably invite her to ride shotgun. He does. Angel tells me later that Paul has a knack for picking out the nervous flyers and putting them completely at ease.
Courtney dons her headset, readies her Nikon, and Paul immediately begins an easy chit-chat with her as we take off in one of their sturdy Britten-Norman Islanders. From the back seat, I hear Courtney’s delighted squeals and excited chatter as we quickly rise over Charlevoix. The cerulean and emerald waters of Lake Michigan stretch out in front of us and below us. It’s a stunningly beautiful day to fly.
Paul’s made about 65,000 round trips between Charlevoix and Beaver Island. It’s safe to say he knows this airspace probably better than anybody on the planet, but he’s the kind of guy who would never tell you that. Angel tells me he especially loves sharing Beaver Island, and the gorgeous flights, with first-timers. And since it’s Courtney’s first trip and her camera is at the ready, Paul generously does an entire sweep around Beaver Island before we land so she can take even more photos, thus making our normally 15-minute flight just a few minutes longer. This, of course, makes me very happy—I get more time in this little plane I love and I see things I haven’t seen before.
The Fleet and Welke Airport
Island Airways has six small planes, two full-time pilots and several other part-time pilots to accommodate seasonal schedules. Four of those planes are Britten-Norman Islanders, designed and built for island hopping. Manufactured on Great Britain’s Isle of Wight, this aircraft serves islands all over the world. “It’s meant to be a pickup truck in the world of aviation,” Paul explains. Well-suited to the needs of this little airline, this aircraft is versatile. It seats up to nine passengers, but the seats can easily pop out to haul freight, and can very quickly transition to an air ambulance. A Piper Apache and a Piper Aztec round out the fleet.
There are two airports on Beaver Island—a township airport and Welke Airport (yes, the airport bears their name). The Welkes are sole owners of McPhillips Flying Service, Inc., (DBA Island Airways and Welke Aviation)—started by Paul’s parents in the late 1960s. Fun fact: Welke Airport is the 13th busiest airport in Michigan.
The Charlevoix terminal, housed in the Charlevoix Municipal Airport, is a beehive of activity. UPS and FedEx don’t deliver directly to Beaver Island; Island Airways provides the final leg over to the island. Packages get weighed, checked in and then loaded on an island-bound flight. During the summer months, about 4,000 pounds of freight a day goes from Charlevoix to Beaver Island, filling up at least one aircraft, and sometimes two.
“We provide this service to the islanders—it’s just what we do,” says Angel. “We even bring the mail from Charlevoix and pick up prescriptions in town.” If the terminal on Beaver Island at Welke Airport is closed for the day, the Welkes may leave a prescription at the back door of the office and text the recipient. “Nobody’s gonna steal your eye drops,” jokes Paul, but with obvious pride in their customer service.
Most interesting packages?
“One time I flew a hot tub over,” laughs Paul. Angel still cracks up about the goat that they flew over—in a cage, of course. “It was more like a ram!” she remembers.
“We’ve got a great crew,” says Paul. You’ll find both Welkes chatting easily with their staff or Paul helping employees, like Joe Timsak, load some freight onto the plane. Island Airways employs about 30 people, many of them are islanders or former islanders. Angel says Beaver Island can be tough on young people, and they like to help them out. “And islanders love seeing other islanders at the Charlevoix airport,” she says.
Charlevoix resident Mary Delamater, Island Airways’ General Manager, was born on Beaver Island. “It’s great to work for a small business,” says Mary. “They’ve placed a lot of trust in me. You’re either a team player, or you’re not.” Everyone pitches in, including Paul who might be found helping unload the UPS truck. “It’s all a reflection of Paul,” says Mary.
Not only are the Welkes great to work for, Mary says, but they’ve done a lot for her family, and so many others. When Mary’s grandson was diagnosed with leukemia and needed treatment at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Paul flew them back and forth to make things easier on the family.
‘We’re Bonded Forever…’
Angel tells me “everybody has a Paul story” and suggested I talk to Chicago-area resident Mirth Gault.
On February 9, 2001, Paul Welke was credited with finding the plane crash that carried the four members of the Gault family from Chicago to Beaver Island. He had a hunch what the pilot did wrong, spotted the wreckage in a thicket of trees a mile and a half from the Beaver Island airport and then guided the Coast Guard chopper in. Tragically, the pilot and a crew member died, but Mirth Gault and her three young children survived the crash.
Before the plane was discovered, islanders were out in force on snowmobiles, looking for the downed plane. Mirth says after 15 hours, “I was close to giving up.” But, unbeknownst to her, Paul was waiting next to his plane, watching for a break in the clouds so he could take off safely. “As soon as he could, he went up and found us,” says Mirth. “We have an incredible connection.”
Fast forward to happier times: In 2013, Adam Gault (Mirth’s son) asked Paul to officiate his wedding, which Paul was delighted to do. “I’m a licensed minister in addition to being a pilot,” he reveals.
Paul had been given a bolt from the damaged prop of the plane by the FAA, which he has saved for years. He cut the bolt in half and gave one half to Adam on his wedding day. “We’re bonded forever,” he told the young Gault.
