Articles

Wings Over the Water

In Uncategorized on March 5, 2013 by hillermuseum

reids albatross water

The Amazing Amphibians of Grumman Aeronautical Engineering
By Jon Welte

From the 1920s through the 1960s, the nature of both aircraft and the industry that designed and built them changed dramatically. Within the lifespan of a single career, aircraft went from wood-and-fabric contraptions such as the 1919 Vickers Vimy to shiny jets such as the Lockheed F-104 fighter and Douglas DC-8 airliner. Aircraft companies were transformed from inventors sewing fabric and shaping wood in their own barns and garages to enormous corporations led by talented engineers employing tens of thousands of people.

Much of this legacy of explosive growth occurred in the sunny and then sparsely-populated open spaces of California, where young engineers often worked for each other before striking out on their own. Donald Douglas, Jack Northrop, the Lougheed (Lockheed) brothers and others, including Bay Area helicopter prodigy Stan Hiller, were part of one of California’s earliest “technology clusters”.

Yet despite this frenetic activity there was another pole in North America’s aerospace world. On the opposite side of the continent aviation gained a solid foothold in New York. Pioneer Glenn Curtiss set up shop in upstate Buffalo, but the Empire State’s most enduring aviation legacy took root shortly after on Long Island, due largely to the efforts of Leroy Grumman.

Born in the twilight of the 19th century, young Roy Grumman expressed a fascination in aviation in high school and earned a mechanical engineering degree from Cornell University in 1917. When the United States entered World War I Grumman joined the US Naval Reserve, earning his wings as a naval aviator at Pensacola in 1918 before being sent by the Navy to study aeronautical engineering at MIT. In an era when many engineers also served as test pilots, Grumman cut his teeth testing Curtiss flying boats as they were prepared for Navy service. The experience made a lasting impression, as seaplanes and naval aviation became the core of Grumman’s future firm.

By 1920 the postwar Navy had downsized significantly, and Grumman left the service to work as a civilian test pilot for Loening Aeronautical Engineering. Over the next decade Grumman advanced through the ranks at Manhattan-based Loening, ultimately serving as general manager. When Loening was sold at the onset of the Great Depression, Grumman combined resources with several other Loening employees to form Grumman Aeronautical Engineering. Launched in December 1929, the company persevered in the face of the Great Depression and quickly prospered.

Much of Grumman’s early work involved maintenance and repair of Loening aircraft, and likewise its first amphibious airframe was patterned closely after a Loening design Grumman had worked on. Introduced in 1934, the Grumman JF Duck was a biplane fitted with an innovative retractable landing gear system. Featuring a large central float and smaller wingtip pontoons, the Duck had a visibly similar layout to the Loening Amphibian. Later refined as the J2F, Grumman Ducks were widely used during World War II for reconnaissance, search and rescue.

Much of Grumman’s early development effort in the 1930s was devoted to Navy fighters. The Grumman FF biplane grew into a family of carrier-based airplanes and eventually begot the legendary F4F Wildcat, first in a long line of fighting cats to fly from the decks of aircraft carriers. However, Grumman’s focus on Navy business did not preclude it from pursuing commercial opportunities. In the mid 1930s a group of Long Island businessmen approached Grumman about the feasibility of producing an airplane for use commuting from Long Island to New York City. Drawing on his experience with amphibious aircraft, Grumman designed the iconic Grumman G-21 Goose. Featuring a high wing, twin engines, a sturdy boat hull and wingtip floats, the Goose first flew in 1937 and formed the template for a family of amphibious aircraft to follow, including the Widgeon, Mallard and ultimately the Grumman Albatross.

Developed with the capability to operate from open ocean, the HU-16 Albatross was the largest of the Grumman amphibians. With a length of over 60 feet, the Albatross could take off and land with swells exceeding 10’ when equipped with supplemental JATO (jet assisted takeoff) rocket bottles. The Albatross entered service in 1949 and was a popular search and rescue platform with the United States Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard. The aircraft was used extensively for this mission in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and remained in US service into the early 1980s.

Following the Albatross’ retirement from military service, surplus aircraft found their way into the hands of civilian owners. One such aircraft was an Albatross originally built in 1955 but acquired by Bay Area businessman and entrepreneur Reid Dennis in the mid-1990s. Dennis, an avid private pilot, had flown general aviation airplanes for business and for pleasure for many years. The Albatross was an ideal platform for long distance, overwater cruising, and the restoration commissioned by Dennis converted the military search and rescue vehicle into a well-appointed private airplane. In 1997, Reid Dennis and Albatross N44RD participated in an around-the-world flight following the path originally flown by Amelia Earhart in 1937. Earhart’s plane disappeared in the Pacific near Howland Island, but Dennis’ Albatross and the Lockheed Electra flown by Linda Finch which he accompanied successfully completed the flight.

Aeronautical history has moved on since the heyday of Grumman Aerospace. Production of the Albatross ended in 1961, drawing a close to over a quarter century of amphibious airplane production on Long Island. Grumman continued designing and building exceptional carrier-based aircraft for the United States Navy, but the last F-14 Tomcat was delivered to the Navy in 1992. Grumman Aerospace merged with Northrop in 1994, and over the ensuring years design and manufacturing left Long Island for other states. The last Grumman-designed naval aircraft, the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye, remains in production at a site in St. Augustine, Florida.

With the gracious donation of N44RD, Reid Dennis has bestowed upon the Hiller Aviation Museum a special role preserving part of Roy Grumman’s legacy. On Saturday, May 4th, the Museum’s Albatross will be joined by seaplanes from across the western United States as part of a special Seaplane Adventure event. Don’t miss this opportunity to see Grumman and other seaplanes of all sizes and hear firsthand the stories behind these amazing aircraft.

Resources

Bill Gunston. Grumman, Sixty Years of Excellence, 1988
Mike Paull. Tales From the Sky Kitchen Café, 2011
Richard Thruelsen. The Grumman Story, 1976
Terry Treadwell. The Ironworks: A History of Grumman’s Fighting Airplanes, 1990

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