Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Lady Of Water & Sky

The Grumman G-111 Albatross flies again

In 2008, owner Joe Duke found the 1954 Grumman G-111 Albatross in an Arizona desert storage facility. He spent five years restoring the 30,000-pound flying boat.
Lest anybody get the crazy idea that they'd like to own an Albatross (like I did the entire time we flew), LeVeque explains that this aircraft was built to be maintained by military crews, not individuals. "The manuals are missing items like what to do when there is low compression in a cylinder," LeVeque laughs. "It just tells you to replace the entire engine, because they had spares right there." LeVeque and Duke have gone far and wide to source parts that no longer exist, including the special Hamilton Standard propellers that were coated in a proprietary nickel finish to avert the damage that occurs when water hits them regularly. The props are no longer manufactured, and the process to make them wasn't documented. "So we bought all the props available that were in good condition," LeVeque explains.

If the lack of parts doesn't get you, the operating costs will. With fuel flows of about 50 gallons per hour per engine, along with several quarts of oil, an exorbitant reserve for overhauls on the scarce engines and props, and all the rest of the care and feeding of this airplane, per-hour costs can exceed $1,200 per hour. Still, as a wise old aviation sage once admonished, never calculate the cost of owning an airplane. That's because it has little to do with money and a lot to do with satisfaction. I'd guess Duke feels privileged writing those checks in exchange for flying a time machine.

When it's my turn to fly, I take the right seat like a man savoring the finest steak available. The controls are heavy but well-balanced. She's nimble but ponderous, and her handling reminds me of a DC-3. The throttles feel good in the hand, and you have to press the rudders with conviction to get a response. Nothing happens in a hurry, and she feels solid and responsive. She's a delight, and I'm accustomed to her feel in short time. We sashay around Lake Mead, and all too soon, it's time to give her back.

LeVeque banks the G-111 onto short final, drops the flaps and finesses the large amphibian onto the lake with a nondescript "thunk." There's a loud hiss as fine droplets of water spray the aircraft in an avalanche of white water. Using the props and aerodynamic controls, LeVeque and Duke maneuver the Albatross right onto the beach in a well-choreographed side-drift. It's the very first time this Albatross has been beached in nearly five decades. After depositing editor Jessica Ambats and me onto the shore, the Albatross is off for some photo passes.

With each pass for the camera the ground rumbled and the water sprayed in enormous sheets. I knew that Duke and LeVeque were having a great time. And if these beloved aircraft are really more than just a collection of wires, rivets and sheet metal, then this Albatross looked proud. Because in fulfilling his own dream, Duke may have unleashed the destiny this airplane longed for during those 30 years in the desert: to fly again. Dreams are funny things.


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