Shakespeare vs. Depreciation
“I never thought I’d be running an airline, but I write great manuals,” jokes Angel, who has an English degree. Angel has organizational skills from formerly running a large medical practice downstate. There’s extensive record keeping, airplane parts to inventory and personnel to manage. “I learn something new every day,” she says. Island Airways flies small planes but must comply with the same FAA regulations as the big boys.
Paul, besides being a pilot since his teens, has a business degree. “We really complement each other,” he says. Paul is reserved and low key; Angel is effervescent. “If I have a Shakespeare question, I can ask Angel,” he says with a grin. “And he’s explained things like depreciation to me,” she quickly fires back. The two banter easily and finish each other’s sentences.
At home on Beaver Island, they share a love of history and antiques. One room in their house is dedicated to historical artifacts (Paul loves WWI and WWII memorabilia). It’s an unbelievable collection and looks like a museum; Paul credits Angel with organizing and curating. It’s clearly a passion for both, and they are always on the hunt for new acquisitions when they travel—by plane, of course.
Their island home is at the edge of Welke Airport and has a view of the runway and the tiny Beaver Island terminal. Angel maintains a small home office when she’s not in Charlevoix.
How do these two relax when their work has round-the-clock demands? They spend time with their dogs, and have a great social life on the island. And what about winter? Winters on Beaver Island are beautiful, but notoriously isolating. “We play a lot of euchre in the winter!” says Angel. It helps that both are voracious readers, as well. “But, when the phone goes off, Paul is up and flying,” she says.
Pillars of the Community
The Welkes are not native islanders, but they have earned the admiration of this small and extremely close-knit community. Paul grew up in Walled Lake (outside of Detroit) and started coming to Beaver Island in the 1950s. Angel hails from Bay City, in Michigan’s thumb.
Paul and Angel make their community involvement look easy, says Paul Cole, a native islander and director of Beaver Island’s Chamber of Commerce. “They balance running a business and continuously contributing to the community around them. It’s not an easy task. They find the time and give back.”
Angel serves on the board of the Chamber of Commerce and is active in the Beaver Island Historical Society. She’s also the secretary of the annual Irish Festival. Paul serves on Beaver Island’s Peaine Township Board of Trustees. “They’d never tell you that, but I just did!” laughs Paul Cole. “They are a team that loves flying and loves the island.”
The Welkes fly the Beaver Island school teams to sporting events and fly kids in from other places, like Mackinac Island, for Beaver Island home games. The two even attend Friday night games to cheer on the kids. “They don’t look for credit, they just enjoy doing it,” says Paul Cole.
Angel and Paul know everybody on the island. “We even know their cats and dogs,” jokes Angel. Her mood quickly turns serious when she explains the downside of this. “If we have to fly people for a serious medical emergency, it’s difficult to take people off the island who are friends.”
Nobody knows this better than Eric Hodgson, who suffered a cardiac emergency in the spring of 2019. Eric has been a close friend of the Welkes for decades, he says, as well as a former business partner and former chief pilot of Island Airways. Paul flew a critically ill Eric to the mainland, while Angel rode in the back of the plane assisting Beaver Island’s EMS. They flew Eric to Harbor Springs, then he was transported to the hospital in Petoskey, where he ultimately received a pacemaker. “They visited us daily in the hospital,” recalls Eric. Happily, Eric is back in action as an owner of several restaurants on the island, including The Shamrock.
Highly Regarded Pilot
Paul Cole says that respect for Paul Welke as a pilot “is off the charts.”
“Everybody in Michigan aviation knows Paul,” says Eric. Paul was named Michigan Pilot of the Year in 2013. He’s also a past recipient of the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award and the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award. He’s in great company: Neil Armstrong—the first man on the moon—and Chuck Yeager—the test pilot who broke the sound barrier—are past recipients. Paul has flown all types of planes and says his favorite flying experience was in the late 1990s when he co-piloted a B-17 with a WWII General in the pilot’s seat. “Nothing will ever top that!”
Beaver Island residents just know Paul is their guy when taking to the sky. “My 81-year-old Aunt Kathleen will only fly with Paul!” says Paul Cole. “Paul has a gift for analyzing the weather and knows the weather patterns. He’s always looking at safety.”
At age 70, Paul is in great shape. “I attribute it to being in constant motion and moving baggage around,” he says. Fortunately for islanders and the rest of us, Paul has no intention to stop flying.
As for Courtney and I, we can’t wait to fly with Paul again.
Captain Paul Stats
Years Flown // 54 (started flying at age 16)
States Flown // 49 (plus Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas)
Hours Flown // 35,000+
Go to Beaver Island
800-524-6895 // 111 Airport Dr. // Charlevoix
Tickets // $55 one way, $110 round trip
Special pricing available for seniors, children and pets
Paul and Angel’s Favorite Beaver Island Eateries
- The Beachcomber // 26225 Main St.
- The Shamrock // 26245 Main St.
- Beaver Island Lodge // 38210 Beaver Lodge Dr.
For additional information about Beaver Island, visit beaverisland.org.