Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Lady Of Water & Sky

The Grumman G-111 Albatross flies again

What does one wear to fulfill a dream? This is the thought that fills my groggy mind when the 5 a.m. alarm goes off. Today is the day I get to fly a Grumman Albatross flying boat—a bucket-list goal that consumed me since watching the graceful behemoths fly in and out of San Diego Harbor as a kid in the late '60s. Of the 464 originally built, only about 24 remain airworthy, and of those, maybe a dozen are in flight-ready condition at any time. This one is the elusive G-111 model, rarer than a ghost orchid, and the only one flying that we know of.

Boulder City, Nev., (BVU) is a strange place to fulfill a dream, but Albatross owner Joe Duke and his team have agreed to meet me and P&P Editor, Jessica Ambats, here along the sparse shores of Lake Mead during their trip across the United States. Based in St. Augus­­tine, Fla., they left for Oshkosh in July, and have made it all the way to Reno and Las Vegas on their Albatross odyssey. "It got us away from hurricane season in Florida," smiles Duke.

Duke is here with Paul LeVeque, an experienced Albatross pilot, mechanic and restorer. LeVeque comes from the warbird ranks and has been instrumental in getting the Albatross flying again. Also along for the ride is LeVeque's son, Luke, who has done most of the grunt-work on the project, including cleaning, inspecting and prepping for paint.

Resplendent in the purple light of dawn, the Albatross is a beast. She holds court over the quiet ramp like a benevolent queen. The Albatross was built for sky and water, and she looks awkward on land with her spindly gear and cartoon tires. Everything else about the amphibious aircraft screams "military," with all her parts overbuilt to take the beating that heavy seas would impart. Even the rivets are huge. The albatross design came from the 1940s, and the type combines art-deco flair with utilitarian and maritime elements. If Jules Verne and H.G. Wells created the perfect flying boat, I imagine it would look like an Albatross.

This particular Albatross is special beyond the fact that it's rare. It just won the prestigious Grand Champion Gold Lindy award in the Seaplane category at this year's EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh. At the Reno air races, it won the Best Transport and People's Choice awards. This Albatross is also one of only 13 G-111 models in the world, and was painstakingly restored at the hands of these classic aircraft aficionados in an exhausting five-year project that called for every ounce of ingenuity and patience the team had. Like the mythical phoenix, this aircraft rose from the dust devils and neglect of a withering desert boneyard to fly again.


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