Forty-Seven Years in Aviation: A Memoir; Chapter 12: Boxcars and Albatrosses

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[AVweb's reprint of Dick's memoir began with the Introduction.]

Skywritings

In late February 1959, having fulfilled my commitment of four years of active duty in the Air Force, we headed north from Tampa, bound for Akron, Ohio, and a major change in lifestyle from military to civilian. We were excited to get home and begin again, so to speak, but we were also reluctant to leave Tampa's year-round warm weather. Some former Florida residents claim "You never get all the sand out of your shoes," which must be true because years later, when time and money made it possible, we began spending a month or two each winter in southwest Florida, a weather break that continues to this day. Had I known in 1959 that the journey to a successful and satisfying career would take almost seven years with several detours along the way, I would probably have made a significant change in my plans; but as it turned out, each of those detours opened the door to another opportunity, resulting in an eventual happy ending, career-wise. After struggling through the remainder of 1959 in jobs that had absolutely nothing to do with aviation, I joined the 145th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, a unit of the Ohio Air National Guard based at the nearby Canton-Akron Airport. I was experiencing symptoms of aviation withdrawal and figured part-time flying would be much better than not flying at all. My civilian job (which I couldn't afford to leave at that time) was flexible enough to allow adequate participation as a "weekend warrior" in the Ohio Guard. The 145th was equipped with Fairchild C-119Js, a direct descendant of the C-82 Packet, also a Fairchild product and also rather ugly; but both of these were purpose-built airplanes: They were not built to look good, they were built for hauling cargo.

Fairchild C-82 Packet

Speaking of ugly, Fairchild tried another variation of the basic C-119 design that never got beyond the experimental stage:

Fairchild XC-120 "Pack Plane"

The C-82 provided the Air Force with transport service for nine years but several serious design problems surfaced, the resolution of which resulted in the C-119 as we know it today. Significant changes included moving the cockpit forward to provide more cargo space and beefing up the structure to carry heavier loads. This was not a small airplane; in its final version, the C-119 had a maximum takeoff weight of 74,000 pounds:

Ohio Air National Guard C-119J

Airborne troops exiting a C-119 from the side doors

The C-119s on the ramp at the Akron-Canton Airport were unique in that they were powered by Wright R-3350 compound turbine engines (most 119s had Pratt & Whitney R-4360s). This one-of-a-kind powerplant had three exhaust-driven turbines spaced 120 degrees apart around the engine and mated to the crankshaft with fluid couplings; known as Power Recovery Turbines, they were able to deliver 500 horsepower that otherwise would have been lost. By 1960 the R-3350s had apparently overcome their propensity to self-ignite during engine start, la the B-29, but I don't recall a single engine fire during the two years and 368 hours I flew the C-119.

C-119J Beavertail configuration

Although the C-119 was originally developed to carry cargo (the aft end of the fuselage consisted of two clam-shell doors that opened for unrestricted access to the cargo compartment), it was used extensively during the Korean War to deploy airborne infantry. The Ohio Air Guard C-119Js were "beavertails" (the aft fuselage narrowed to a point from top and bottom and housed a retractable ramp), a modification that provided ample access for wide cargo and patients on litters My two years with the C-119 were unremarkable from a mission standpoint; a typical flight was two or three hours in length for aircrew training and proficiency, with an occasional weekend cross-country to break the routine. There wasn't much demand (read "zero") for aeromedical evacuation in northern Ohio. The 145th was disbanded in 1961, its mission was changed to aerial refueling and the entire unit was transferred to Clinton County Air Force Base (a former SAC base) in southwestern Ohio. The C-119s remained in service until March 1962, and several of us who lived in the Akron area carpooled at least once a week for the 160-mile trip to Clinton County. That was a huge inconvenience but in the interest of maintaining currency and building time toward retirement benefits, I commuted for several months. So much for the Boxcars ... fast forward to mid-summer 1963. I accepted a non-aviation job in Portland, Oreg., and once again we packed up the family, this time headed west, taking a full week for the trip and enjoying the sights along the way. The only disappointment was the cloud cover that obscured the four U.S. presidents whose faces are carved into the face of Mt. Rushmore ... we drove up and down the mountain three times hoping the clouds would break up, but no such luck. Shortly after arriving in Portland, I was driving along the west side of the Portland International Airport one day and noticed five Grumman Albatross amphibians in Air Force colors parked on the ramp. I inquired about these unusual airplanes and found they were the "rolling stock" of the 304th Air Rescue Squadron, a component of the Air Force Reserve and a unit that just happened to have a slot for another pilot. I signed up on the spot.

Grumman HU-16B Albatross

With no reservations, I can say I had more fun flying this aircraft than all the others in my 47 years as a pilot. Originally known as the SA-16 (which led to the nickname "Slobbering Albert" after the dripping trail behind the airplane after every water takeoff), the designation was changed in the early '60s to "HU-16" in recognition of the airplane's utility. The Albatross was sometimes referred to as a "panto-base" ("all bases") amphibian because it could operate from land, water, snow or ice ... and probably wet grass, if push came to shove. Snow and ice operations required a steel skid bolted onto the bottom of the hull to protect the keel and outrigger skids attached to the wing floats for stability. The Albatross was neither a great boat nor an outstanding airplane, but it combined good features of both in what was probably the most versatile aircraft in the Air Force inventory until the advent of large helicopters. In case you needed to get an Albatross off land or sea in the shortest possible distance, four rocket bottles could be hung on the side doors and, when activated, they provided 4000 pounds of instant thrust -- RATO, or rocket-assisted takeoff (a.k.a., JATO, or jet-assisted takeoff). Four thousand pounds didn't slam you back in the seat, but it was a great help in time of need ... just be sure you were airborne and well above stall speed when the rockets burned out 14 seconds later. The Albatross was designed to handle the beating it would take during the takeoff run in four-foot waves and it could land in more severe conditions, but rocket assist was required for takeoff when the waves rose to eight feet or more; the airplane structure absorbed a lot of punishment ... no wonder the factory was nicknamed "the Grumman Iron Works."

