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Martin Mars SOCAL training

The British Columbia-based Coulson Group has thoughtfully provided footage from Martin Mars training and currency flights in Southern California.

WARNING: Contains regrettable Nickelback soundtrack, although the case could be made that it is semi-appropriate, as the Mars really is the last surviving rock star of flying boats.

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Air Ministry: Operation Icelift (1955)

The RAF’s Nos. 201 and 230 Squadrons, operating Short Sunderland V flying boats, supplied the British North Greenland expedition between 1951 and 1954.  Later in 1954, the squadrons ferried the entire expedition (including the husky dog teams) back to Pembroke Dock, Wales.

Star Wars fans will be interested to know that a hangar on the former RAF flying boat base was also the fabrication site of a full-scale Millenium Falcon model, built in 1979 for the filming of The Empire Strikes Back.

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Short S.25 Sandringham VH-BRC, preflight and takeoff

This aircraft was built in 1943 for the RAF (as a Short S.25 Sunderland), but ended up being held in reserve and not used in wartime operations.  It was transferred back to manufacturer Short Bros. & Harland as surplus in 1947, and subsequently converted into the civil version (Sandringham) for airline use.

It was leased by Tasman Empire Airways from the UK Ministry of Transport, given the New Zealand civil registry ZK-AMH, and flew as RMA (Royal Mail Aircraft) Auckland until the end of 1949.  It then operated for a variety of Australian carriers (with Australian civil registry VH-BRC) until 1974, and a Puerto Rican airline (with US registry N158C) until 1978, when it was sold to a private owner.

Following the death of its owner it lay derelict until 1980, but was then sold to a UK science museum in 1982.  Throughout its long career this aircraft logged over 19,500 flying hours.  Today, VH-BRC is one of three Sandringhams still extant, and is preserved at the Solent Sky aviation museum.

You can read about its entire saga here.

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Short Sunderland flying boats in the Berlin Airlift

Whenever the Berlin Airlift is remembered, the C-54s of the United States Air Force justifiably get a lot of the glory.  But it was very much a team effort, with the transport fleets of all US military services (and most Western allies) heavily invested in the airlift.  One aspect that I was not aware of until quite recently was that the Royal Air Force even used its Short Sunderland flying boats.  The Sunderlands operated from Finkenwerder, Hamburg, alighting on Lake Havel in Berlin.  They flew until winter icing rendered the lake too hazardous for arrivals.

NOTE: There is even a tiny bit of Canadian content, mainly parcels marked with a maple leaf and “Made in Canada”, appearing at the 00:35 mark.  Try not to snicker at the irony of things marked “Keep Dry” (salt, probably) arriving via flying boat, and being offloaded into a smaller boat for transport to shore.

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Martin Mars firefighting on Mount Wilson

The Martin JRM Mars you see here is a re-purposed maritime patrol aircraft, meant to hunt down enemy subs and shipping during the Second World War.  It has since been converted to a firefighting tanker, which is one of the few applications where flying boats still find themselves useful.  If you wanted to find work piloting these majestic craft today, your career would almost certainly be centered around firefighting work.

There aren’t too many opportunities to see enormous flying boats in action, mostly because there are very few flying boat airframes that didn’t get sent to the breakers. The flying boat’s primary advantage was that any place with calm water could be used as a base or refuelling stop. But after the Second World War, advances in engine technology and efficiency gave land-based planes much improved range and speed, so fewer refuelling stops were required.  Very few of the flying boats that survived the postwar purge are still airworthy.

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Icon A5

Despite a general ambivalence toward the Light-Sport Aircraft (LSA) category, I do appreciate that it may in part represent the salvation of general aviation.  It is no secret that the number of GA pilots has been shrinking, slowly but surely, and that fewer and fewer people are willing to devote the time, effort and dollars toward attaining certification.  Reversing this trend will be no easy thing, but if general aviation is to survive as an industry, it quite simply needs to attract more people to flying.  Icon Aircraft is trying to do so by adding an ambitious new amphibian to the mostly land-bound LSA stable:  the Icon A5.

icon-a5An unusual collaboration between IDEO, Art Center, Nissan Design America, Troy Lee Designs, Scaled Composites, and L.A.-based Icon Aircraft has yielded the Icon A5 amphibious sport plane, a vehicle that is actually going into production. The 22-foot-long craft makes extensive use of carbon-fiber-reinforced epoxy composites, yielding a lightweight but strong frame, and the wings fold inwards, reducing the 34-foot wingspan to a mere 8.5 feet so that it can fit on the back of a trailer.

— hipstomp.  “Super design collaboration yields “Jet ski for the skies.”Core77 magazine, 12 August 2009.

Hard not to like an aircraft as pretty, functional and flexible as that one, isn’t it?  The list price is $139,000 USD, and there are already 400 pre-orders—over one-third of the $5,000 deposits are from non-pilots, amazingly enough.  Part of this is likely explained by the fact that most LSAs feature instrumentation that looks like a stripped-down aircraft instrument panel, while the A5 has intentionally tried to emulate the familiar look and feel of a car’s dashboard.  While I have in the past come down hard against any blurring of the operating and certification lines between cars and aircraft, I don’t see anything inherently irresponsible in making an aircraft (that still looks and behaves like an aircraft) easier to comprehend for the casual VFR flier.  The A5, after all, is not going to be driving along the freeway, it’ll be pulled in a trailer.  And making it easier to move and store (potentially even storing it at home in a large enough garage, instead of having to pay for hangar space) is a bonus.  You can watch the A5 retract and extend its wings (embedding disabled, unfortunately).

