The late Jimmy Buffett's seaplane pilot from Atlantic Beach recalls adventures with legend

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Bill Howell remembers getting those phone calls from Jimmy Buffett, and that familiar voice, drawing out his name: "Cap-tain Bill!" Then, invariably, Buffett would say, "Would you mind .... ?"

Howell didn't mind. For about nine years, beginning in 2002, he was the pilot of the singer's seaplanes, and every call from Buffett meant they were off on another adventure. And with Buffett, there were many adventures.

Surfing in Panama. Catching bonefish off Andros Island in the Bahamas. Chilling on a lake in Maine. Heading to meetings in New York City.

Jimmy Buffett points at his 1939 Grumman Goose being piloted by Bill Howell as it lands at a small airstrip near Lake Okeechobee. Howell worked as Buffett's pilot for nine years.
Jimmy Buffett points at his 1939 Grumman Goose being piloted by Bill Howell as it lands at a small airstrip near Lake Okeechobee. Howell worked as Buffett's pilot for nine years.

Howell was on call anytime Buffett felt like an adventure involving a seaplane, anywhere from Newfoundland in Canada to Colombia in South America.

Howell, who lives in Atlantic Beach where he grew up, had heard a few months ago from a friend that his former boss was sick with a rare form of skin cancer and that his prospects were not good.

But after Buffett died Sept. 1, at 76, it was still a little difficult for Howell to wrap his mind around the idea that he was gone.

"Wow," he said. "It was hard to believe. It's still kind of hard to believe, because he always seemed like a bigger-than-life kind of guy. I thought he would live a very long life, I always did. He was so smart, and just knew what to do and he had so many resources and connections. I just thought he'd be able to think or buy himself out of almost anything if he had to."

Buffett a man of action

For an hour and a half on a recent day, Howell spun stories about his time with Buffett, describing him as a man driven to succeed, always looking for the next adventure and always gracious with his fans — even the drunk harmonica player in the bar who wanted to join his band.

“Jimmy was an adventurer. He really was into pirates and that kind of stuff," Howell said. "I remember one of his sayings: If he’d want to do something, if he wanted to fly into some river in Panama or something like that, we’d say, 'Well, we need to find out if that’s cool, or legal.' And he'd say, 'Don't ask for permission — beg for forgiveness.'"

Howell notes that Buffett had that image of being the guy lounging on the sand with a drink, with nothing better or more urgent to do.

"I never saw that. He always seemed very driven to me. He always had somewhere to be, something to do. Not the type that you’d see on the beach in a hammock.”

Buffett, he said, was a man of action, a man of enthusiasm, a disciplined business mogul who was forever taking off for the next destination.

“You never knew where you were going to end up with Jimmy," Howell said. "And at the last minute everything might get canceled or changed. Instead of going to Nantucket, you’re going to Bangor, Maine, or something like that. Or Minneapolis. Who knows?”

Adventures with Jimmy Buffett

Howell, who'd been flying and doing aerial acrobatics, first began working for Buffett when the singer needed an instructor for a World War II training plane he'd purchased, a Stearman open-cockpit biplane (the singer had a passion for vintage aircraft). That led to an offer for Howell to fly his seaplanes, full time.

That came with advice from others in Buffett's camp. “I was warned when he offered me a full-time job: 'Whatever you do, Bill, don’t ever try to kiss his ass. Don’t suck up to him. And if you’re ever in the position of putting on music when he’s around, do not put his music on. Do not do it.'”

Bill Howell with Jimmy Buffett in front of Buffett's Grumman Goose seaplane after a three-hour whale watching flight off Montauk, NY.
Bill Howell with Jimmy Buffett in front of Buffett's Grumman Goose seaplane after a three-hour whale watching flight off Montauk, NY.

Buffett later told him: He spent so much time writing, recording and performing his own songs, he really didn't want to hear them again.

Yet there was the time on Anegada Island, in the British Virgin Islands, where Buffett got a guitar, an amplifier and an extension cord and just started performing on the beach, for the simple fun of it. "It’s 4 or 5 in the afternoon, he starts playing. Within minutes there’s 200 people that formed a circle around him," Howell said. "You could have heard a pin drop."

In the winters, Howell was based in South Florida; in the summer he moved up to eastern Long Island, New York, to the second floor of a beautiful house that Buffett had bought for staff, near his own house. Howell remembers there was a swimming pool and a basement with drums and amplifiers and guitars, where there would be frequent jam sessions. (The singer never joined in though.)

Howell recalls frequent expeditions to Crooked Island in the Bahamas, where various Buffett-owned airplanes (including the 1939 Grumman Goose that Howell usually flew) would fly in to meet various Buffett-owned boats.

"We would literally bring a Navy and an Air Force," he said. "We would be flying in formation over these little villages. The people loved us, because we were throwing money around like crazy.”

Bill Howell, seen here in 2019, left Atlantic Beach to become a private pilot. After flying seaplanes around the Keys and the Caribbean, he landed a full-time job as a pilot for Jimmy Buffett, then later for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. A few years ago, he decided to quit flying and moved back to Atlantic Beach, where he puts his energy into surfing as often as possible.