Grumman Duck in Air Force colors

The Albatross was the last of the Grumman amphibians, all of which were named for water birds. First was the Duck, acquired initially by the Navy to serve as a rescue vehicle and later used sparingly by the U.S. Army Air Force.

Grumman Goose

The next Grumman amphibian was the Goose, about the same size as the Duck but with two engines and a seven-passenger cabin. The Goose was intended for civilian use but the armed forces put a number of them to work as utility transports during WWII.

Grumman Widgeon

Next on the Grumman family tree was the Widgeon, smaller than the Goose and designed to carry one pilot and five passengers. In addition to its use by all the U.S. armed forces, the Widgeon also served in the British Royal Navy, where it was renamed "Gosling."

Grumman Mallard in civilian attire

Continuing its line of successful amphibians, Grumman's next product was the Mallard, crewed by two pilots, with seats for ten passengers and an all-up weight of 12,570 pounds. The most noticeable difference when compared to previous Grumman amphibs was the use of tricycle landing gear. Fifty-nine Mallards were built but none were used in U.S. military service.

HU-16 cockpit showing engine controls overhead

My first few flights in the Albatross were devoted to familiarization with aircraft systems, procedures and handling characteristics; nothing out of the ordinary except getting accustomed to throttles, props and mixture controls located overhead in the cockpit and -- because of its high profile and slab-sided fuselage -- the airplane would try to turn downwind instead of weathervaning into a crosswind like ordinary flying machines. Learning to use the Albatross in "boat mode" began on Lake Washington in Seattle. It is difficult to describe the complexity of operating a seaplane because every situation is different. Once in the water and not secured, a seaplane is always moving; every gust of wind, every change in current, every bit of power applied (or not) must be taken into account. A seaplane pilot learns to think far ahead of the airplane. The Albatross' propellers slipped into and out of reverse almost instantly by pushing the throttle levers upward into a detent; even with the engines idling, the slight thrust they produced (forward or reverse) had to be considered ... a seaplane has no brakes. Selective reverse thrust made for precise maneuvering on the water. Picking up a simulated survivor in a life raft was perhaps the most demanding and challenging procedure in the training syllabus. The approach began on a track just to the right of the raft, five feet above the water, flaps full, airspeed low enough to feel an imminent stall nibbling at the controls; as you passed abeam the raft you would reduce the power to idle, put the props in reverse and open the throttles momentarily. In the short time required to accomplish that procedure the airplane dropped like a rock and you were in -- not on, in -- the lake with green water coming over the nose. If you did everything right, you'd wind up a short distance beyond the raft. The next part of the procedure consisted of backing down to the survivor, who was no doubt wondering why you flew right on by (the backing maneuver kept the left prop from passing over the raft). Lots of crew coordination was required; the raft wasn't visible from the cockpit and the pilot had to rely on directions from a crewmember in the back of the airplane. There are very few lakes, rivers and ocean areas in the world that are suitable for a published instrument approach procedure and none that we would ever expect to use to get an Albatross safely on the water in low-visibility conditions. Nevertheless -- and just for fun -- we practiced IFR approaches using a hood so we couldn't see outside. Lining up with a long, straight stretch of boat-free water and following the directional guidance of the pilot in the right seat, we would set up a 500-foot per minute descent at an airspeed of 100 knots or thereabouts and wait, and wait, and wait. On a calm day with a super-smooth surface, the first indication of water contact was the hiss of the keel slicing through the water, followed by a steadily increasing "swish" sound as the power was slowly reduced and the hull settled in. Beautiful ... just beautiful. A big part of "fun with the Albatross" came from flying close to the ground in the process of learning how to locate missing airplanes or people. For example, the "contour search" began with a relatively tight 360 around the top of a mountain and continued with circles close to the ground at consecutively lower 1000-foot levels until you got to the bottom of the hill or found what you were looking for, whichever came first. On weekends we would occasionally set up simulated airplane crashes in the rugged terrain around Portland and when we found the site we practiced dropping packages to the "survivors" on the ground ... you needed a little bombardier training to do this well. We often carried paramedics cross-trained as parachutists (PJs) on training flights -- they thought jumping out of airplanes was great sport, but their primary dedication was to the well-being of people in distress. Whenever there were PJs on board, an unwritten rule (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) went into effect: Use of the word "jump" on the airplane intercom was verboten for fear one of those young tigers would think it was an order and be out the door. In 1964 and 1965 the 304th traveled to Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, Alaska, for our two-week summer camps. The local flying folks (military and civilian) welcomed us with open arms because we were the only dedicated search-and-rescue unit in the area. Given the relatively good weather and long days of the Alaskan summer, flying activity increased remarkably with an attendant increase in aircraft accidents and mishaps. The squadron flew at least one "hot" mission every day while we were at Elmendorf; fortunately, none of those searches required rescue procedures. Early in July 1965 I completed all the training to become a Rescue Crew Commander and acquired a crew of my own; it was a short-lived promotion because a month later my civilian employer proposed a transfer back to Columbus, Ohio, with an economic opportunity I couldn't pass up. I had no way of knowing this would be our final move and only one year away from entering on the career path I followed for the rest of my working life. [Continued with Chapter 13.]

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