Ups and Downs: Across the Country in an Albatross Flying Boat By Tom Casey

by Tom Casey on September 11, 2012

“We’re losing power.”
John Gasho, Sr. was flying in the left seat. Silvia Erskine was sitting behind him. I was in the right seat on the radio to Columbus Approach Control and had just announced our position and altitude, 25 miles north of Dayton, Ohio, eastbound at 5,500 feet. This was the third day and fourth leg of a trip from Tucson, Arizona to Danbury, Connecticut. N7026C, a rare twin engine Grumman HU-16A Albatross amphibious flying boat, had seen the completion of a three year restoration, some 12,000 hours of painstaking work on its airframe, props and engines. The flight from Tucson to Perryton, Texas had been flawless. From Perryton we intended to fly to St. Louis, but a line of thunderstorms cut through Springfield, Missouri on our flight path and we landed at Joplin instead.
“The left engine is quitting,” John said, looking outside to check the cowling for leaks. I glanced at the instruments. The engine was still running but the RPM had decayed. The turn and bank indicator showed a skid. John engaged the rudder boost, bringing hydraulic pressure to the operation of the rudder necessary to remain in coordinated flight against asymmetry. It is not uncommon to experience discrepancies after a major restoration. The number 1 RPM indicator had failed en route during the leg from Texas to Missouri, but in Joplin good fortune: a cross-reference of part numbers allowed the installation of a new RPM transmitter. We continued to Indianapolis in the morning. This, however, was something more serious.
John turned to me. “I think we should feather it.” That meant shutting it down. I nodded assent.
“I’ve got the airplane,” I said, and as owner I took the control wheel in hand to assume command. John then accomplished the engine failure checklist while I flew. He moved the throttle to idle and the fuel mixture to cutoff. Pressing the feather button made the left propeller blades rapidly angle into the wind and the engine stopped turning immediately. I advanced power on the right throttle to compensate for the lost thrust and trimmed the airplane for coordinated level flight. Stabilized, we looked for an airport suitable for landing.
Any pilot who flies it will tell you the Albatross has exceptional virtues, palpable in the feel of the ship in your hands. It is the feel of aviation history; you are responding to sights and sounds no longer seen or heard, sensations no longer felt. There is high romance in the idea of a ship that can fly off the water and into the air to course among clouds above the land and oceans. This was the first dream of air travel. Pan American flying boats were the Clipper Ships of the air age. Captains of Clippers were pioneer pilots. Passengers too were pioneers, traveling through days and nights aloft, sometimes through storms, landing in lagoons and yet finding first class accommodations waiting for them two thousand miles from anywhere. The Clipper stood for unfathomed possibilities, travel to faraway places and exotic adventure with a certain amount of risk as part of the thrill.