Howell also remembers taking Buffett to Andros Island in the Bahamas, a regular spot for him to catch bonefish. After landing in the flats north of the island, Buffett would stand on the plane's float to fish, or take out an inflatable paddleboard or kayak. Howell, though, had to stay with the plane ― you didn’t dare to leave it unattended, not out there.

Then there was Buffett's passion for surfing. Sometimes Howell would land in the water near a break, drop his boss off, then come back and pick him up after a few hours. And with the seaplane, Howell was his eyes in the sky. "We were always looking for surf. Everywhere we went, he’d send me on recon missions.”

A scary hour

Howell recalls a trip to the San Blas Islands on the Atlantic side of Panama that turned terrifying for Buffett.

The singer stayed on a boat fishing while Howell took Buffett's wife, Jane Slagsvol, two of their children and friends on a seaplane expedition. The details remained a bit sketchy, but while they were gone, Panamanian law enforcement officials told Buffett's boat they’d heard a rumor that a plane had crashed, with no survivors, out at sea in the area where the seaplane had gone.

Buffett was in anguish, fearing the worst. The plane's passengers, who'd been diving and having a good time, knew nothing of that, and nor did Howell or his co-pilot.

Returning to the boat, Howell, whose call sign was "Strange Bird," got close enough to radio the vessel, whose call sign was "Continental Drifter," to let the crew know they were close.

“I keyed the mic and said, ‘Drifter, Drifter, this is Strange Bird.’ In a tenth of a second, I hear someone key the mic on the other end. It’s Jimmy. He goes, ‘Thank God! Thank God!’ …. "

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Howell could hear the anguish in his voice.

Puzzled, he asked what was the matter.

“I’ll tell you when you get here," Buffett said. "It’s been a crazy hour. I thought my life had changed, drastically.”

They never found out if there’d been an actual crash at sea. But Howell remembers what Buffett told him then: “I’ve never been so glad to hear that voice of yours.”

No 'Mr. Buffett'

Howell sometimes spent long hours in the air with Buffett, who would often relish the silence or the chance to get some work done.

"I usually didn’t do any small talk unless he started small talk. But we talked about a lot of things," Howell said. "One thing that always fascinated me was, he’d tell me stories about when he was opening for the Eagles, and stuff like that. He told me stories that I really could not repeat."

Howell shook his head. "He said, ‘Bill, you just wouldn’t believe what goes on at these things.’”

For all the informality, there were rules to follow. "There was always a definite line, an employer/employee line that could not be crossed. You did not want to get too chummy. People would get let go for that," he said.

But Howell still called him Jimmy. "I didn’t have to call him Mr. Buffett or anything," Howell said. And he flew around not in a pilot's uniform, but in an "Air Margaritaville" T-shirt.

While flying, Buffett, a licensed and experienced pilot, would sometimes take over the controls. Howell, though, had to stay in "instructor mode." It was his job, after all, to keep everyone safe.

“Sometimes we would have little differences of opinions on whether it was safe to do something," Howell said. "I generally was the more cautious one."

And while Buffett was his boss, it was clear that when they were in the plane, Howell was the one in charge. He even had to tell him "no" sometimes, and Buffett never pulled rank.

“I always was cognizant of the fact that if anything happens, I’m the one who’s getting to get crucified," Howell said.

'Everything's cool'

On another trip in the San Blas Islands, Howell and co-pilot Gerald Leslie, who is from Belize, prepared to fly Buffett's brother-in-law to Panama City for the night. Howell began taxiing the seaplane into the setting sun, which blinded him so much he couldn't see a sandbar ahead of him until it was too late.

He tried to turn the plane but instead drove it hard aground on the bar, wedged firmly in the sand. And the tide was going out.

“I turned to Gerald and went, 'Well, this is probably my last trip.' Here we are, out in the boondocks in Panama, it’s getting dark, and here we are stuck on this sandbar.”

With the help of the first mate of Buffett's ship and others, they came up with a plan that eventually freed the plane at 4 a.m. But long before that, Howell had to face his boss, who had returned from a fishing trip just before dark to find his vintage seaplane high and dry.

Apparently, Howell said, the singer's wife persuaded him to wait a while before taking any action. But an hour after Buffett returned, the seaplane got a message: Jimmy wants to talk to you.

This could not be good, Howell reckoned.

He soon found himself alone with Buffett on deck of his boat, where the singer sat at the end of a long table, a drink in his hand. Howell took a seat at the other end.

“So, Capt. Bill," Buffett said. "What happened?”

"I messed up," Howell replied, though in considerably saltier language. "I ran aground. I messed up.”

Buffett's reply, he admits, surprised him.

"Don’t worry about it," Buffett said. "Every seaplane pilot runs aground. God knows I’ve done a lot worse than that. Just do your best. Everything’s cool.”

This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: Atlantic Beach pilot of Jimmy Buffett tells stories of the late legend