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The Grumman Goose: Replacing an Alaska aviation legend

Ben Anderson
These Gooses were brought from Juneau to Kodiak in the spring of 1979.
Photo courtesy Guy Denton
The Gweduck, an experimental aircraft similar to the Grumman Goose and Widgeon, in flight.
Photo courtesy Ben Ellison
The Gweduck, an experimental aircraft similar to the Grumman Goose and Widgeon, is equally at home in water or on land.
Photo courtesy Ben Ellison
The Gweduck, an amphibious experimental aircraft.
Ben Anderson photo
The Grumman Albatross was the largest of the Grumman flying boats. This one was operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
A close-up angle of a Grumman Albatross in U.S. Coast Guard colors.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
A Grumman Goose takes off from Lilly Lake in Kodiak, dressed in the colors of the now-defunct Kodiak Western Alaska Airlines.
Photo courtesy Guy Denton
A Grumman Goose operated by Hal's Air Service on a Kodiak Beach.
Photo courtesy Guy Denton
This Goose, brought to Kodiak in the spring of 1981 by Air Transport Service, was dubbed “The Blue Goose." When PenAir bought ATS in the 1990s it became part of the Pen Air Fleet. It still flies for PenAir.
Photo courtesy Guy Denton

The first Grumman Goose took flight in 1937. The last Goose rolled off the line in 1945, so over time, the aircraft have become more expensive to repair and maintain. The result is that the Goose is slowly fading away due to a combination of age and upkeep expense. What, if anything, could replace the beloved aircraft? Two companies are looking at filling the sizable shoes of Grumman’s vintage aircraft.

In the nearly 70 years since the last Goose rolled off the assembly line, this amphibious aviation workhorse has left an indelible mark on the world of commercial and general aviation. In particular, the Goose proved itself a versatile aircraft for the U.S. Navy during World War II, and later became a reliable recreational and commercial transport for locations where island-hopping wasn't done for fun but rather out of necessity -- places like the Caribbean and the numerous archipelagos and islands of Alaska.

The Goose inspires a degree of fandom unlike almost any other aircraft. Numerous websites chronicle the history of the Goose and try to run down the ones still flying today. The Goose is what's known as a flying boat, a craft whose fuselage is designed to land directly in water like the hull of a boat, as opposed to the more familiar floatplanes, which rely on pontoons to keep the fuselage away from the water.

As Steve Harvey, owner and operator of the single-plane air carrier Harvey Flying Service -- whose only plane is a Grumman Widgeon, a smaller version of the Goose produced from 1940-1949 -- put it, the Grummans are "… far and away better than any airplane that you bolt a set of amphibious floats to."

Some 345 Gooses (the aircraft are never referred to as "geese") were manufactured, with most estimates of the number still airworthy today sitting somewhere around 50 or less.

In late September, Alaska Dispatch reported on an airport project in Akutan, Alaska, a small community in the Aleutian Islands with a bit of an access problem. Sandwiched between the Pacific Ocean and the notoriously turbulent Bering Sea, the most reliable way in or out of Akutan for years has been via one of two Grumman Gooses still operated by Peninsula Airways.

The ability of PenAir to maintain the aging aircraft has gotten harder as the years have gone on. Akutan is currently building an airport on an uninhabited island six miles away across open water, and officials have yet to decide on a reliable method of transporting people between the community and the airport.

After that initial report and subsequent follow-ups by Yahoo and CNN, including a visit to the remote island by a CNN reporter, many people in the comment sections of this site and those others asked: Why not just buy a new Goose? They cited the web page of Antilles Sea Planes, which touts its own G-21 Goose, a new version of the old classic that Antilles calls "The rebirth of a legend."

Why not buy a new Goose? Here's why.

Antilles Sea Planes: Victims of the recession

A brief search for Antilles Sea Planes reveals a bit of bad news for the company: In November 2009, the 60,000-square-foot industrial space that Antilles called home was foreclosed on and sold at auction. The company's Facebook page is dominated mostly by people asking if they're still in business. The company's spokesman is unable to comment due to an ongoing, unspecified legal dispute.

