From Grand Turk to Mojave in an HU-16 Albatross

Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News
More than 30 years ago, my husband Al and I headed to the British West Indies, in Cockburn Town, on the Island of Grand Turk, southeast of the Bahamas in the Turks & Caicos. We weren’t on vacation; we were on a mission to retrieve a big seaplane.

Al has always had a love for seaplanes and has owned six different Grumman HU-16’s over the years. One of them came from a bid sale on Grand Turk. Preparing the plane for the ferry flight home took a lot of time and work over a period of several months.

As stated in an article in the LA Times years ago, the Turks and Caicos is not the place to come for shopping and nightlife! But, if you like pristine, powdery beaches, clear turquoise water with coral reefs and deep-sea diving, it is right next to heaven.

This British territory is where Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World and also where pirates would stop and pillage the salt that was harvested by the islanders. English is the primary language.

We were most interested in making sure this poor, sad-looking Albatross could be made airworthy for a nearly three-thousand-mile trek home. She had a two-tone green paint job and we nicknamed her “the ‘Bogota Cucumber.’”

Al Hansen removes bird nests between the cylinders on one of the Albatross’ engine. (Photograph by Cathy Hansen)

Before towing the 23,000-pound aircraft from its grassy resting spot up onto the paved parking area, a rather large nest of wasps in the right landing gear well had to be eradicated. Hot Shot bug spray, that shoots out a solid stream for 20 feet, worked nicely.

Birds discovered how nice it was to build nests between the cylinders on the two Wright 1820 Cyclone 9-cylinder engines over a period of five or six years, so we cleaned out enough sticks and nesting material to fill a pickup!

Most of the systems seemed to still function. The APU had been taken out by a local for non-payment of work by the previous owner and it was an interesting experience buying it back. But, day-by-day, Al was getting to know the airplane more and felt it would be possible to return it to flying status in possibly a month.

One day after the engines were running again, he wanted to do a full-power run up before a test flight. We were running the right engine hard and as he was checking the gauges for oil pressure and temperature, there was a loud bang. It was unmistakable that something terrible had just happened. Since we didn’t bring a spare engine with us, we decided to head home on a commercial flight, regroup and return in about a week.

I mentioned to Al that a hurricane was brewing and headed towards Grand Turk. He mumbled something about the weather guessers and how they always show you last year’s weather anyway, and off we went.

The year was 1988, and we waited at home in Mojave while Hurricane Gilbert hit with a vengeance and lasted for five days! Fortunately, Grand Turk was not hit as hard as other islands in the area, so our Albatross survived the storm, but the not-knowing was nerve racking.

The Hansen’s bought a rebuilt engine from a company in Burbank, Calif. After shipping the engine to Florida, they found the company in Florida was flying their engine to Grand Turk on a Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter. Cathy asked, and Hansen’s were allowed to fly with their engine — as cargo! (Photograph by Cathy Hansen)

We bought a rebuilt engine from Aircraft Cylinder in Burbank, shipped it to Florida and flew back down there to arrange shipment to Grand Turk. An airline in Miami specializing in cargo was recommended to us. When we arrived at the office, I was amazed to see a Boeing C-97 on the ramp. It turned out to be the aircraft they used for flights to the Turks & Caicos. Since I had always wanted to fly in a C-97 with four Pratt & Whitney R-4360s, I worked up the courage to ask if we could fly with them to Grand Turk. He said, “Sure, but you have to go as cargo.” So, we stepped on the scales, paid so much per pound and flew across the crystal-clear Caribbean Sea at 500-feet to our destination! The Manta rays were fabulous to watch as they flew through the ocean.

Next trip, Al took his son Dor to Grand Turk. They changed the engine, did several test flights, filed all the necessary paperwork with every governmental agency under the sun and headed for Florida. I met them in Panama City, Fla., and we flew across the U.S. to Mojave. She was a great airplane and seemed to like our company!

The guys spruced her up with a bright basic white paint scheme with red, orange, and yellow stripes along the side and up the tail. She finally looked happy!

The Grumman HU-16 Albatross is a large twin-radial engine amphibious seaplane that was used by the United States Air Force, U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard as a search and rescue aircraft.

I always tried to get a photo of Al starting the Wright R-1820-76 cyclone 9 nine-cylinder, single row, air-cooled radials. Loved all of the noise and smoke!

The fuselage length of the Albatross was 62-feet, 10-inches; wingspan 96-feet, 10-inches; height was 25-feet, 10-inches and loaded weight was 30,353 pounds.

She was too large to fit into the hangar at Mojave, so was parked outside — a wandering Albatross miles from the ocean, basking instead in the desert sun.

The Albatross on Grand Turk, almost ready to fly to its new home in Mojave. (Photograph by Cathy Hansen)

The HU-16 Albatross at its new home in Mojave. The aircraft was too big for the hangar, so the sea-plane had to sit out in the High Desert sun. (Photograph by Cathy Hansen)


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