Some time ago, on one of my working trips to Anchorage, I got talking to the guys at the Commemorative Air Force Alaska Wing about the possibly of flying in one of their aircraft. On my visit to their hangar I met one of the pilots who flies for them, Burke Mees, who mentioned that he also flew a Grumman Goose for the owner and was able to conduct instructional flights.
It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, so I promised myself that, come another trip to Anchorage with good weather, I’d get it organised with Burke to take a flight. The stars aligned with my July roster and plans were made. I was operating a flight in from Tokyo that landed at 0430 Anchorage time so Burke arranged to pick me up at the hotel at 0845 to go to the hangar at Lake Hood. That timing worked perfectly for me as my body clock was still on UK time, any later in the day and I’d be wanting to sleep. The weather was perfect, little wind and unusually warm as Anchorage was experiencing a heat wave with temperatures predicted around 30°. The only issue was poor visibility due to a large number of forest fires in the area.
Burke had sent me a good set of notes on the Goose by email, so I was aware of some of the issues that would come with the aircraft, the primary one being the need to adjust my land aircraft pilot ideas about what constitutes a safe landing gear position on approach! Landing an amphibious aircraft on water with the gear down is a risk that needs to be countered on every approach, as a mistake is disastrous. Floatplanes tend to flip over, which is bad enough, but with the Goose the nose section would bend upwards, causing a hull breach just ahead of the cockpit which would scoop water in and sink the aircraft in a very short space of time. The potential for error was not helped by the original cockpit design, which followed the land aircraft convention, the indication lights for gear down being green (up was blue). In Alaska many of the amphibians in use have had those green lights replaced with red ones, as the norm is to land on water, but the Goose also has portholes which allow the pilot to see the position of the opposite side gear from his seat, whilst on his own side it is simply a matter of looking out and down from the side cockpit window.
Burke’s policy for mitigating this particular error is to conduct the landing checklist three times, at cues chosen because they come up in every flight: the first one at the time of the first power reduction from cruise power; the second when the flaps are extended on approach; and one final time when the propellers are moved forward into fine pitch. Each time he checks Burke also looks out of the front of the aircraft and mentally relates the gear position to the surface that he sees – up for water, down for a runway.
Another potential issue that I hadn’t considered was that amphibious hulls and floats are not 100% watertight, so need a way of letting out any water that has gathered during operation. To this end, screw-in plugs are fitted along the length of the hull and floats. These are removed at the end of the day to allow any accumulation of water to drain away. All well and good until one forgets to put the plugs back in before flight! So Burke collects them in a tin, which he then places inside the entrance door to the aircraft – a simple but effective defence against the error.
At the aircraft my first job was to refit the drain plugs whilst Burke moved the other resident, a Cessna 185 on floats, out of the hangar with a contraption that would not have looked out of place in a Mad Max film. The Goose was soon out in the open too, and ready for the walk around.
We had a particularly good look at the landing gear−especially the brake lines, as these can get caught and damaged during retraction if they are not properly secured. With its free castoring tailwheel, the Goose is a tricky enough customer on land when the brakes are functioning−without them it’s a runway excursion waiting to happen! Burke says that he would rather have an engine fire on the Goose than a brake failure, which speaks volumes of the peril of a damaged brake line.
Having checked the rest of the aircraft from ground level it was now time to climb up on the wing via the door and a couple of grab handles onto an obvious and effective non-slip walkway. Getting up on the wing is the only way to check the engine oil and to refuel. Sitting there between the cowlings of the R-985s we topped the tanks off to their capacity of 220 gallons, which gave us four hours flight time with twenty gallons in reserve. The Pratt and Whitney R-985 Wasp junior is a smaller version of P&W’s first radial, the R-1340. It’s a robust engine and I am familiar with it from my time flying a Winjeel in Australia and from the Broussard at Breighton.
Mind the tank
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