The U.S. Military's Amphibious Workhorse: Grumman HU-16 Albatross
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When is a seabird a workhorse?
If it is a U.S. military aircraft - and in this case, the workhorse could aptly describe the Grumman HU-16 Albatross, a versatile amphibious utility aircraft that has been designed to operate on skis even in snow and ice conditions. It had a crew of three or four people and could carry up to ten passengers.
The large amphibious flying boat with two radial engines was developed for the US Navy after World War II and the first prototype flew in October 1947. Gruman already had experience in developing amphibious aircraft such as the Gruman JSF-6 Duck and essentially created a larger version of the Flying boat concept.
The United States Air Force also identified a potential and ordered a lot of the SA-16As aircraft for air-sea rescue operations.
The Grumman HU-16 Albatross was powered by two Wright R-1820 engines, each delivering 1,425 horsepower, giving the aircraft a top speed of 250 mph. It had a range of 1,650 miles and a ceiling of 21,500 feet.
During the Korean War, the SA-16 was used for combat rescue and gained a reputation for being a robust and reliable seaworthy aircraft. Grumman delivered a total of 297 A models to the Air Force, and most were used by the Air Rescue Service, which was first established in 1946 before being reappointed to the Air Force's Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS) in 1966.
The name of the aircraft was changed to HU-16 in 1962.
In the meantime, Grumman developed an improved version that increased the wing span by 16.5 feet and installed larger aileron and stern areas. Many of the A models were later converted to this B configuration.
The HU-16 underwent extensive combat service during the Vietnam War when it was deployed by the Air Force's ARRS, while the U.S. Navy modified the HU-16C / D as a search and rescue (SR) aircraft from Coastal Air Force stations including bases in Guam deployed and Cuba. The HU-16 was also operated by the U.S. Coast Guard as a coastal and long-range SAR aircraft in the open ocean until it was replaced by the newer HU-25 Guardian and HC-130 Hercules aircraft.
The albatross was also an example of a military-designed aircraft that made a transition to the civilian world. In the mid-1960s, the U.S. Department of Interior used a small number of flying boats for goodwill flights in the Pacific. The aircraft proved to be perfect when the U.S. government helped build Trust Territory Airlines to serve the Micronesia islands before proper island runways were built.
In a strange twist of fate, the Albatros was also critical to the development of Row 44's satellite-based on-board Wi-Fi system, which is now widely used in modern commercial aircraft. The company's founder, Gregg Fialcowitz, was reportedly frustrated by the lack of internet during his frequent business trips and saw the potential to provide satellite internet broadcasting to airplanes. He worked with a company pilot, David Cummings, who happened to have restored a Grumman HU-16B that was used to test and develop the system that is now widely used in commercial aircraft.
The same aircraft that saved many lives through rescue operations and left its impact in a different way. It wasn't quick, but it was reliable, which is why the Albatross is still a workhorse for air forces around the world.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites. He is the author of several books on military headwear, including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.
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