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.
Conceived by the Grumman Aircraft Corporation in 1944 from a U.S. Navy request for a flying boat, the Albatross (the "HU-16" or "SA-16" depending on service) was designed to be a larger version of both the workhorse Grumman "Goose" and the genteel "Mallard." The Navy wanted an aircraft for search-and-rescue operations that could land in heaving seas, had extended range, and could carry a crew of four, 10 passengers in the cabin and 5,000 pounds of additional cargo of varying configurations. Unveiled in 1948, the Albatross was too late for World War II, but did extensive service in Korea and Vietnam, and was one of Grumman's biggest success stories. The last one flew for the military in 1976.
All Grumman Albatross aircraft were military category aircraft, and none were ever certified by the FAA for civilian operation. However, in the early 1980s, Chalk's Ocean Airways approached Grumman with the idea of converting several HU-16s for commercial passenger use.
Chalk's was a famous airline that operated Grumman Mallards between South Florida and the Bahamas. By 1974, Chalk's had been purchased by Resorts International, a gaming company owned by television magnate Merv Griffin and Donald Trump. With hefty financial resources backing them, Chalk's asked Grumman to select 13 Albatross airframes from military surplus for conversion to "Standard" category, Part 25 operations.
The conversion would include a complete overhaul of the Albatross including rebuilt, wings with titanium wing spar caps, additional exit doors and hatches, stainless-steel oil tanks, new engine fire-extinguishing systems, prop modifications, rebuilt engines and much more, at a cost of about $1.5 million per airframe. The net result was an aircraft certified to zero time on the airframe and engine. The new configuration would carry 28 passengers in comparative luxury. These 13 received the new model designation of "G-111."
Paul Leveque and Albatross owner Joe Duke enjoy some downtime after beaching the G-111 on a remote shore of Nevada's Lake Mead.
Chalk's operated a few of these airplanes for a short time, but most were put in permanent dry storage in the desert of Marana, Ariz., at Pinal Airpark, a boneyard for civilian aircraft. Thirty years later, the G-111s had succumbed to neglect and the elements, and were filled with bird nests and roadrunner droppings, had broken glass and were derelict. That's when Joe Duke found his Albatross.
"This was basically a zero-time airplane, but was a disaster when I found it," says Duke, using a flashlight in the early morning light to do the preflight. "But the idea of owning one had intrigued me since my days running small boats out of South Florida as a teenager. The combination of a boat and an airplane appealed to me a great deal."
Duke is a successful businessman with a passion for classic aircraft and vintage cars. Having been in love with aviation since childhood, and after owning several small aircraft, Duke threw himself into this project with the goal of using the aircraft for the good of aviation, not just for himself. He was involved in the Haiti relief missions after the earthquake there in 2010, and they left an impression on him. A soft-spoken and thoughtful man, his classic taste is evident in the meticulous restoration of this aircraft.
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.
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.
Beaching an Albatross
|One of the more intriguing tasks when flying an amphibian like the G-111 Albatross is "beaching" it. Beaching is the process whereby the aircraft is brought close enough to the shore that passengers can easily exit the aircraft without having to wade in the water. The process is also used to offload cargo or take on supplies from land. What may not seem evident is that an aircraft in the water has no "brakes" and no sail. Even at idle, an aircraft on the water is always moving. The challenge is to get the aircraft to the shore and not overshoot it or collide with something in the process.
"We use a variety of tools," says Paul LeVeque. "It's a combination of aerodynamic controls, asymmetrical thrust from the engines, and the reversible propellers." LeVeque added that he's always aware of the wind and the condition of the shoreline he is approaching. During our beaching experience with LeVeque in the Albatross, he overflew the spot where we'd beach the aircraft to determine whether it was safe.
The process starts with determining the wind speed and direction, then visually confirming the slope of the beach. If it's too shallow, the aircraft's hull could ground too far out. The bottom has to be sandy and free of large rocks or other submerged obstructions. Lastly, the current has to be evaluated since currents close to shore have a strong effect on the aircraft.
Wind complicates matters, and high winds squeeze every ounce of skill from the pilot. High winds require multiple crew members along with lines (ropes) attached to several points on the aircraft. However, winds under about 20 knots make beaching a simpler task.
Aerodynamic controls can be used to help "sail" the aircraft toward shore, as well. For example, if the wind is on the aircraft's nose, turning the yoke to the right (a right bank in the air) and pressing left rudder will cause the aircraft's to "sail" left. The opposite would cause it to "sail" to the right. The effect of the engine's speed also contributes to the "sail" effect. The thing to remember is the aircraft is constantly moving in some direction.
Once all the inspections and determinations have been made and the aircraft has landed on the water, LeVeque circles back around toward the intended beaching area and positions the aircraft using engine thrust, so he approaches the beach at a shallow angle, ideally with the beach to his left. Using constant reverse and forward thrust, and positioning the rudder and ailerons so they can be used as "sails," LeVeque approaches and then turns the Albatross, so it's parallel to the shore.
Once the aircraft's large left float is over the intended beaching spot, LeVeque puts the right engine into idle-reverse, and the tail of the Albatross begins to swing in toward the beach. Again, using tiny amounts of engine thrust, LeVeque holds the aircraft onto the shore, and a crew member can secure the aircraft using lines, or if the wind is calm, the engines are cut, and the aircraft remains
In strong winds blowing onshore, the Albatross can be turned into the wind and allowed to back into the beaching spot. Engine power—both forward and reverse— is used to fine-tune the parking job.
If the aircraft can't be beached, it can be anchored off-shore using an onboard anchor and line.
If the aircraft is beached, the tide must be watched carefully since an aircraft as big as the Albatross can't be easily manhandled off shore, if the tide goes out and it becomes too shallow to float the aircraft. That becomes an embarrassing moment for the Albatross pilot.