Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Lady Of Water & Sky

The Grumman G-111 Albatross flies again

Rather than opt for a garish, "island party" paint scheme like so many private Albatrosses have endured, Duke and LeVeque chose an elegant color palette that brings to mind a classic Packard or Buick automobile. Her pale green and shades of taupe paint look quintessentially American. The broad-shouldered Albatross has no interior yet, but Duke will tie in classic styling with a mid-century modern approach, honoring his aircraft's 1954 birthdate. In fact, on this trip, we're also joined by Bruce Shoemaker, from SDesign in Tucson, Ariz., who's overseeing the interior design and installation.

The experience of flying a Grumman Albatross assaults all of your senses. Even sitting in its cockpit, one returns to 1948, complete with that unmistakable smell that vintage aircraft share. Duke and his team had to fabricate many of the parts on the aircraft, including the entire instrument panel and center pedestal. Wisely, they kept many of the round gauges and analog instruments. They also removed the characteristic radome that looks like a pimple on the Albatross' nose. Inside, everything is spartan in its zinc chromate green primer glory.

This and all other HU-16 variants are powered by two lovely Curtiss-Wright R-1820 radial engines generating 1,475 hp of cacophonous growl. This is a legendary engine—the one that powered the Boeing B-17, the Douglas DC-3 and the North American T-28. Starting these engines is part voodoo magic and part science, and gives the amphib much of its charm.

In aviation, there has always been a reverence for the sound of radial engines, and listening to these brutes come to life is something that has to be experienced. The propellers turn in a slow arc as the engine patiently coughs up wads of blue smoke and then settles into a rhythmic rumble. It sounds thick and "brown," like a stack of vintage Marshall amplifiers or warm molasses. Think Lou Rawls repeating "potato, potato, potato" in his deep baritone.

The cockpit was designed for a pilot, copilot and two crew members in jump seats. Because of its weight, the Albatross requires a type rating to fly as PIC, and it's not certified for single-pilot operation. The cockpit is high, especially on land, and the sight picture is as far from what I'm used to as you can get. The jump seats are directly in line with the rotating propellers and inches away, which I try not to think about.

Takeoff in the Albatross is exhilarating. The throttles are where they were when you were a kid playing "airplane" under your kitchen table: on the overhead panel. You grab a fistful while holding the classic-looking, three-quarter-moon yoke. The Albatross accelerates and lumbers into the sky with grace and purpose. LeVeque climbs the Albatross out over the desert and points her toward Lake Mead, which is glistening and crisp in the morning October sun. Joe Duke monitors the myriad of engine gauges and occasionally takes the yoke.


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