"The economy hit us pretty hard from an investor standpoint," the administrator of the Facebook page says in response to one query, "but we are looking forward to finding new backers and getting back into business."

This is in contrast to the rosy picture painted in the earlier days of the company. A 2008 article in Private Flyer magazine profiled the people behind Antilles Sea Planes, including one of the company's founders, a retired accountant named V.L. Manuel.

"Manuel poured his life savings into the venture," the profile says. "He leveraged his assets with bank debt and borrowed money from friends. 'I put up everything I had,' he says. 'I was funding it off the hip.' He estimates that, all told, he pumped around $7 million into Antilles Seaplanes."

The same profile noted that singer Jimmy Buffett -- the owner of a Grumman Albatross, a larger aircraft similar to the Goose -- had expressed interest in buying a customized Antilles seaplane.

Another 2008 article said that Antilles hoped to produce its first aircraft later that year or early in 2009. Antilles has yet to produce any planes, although McKinnon Enterprises, a defunct Portland, Ore.-based company that built its own turboprop Gooses and acquired an FAA type certificate for their construction, was purchased by Antilles earlier in the decade. Acquiring a type certificate can be an expensive task, because it involves proving to the FAA that an aircraft will meet airworthiness standards in its design and performance.

Antilles Sea Planes is still out there, and the cogs in the company machine seem to still be involved. But should the company return in the years ahead, there's no telling what it will look like. Manuel, the founder, gauged potential demand in the early days of the enterprise, estimating 200 initial purchasers for the plane. So it seems possible that the G-21 Goose will eventually find production, whether it's with Antilles or another entity.

The Gweduck: A plane of its own

While Antilles rides out its bad fortune, another team of engineers and aircraft builders are quietly working on a completely new type of amphibious aircraft. Somewhere between the Grumman Goose and the smaller, similar Grumman Widgeon in size, the Gweduck (pronounced gooey-duck, after the geoduck, a long, cylindrical clam) is a slick-looking amphibian that's further along than Antilles' proposed G-21 Goose.

The Gweduck has paid a visit to Alaska already. Following visits to the Alaska Airmen's Show in 2010 and again in April of this year, the prototype aircraft underwent testing in the amphibian-friendly waters of Southeast Alaska. The Gweduck took its first flight in May 2009, surely a scary moment for any home-engineered experimental aircraft.

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Ben Ellison, the aircraft's engineer, had wanted a Grumman Widgeon since he was a teenager. He reconstructed the idea of the Grumman from the ground up due to some of the Widgeon's notorious quirks that pilots of the aircraft must familiarize themselves with.

"The Widgeon has problems with pitch instability, which can lead to porpoising," Ellison said. "Porpoising" is a term that describes the way the nose of the aircraft can rise and fall with increasing intensity upon takeoff or landing. "Through the Widgeon, (pilots) master that," Ellison said, "But I wasn't gonna be as quick as a younger guy."

While he and his team were at it, they changed other things about the classic Grumman design, including substituting a composite material for the Grumman’s metal exterior, which was prone to problems when exposed to saltwater.

“It’s a resin-reinforced fiberglass,” Ellison said of the Gweduck’s body. “The same material they use in building boats.” This came along with other drastic changes to the original design. The Gweduck has a “completely different hull geometry, different wing -- all the parameters are different,” Ellison said.

And while Ellison said that the airplane performs better than the aged Gooses and Widgeons, and that the testing and refining is “pretty much all done,” he was unsure how the aircraft would hold up in rough water -- like the water it would encounter in Akutan, where traditional float planes don’t typically land due to the beating the floats would take. That's a big reason why the Grumman has been so successful over the years.

“Well, you never know,” Ellison said. “You design (the Gweduck) to meet the FAA regulations, and there’s no way of knowing what the Grummans were designed for. It’s possible that the Grumman was way, way, way overbuilt, which explains why it was so heavy.”