Pan Am American Clipper

“Left engine feathered.”
The motionless propeller was a sobering sight. I radioed Columbus Approach Control that we needed to make a precautionary landing. I saw an airport close by on our right side with two runways, the longer running east and west, the shorter running north and south. I advised Columbus that I intended to land there. After asking if we required assistance, they gave us the common frequency for uncontrolled airports and wished us good afternoon. The wind was light and variable on the ground. I was positioned to join a left base leg for landing to the east.
Airborne emergency conveys that awful impression of helplessness in the shadow of oblivion, a notion unvoiced behind actions required to meet it. I turned to the right and began a slow descent while John monitored the instruments and Silvia watched with growing interest and astonishment. Silvia is not a pilot, but as a working part of the team she was a crewmember and had been briefed on possible emergencies, including engine failure. But a briefing is a very different thing than living through the shutdown of an engine while flying, and the single engine approach and landing that must follow is hard to for any non-pilot to comprehend, even as it’s happening.
At Indianapolis the night before, members of my family who live in the Midwest had come to my sister’s home to celebrate our flight. I introduced my good friend, Johnny Hutchison, who had been flying with us to that point but had to be in Miami on Sunday to fly the B747 he commands. Johnny also flies a stunt plane at air shows and teaches aerobatics on the side. And they greeted John Gasho Sr., pilot and engineer who restored the Albatross and who joined our trip east as a warrant to delivery of the plane he brought back to life. Silvia, my companion, a recovering fearful flier, told them she would not have missed the trip. My sister, Kathy, made a great party for us. My parents were there, my brother and his wife drove in from St Louis, and a nephew just back from his honeymoon came down from Chicago. We had a feast on the patio and after dinner we sat in a circle on a floating dock around a table set up as a bar. We drank and talked and drifted on still waters where homes shined in glimmering reflections with that moonlit fantastic sense of magic. In the late morning they gathered at the airport to watch us depart, snapping pictures as we took off for Connecticut.
Pilots are known for stories of mistakes, misjudgments and harrowing close calls. These are meant to be instructive cautionary tales. This is because the idea of soaring above the earth is old to imagination but new to experience and, going back to Icarus and Daedalus, flight warns against pride as part of its mythos. An old adage says flying is safe as long as you remember it’s dangerous.
The runway was white and had wonderful clarity against the green cornfields surrounding it. I adjusted power on the right engine, reducing it slightly to control a steady decent and called for flaps 15. When thrust is marginal, energy management is crucial. It is important not to get low too soon. In the turn to final with landing assured I put the landing gear handle to the down position and felt the uplocks release and the wheels began to extend. The runway appeared to move in a graceful, continuous motion from left to right until it stabilized directly in front of us to accommodate our intent to land. All was shaping up nicely. But I saw it at the same time John announced: “There’s an airplane on the runway.”
With gear extended we were committed to landing on the runway in front of us or in the cornfield beside it; there was no possibility of going around. The plane was moving toward us and my immediate thought was to aim for touchdown beyond his position. I hoped he would see us and hasten his roll to the taxiway at the end allowing me room to land behind him. Watching him closely, I carried ten knots of extra speed to keep energy in reserve for a last minute maneuver.
Adrenalin reaches for a Zen state that seems outside of normal perception: a hair-trigger awareness of all that happens anticipates a sure response to contingencies. That adrenalin alertness was active when I flew N7026C for the first time on July 19, 2012 from the Davis-Monthan AFB, otherwise known as The Bone Yard. It was her first flight in 46 years, and the odds were against its happening at all. The Bone Yard is the final resting place of military aircraft. Rows and rows of fighters, bombers, tankers and transports lie in permanent storage there. The Davis-Monthan inventory is a de facto museum of American air defense. Some of the airplanes will be scrapped, some sold, but hundreds will stand silently in the sand awaiting the passing of another year, another decade. They are monuments to the past, foretelling the fate of every marvel of our age.
On August 10, N7026C was awarded an airworthiness certificate and from that day we began to plan our flight to Connecticut. We christened her “American Clipper,” in homage to the Pan Am Clippers of the 1930’s. The photo of us standing in front of the plane before our departure shows a happy group anticipating the cross country adventure ahead.
As I watched the airplane on the runway in front of me I wondered what we must look like to the pilot; we were a large unfamiliar aircraft with a feathered engine coming down out of the sky with a clear intent to land. And then I saw he had correctly assessed our problem and its urgency. In the slow motion of startling events the airplane turned off into the grass perimeter yielding to us the runway’s full length unobstructed. We landed without incident and coasted to a stop after turning onto a taxiway a little more than mid-field from the approach end. We were down, we were safe, the plane was safe and we were clear of the runway: the happiest result. I got on the radio. “This is the Albatross that just landed. Can anyone tell us where we are?”
“You’re in Sidney, Ohio.”
“Is this the aircraft that made way for us?”
“Yes it is.”
“Great work.”
“No problem.”
His response had the tone of someone glad to have helped us out and I was relieved. I had not made a radio call announcing our presence and, though “see and avoid” is the rule of uncontrolled airports, the event might have had a different result if his actions had not been swift and deliberate. We met inside later and I thanked him again.
After towing the Clipper to the ramp, we learned that the mechanic at the field, Mike Chappie, was a retired senior mechanic from US Airways. He and John Gasho began to troubleshoot. There were no problems with the engine itself, but the propeller would not hold a constant speed, giving us a clue to our loss of thrust: a runaway prop. Further testing and swapping of components identified a short in the propeller control box, a small unit that sends electrical signals to the prop control unit from toggle switches on the cockpit overhead panel. It was an easily fixable problem with a spare part and in three hours we were once again on our way. At 8:16 pm local time, just after sunset, we made our landing at Danbury and completed our 2,250 mile trip across the country without further incident.
Flying an older airplane, especially a classic, is a privilege and a pleasure. These planes won’t be available to future generations except in museums. The epoch of the flying boat, like the age of radio or silent films is frozen in time. It will never come again. Beryl Markham, in her book WEST WITH THE NIGHT, wrote: “After this era of great pilots is gone…it will be found, I think, that all the science of flying has been captured in the breadth of an instrument board, but not the religion of it.” Markham’s observation is not a quantifiable statement, but a flying boat cruising low along the shoreline, or moving slowly on the surface of a lake, or at anchor in a harbor will answer to the substance of its truth.

Postscript: In my three decades as a pilot with American Airlines I spent over 16 years as a flight instructor in my off time specializing in teaching the intricacies of operating the Albatross Flying Boat in the air and on the water. My long association with the Albatross began in the 1980s when I saw one land in the harbor and come up the ramp at Paradise Island in the Bahamas. In my novel, STRANGERS’ GATE, I wrote about its mystique: “I knew the Albatross and respected its beauty and function. There are some objects made by human hands that combine art and utility in near perfect balance, where competing considerations of design intersect at the object’s truth, so to speak. The Albatross was an airplane but it was also a sixty-foot yacht, with a seven-plus foot beam and a ninety-six foot wingspan impressive to behold. It had truth; anyone could see that right away; it had the high dignity of a schooner under full sail, and something of the majesty of, say, the Queen Mary.”
Love at first sight.
–Tom Casey

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