Here’s the manufacturer’s video of the A5 being put through its paces in initial flight testing:

I hope the rest of the flight testing goes well; especially since my notional win-the-lottery GA aircraft is the similarly-styled Seawind 300C.  Let’s see more flying boats and amphibians; the world has enough Cessna 172s.

UPDATE: According to Icon, a minor hiccup in financing (i.e. the credit crisis we’ve all been reading about) has delayed initial production from 2010 to 2011.  The aircraft has completed airworthiness testing and is now in the refinement phase (i.e. minor changes to equipment and structure to finesse the production model).

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Lieutenant Colonel Harry J. Zimmerman, USAAF


Lt. Col. Jack Zimmerman (Photo courtesy Hayes Presidential Center, via Mansfield News Journal)

Over the last week, you may have seen articles in various Canadian media outlets detailing the discovery of a sunken Second World War PBY Catalina flying boat off Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan, Québec.

A U.S. warplane that crashed in waters off the Quebec coast in November 1942 with five crewmen trapped inside has been discovered by underwater archeologists from Parks Canada – a “very significant” find for aviation heritage and a “testament to the collaboration” between Canada and the U.S. during the Second World War, Public Works Minister Christian Paradis announced on Thursday.

The downed aircraft, an amphibious PBY Catalina that was part of a key Allied squadron of planes linking North America to the battlefields of Europe, is believed to be the underwater grave of five U.S. airmen who couldn’t be rescued by the local fishermen who plucked four other Americans from choppy waters at the crash site.

— Boswell, Randy.  “Wreckage of U.S. warplane found off Quebec coast.Canwest News Service, 06 August 2009.

The commander of that aircraft is thought to be one Lt. Col. Harry “Jack” Zimmerman, US Army Air Force.  Ms. Kristina Smith Horn of the Mansfield News Journal has penned a terrific biographical sketch of a man who was a true pioneer of civil aviation.

Born and raised in Fremont, Zimmerman was one of the first pilots for TWA Airlines, said Nan Card, curator of manuscripts at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center. When he joined the Army, he was TWA’s chief pilot for its Eastern and Atlantic Division.

In 1929, he piloted a Ford Tri-Motor — better known as the Tin Goose — in the first air service from one side of the continent to the other for an airline that later became TWA, Hayes Center records show. Ten years later, he flew the first scheduled flight into LaGuardia Airport the day it opened in New York.

…He flew FBI agents to nab notorious kidnapper and thug Alvin “Creepy” Karpis — the FBI’s “Public Enemy No. 1” — and won the gratitude of bureau director J. Edgar Hoover.

His role in the FBI’s arrest of Karpis won him fame and a personal letter from Hoover.

“If you are ever in Washington, I hope you will let me know because I would like to show you some of the things here which we are trying to do in the crime situation,” Hoover wrote. “If occasion should require the chartering of a plane for my use in the future in a similar case, I hope it may be possible to secure your services.”

— Smith Horn, Kristina.  “Ohio flying ace’s remains may have been found.Mansfield News Journal, 16 August 2009.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.

Requiescat in pace, Lt. Col. Zimmerman (Long Island, N.Y); Capt. Carney Lee Dowlen (Dallas, Texas); Sgt. Charles O. Richardson (Charlevoix, Mich); Pte. Erwin G. Austin (Monroe, Maine); and Pte. Peter J. Cuzins (Cincinnati, Ohio).  May future generations remember your deeds.

A NOTE OF CORRECTION: The Canwest News story linked at the top incorrectly states that Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan was part of the “Crimson Route” for ferry flights from Canada to Britain.  The Crimson Route actually originated much further west at Gore Field, Montana, and routed much further north via Iqaluit, a.k.a. “Crystal II”.  Longue-Pointe-de-Mingan may, however, have been part of the primary or secondary “Northern Route.”  For more information on the Atlantic ferry routes, see the informative and well-illustrated “Interesting Facts about the Atlantic Air Routes of WWII” by Kelsey McMillan, published in Vol. I No. 4 of the Bomber Legends e-magazine.

Derelict PBY-5 Catalina, Strait of Tiran

PBY-5A Catalina N5593V, abandoned at Ash Shaykh Humayd, near Aqaba, Saudi Arabia. From kendo1938's Flickr photostream.

This PBY-5A Catalina is one of 4,051 produced by Consolidated Aircraft (and its licensees) between 1936 and 1945.  According to David Legg’s 2001 book Consolidated PBY Catalina: The Peacetime Record, this aircraft (BuNo 48397) ended its US Navy service in August 1956, and was relegated to the surplus aircraft boneyard at NAS Litchfield Park.  It became one of a couple PBYs purchased by Mr. Thomas W. Kendall in 1956; and while this one ended up rotting on a foreign beach, Kendall’s other PBY was donated to the San Diego Air and Space Museum in 1986 by his family.

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