Beyond this, the Gweduck would face a more significant hurdle once it reaches the production stage. Once all FAA approvals have gone through, the airplane would be offered only as a $350,000 kit -- and kit aircraft cannot be used commercially.

Even that might not stand in the way of eventually seeing a mass-produced Gweduck. “Anybody that wants to come and buy the design and certify it, I’m here to cheer them on,” Ellison said.

A long history in Alaska

Penair still flies two Grumman Gooses in the Aleutian Islands.  Beyond the Grumman Gooses still utilized by PenAir in the Aleutians, the aircraft have seen service for numerous airlines in Alaska over the years. Alaska Airlines had a number of Gooses as late as the 1970s. Several privately owned Gooses and Widgeons sit at Anchorage’s Merrill Field and Lake Hood.

The Grumman aircraft seem to hold a special place in the heart of many Alaskans, in particular those on Kodiak Island, many of who grew up in the 1950s and 60s seeing the Gooses and Widgeons carrying passengers and cargo to and from the island. Several websites are devoted to the Grummans’ history in Kodiak, including one dedicated to the founder of Kodiak Airlines -- and avid Grumman enthusiast -- Bob Hall, that culls together first-person accounts of people’s experiences with the aircraft. Another attempts to track down the fates of each of the 345 Gooses ever produced, according to tail number. Yet another gathers images of the many Gooses and Widgeons that have visited Kodiak or called the island home over the years.

Steve Harvey, owner of Harvey Flying Service, helped collect photos and information for the latter site. He lived in Kodiak while his father and uncle operated the original Harvey Flying Service, and returned to the island after earning his own pilot’s license. He’s worked for several carriers over the years, and now operates a single-plane operation with his trusty Grumman Widgeon.

Even Harvey, who has spent his whole life around Grumman Gooses and Widgeons, has a tough time pinning down what exactly draws people so much to the amphibious aircraft. He said it’s hard to describe to a person who hasn’t flown a Grumman.

“If I talk to another Widgeon pilot and he asks me why I like it so much, whatever I say, he’s going to get it,” Harvey said, adding that it’s harder to explain to a layperson.

“First of all, it’s a classic airplane, it’s never going to be produced again,” Harvey said. “It’s like why do so many people like a 1956 Chevy? It’s just a car. But to a lot of people, it’s more than just a car. That’s the way it is to a lot of people with the Widgeon -- it’s more than just an airplane.”

Harvey does agree that the plane may have been overbuilt in the early days, but that’s also what’s contributed to their longevity -- “that’s why they’ve lasted so long,” he says. “Because they’re well built.” He also said that he’s familiar with the difficulty of performing maintenance and repairs on such an old aircraft.

“Parts and pieces are so expensive,” he said, “and the lead time on getting something for it takes so long.” He added that he wouldn’t expect to see another Grumman showing up in Kodiak after he’s gone.

When pressed, Harvey still just can’t quite describe the appeal of the Grummans. “Why do you like it so much?” He repeats the query. “That’s a tough question to answer. There’s nothing on the market that’ll replace a Widgeon, not even close.”

Faith Sherman, in her chronicle “Goodbye Goose: The Story of Ellis Air Lines,” attributes the Southeastern Alaska airline’s success in the 1950s and 60s to its use of the Goose.

“If one word could be used to describe the Goose, it might be ‘reliable,’” Sherman recalls one pilot saying. “Pilots had a reverence for the stability of the goose in the air, and its dependability both as a freighter and as a passenger plane.”

The Goose and other amphibious Grummans saw particular success in Alaska due to the island traveling of Southeast and the Aleutians, combined with the Goose’s significant range of 650 miles and its blending of luxury and ruggedness, Sherman says.

The completion of the Gravina Island Airport built to serve Ketchikan in 1973 sounded the death knell for Ellis Air and its fleet of Gooses, with a ferry taking over for the aquatic shuttle services previously provided by the amphibs. Ironically, the Gravina Island-Ketchikan connection became the subject of Alaska’s infamous $340 million “Bridge to Nowhere” project -- a project that is now being compared to Akutan’s airport woes.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com