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The Albatross: An Ancient Mariner And Jack Of All Trades

The Grumman HU-16 Albatross Served for 46 Years and Still Flies Today

The Grumman HU-16 Albatross served for 46 years. The Albatross was powered by two Wright R-1820-76 Cyclone radial piston engines in military service. The HU-16 was used by the United States Air Force (USAF), Navy (USN), and Coast Guard (USCG) for search and rescue (SAR), anti-submarine warfare (ASW), and other specialized duties. When first introduced in 1949 the Air Force designation was SA-16, the Navy designation was JR2F-1, and the Coast Guard called it the UF-1. When the sweeping changes to aircraft designations occurred in September of 1962, the designation of the 464 Albatross airframes built by Grumman changed to HU-16.

Grumman’s designator for the Albatross was G-64. It was a development of the G-73 Mallard design, which was a civil amphibian developed during a similar timeframe. Another influence was the Grumman G-21 Goose, a successful precursor to the Mallard. The Albatross was capable of open-ocean landings (optimally in seas no higher than 10 feet) due to its deep-V hull cross-section and long keel length, although higher seas could be downright punishing on the aircraft and crew. HU-16s could utilize jet assisted takeoff (JATO) bottles to shorten takeoff runs in rougher seas.

The Albatross built its reputation for toughness during its service in Korea as a SAR aircraft, gaining the nicknames Slobbering Albert, Duckbutt, Clipper Duck, and Goat in addition to the generic Dumbo air-sea rescue call sign. Air Force SAR crews went where others feared to tread in order to bring a total of nearly 1,000 United Nations (UN) personnel out of enemy-held territory. The same was true during the Vietnam War, although the HU-16s were the longer-winged HU-16B model. USAF, USMC, and USN pilots and aviators knew that if they could make it to “feet wet” (the Tonkin Gulf) after taking damage to their aircraft, a HU-16B with the USAF Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS) would likely be coming for them.

The Navy also used the HU-16 for SAR, but in smaller numbers over a much wider area. The Navy most often operated their HU-16s from US and overseas coastal naval air stations (NASs). During the Vietnam War the Navy flew most of their rescue and support missions from NAS Agana in Guam. More common were the Navy’s “Goodwill” flights from NAS Agana and other remote air stations to the atolls and archipelagos in the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands during the early 1970s. Navy HU-16s often trained in open water landings and water takeoffs using JATO from the waters near their air stations in the States.

The Navy’s ASW Albatross, designated SHU-16B, was introduced in 1961. Crewed by six and with a range of 3,200 miles, this version of the Albatross was equipped with a revised radar and radome housing in the nose, a retractable magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom in the tail, electronic counter-measures (ECM) lumps and bumps, and a steerable searchlight. Ordnance payload was light, but usually consisted of depth charges. Rockets could be carried on underwing racks but often those racks were used for drop tanks to increase range. US Navy service of the SHU-16B was exceedingly short but Greece, Norway, and Spain also operated the SHU-16B.

One of the specialized roles the Albatross undertook was black operations. HU-16s, painted all black with subdued markings, were flown by shadowy USAF Air National Guard Air Commando groups between 1956 and 1971- some with reported ties to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Where they went and what they did is still classified, but at least some of these missions were covert infiltration and extraction missions. Or maybe they weren’t. But we do know that HU-16s also equipped Air Force Reserve (AFRES) Air Rescue Units during the 1960s and 1970s until the Air Force retired their last HU-16 in 1973- but only after the airplane set a new altitude record for piston-powered seaplanes. Nice finish!

A Republic of China HU-16 carrying three mainland Chinese naval defectors was shot down by communist MiGs over the Straits of Formosa on January 9th 1966, just hours after the defectors had surrendered their landing ship and requested asylum. The Albatross was attacked just 15 minutes after departing the Chinese island of Matsu on a 135 mile flight to Taipei in Taiwan. Supposedly the shoot-down of the Taiwanese HU-16 was motivated at least in part by the fact that the defectors had allegedly killed seven of their fellow crew members during their escape.

The USCG flew SAR missions with their HU-16s between 1951 and 1983. Their missions were both coastal and long-range open-ocean SAR. Considered by many to be one of the most aesthetically pleasing paint schemes ever to adorn a military aircraft, the USCG’s white / international orange / blue colors were seen on HU-16s over beaches, coastal islands, and American coastlines in general for many years. If you were in trouble on the high seas, hearing an Albatross drone overhead meant you probably had it knocked. Dassault HU-25 Guardians and Lockheed HC-130 Hercules SAR aircraft gradually replaced the Albatross in USCG service.

The Navy and Coast Guard held on to their HU-16s a while longer than the Air Force did. The last Navy Albatross flight was the August 1976 delivery of their last operational HU-16 to the National Museum of Naval Aviation at NAS Pensacola in Florida. The last Coast Guard HU-16 flight was during March of 1983 when the USCG retired the last of their 91 operational HU-16E Albatross amphibians (7250) at Coast Guard Air Station (CGAS) Cape Cod. But the Albatross wasn’t done just yet. The Hellenic Navy of Greece retired the very last operational military HU-16s on the planet 12 years later in 1995.

Photo Credit: John Murphy

But wait…there’s more. The Albatross is one of today’s most desirable warbirds. There are about 23 of them currently airworthy as civilian warbirds and several more being used by corporate entities. Many of these aircraft have been outfitted with plush interiors, advanced avionics, and even rebuilt wings. NASA used one for many years as a training aircraft for space shuttle astronauts. In 1997 an Albatross (N44RD) circumnavigated the globe in 73 days. The flight covered 26,347 miles in only 190 hours of flight time with 38 stops in 21 countries. The aircraft is now enshrined at the Hiller Aviation Museum. There is even a yearly Albatross fly-in held at Boulder City in Nevada, at which pilots can become type-rated in the HU-16. And the in-cabin wireless network antennae used on many airliners today were developed using a HU-16.

Military operators of the Grumman HU-16 Albatross included Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Republic of China (Taiwan), Germany, Greece, Iceland, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Philippines, Portugal, Spain, Thailand, and the United States. Civil operators of the Albatross include Chalk’s International Airlines of Miami (modified to G-111 standard), Pan American World Airways, and Continental Airlines’ Air Micronesia, which took over service to the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands into exotic places like Yap, Palau, and Truk, until those destinations built adequate airports for regular air service with standard passenger aircraft during the mid-1970s.

Five things you might not know about the Albatross:

  1. The engines on the Albatross (essentially the same as those used on the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and North American T-28 Trojan) are high enough off the ground that one can walk under them while they’re running. Most of us will duck involuntarily, but unless we’re eight feet tall we won’t really have to.
  2. The floats near the ends of each wing do not retract and each can be used to carry 200 gallons of fuel.
  3. The landing gear on the Albatross retracts at three different speeds. Nose gear first, followed by first one main gear leg and then the other. This induces yaw during gear retraction and extension, but not a critical amount of it.
  4. Many larger seaplanes are equipped with some sort of water rudder. The Albatross is not. However, using thrust reversing on one or the other propeller allows the aircraft to be turned quite crisply in the water, and of course putting both props in reverse will allow the airplane to back up.
  5. Singer Jimmy Buffet’s Albatross “Hemisphere Dancer” is a 1954 model HU-16 that saw the very last (known) combat exposure for the type…in 1996. Thinking Dancer was a drug runner’s plane, Jamaican authorities shot at Buffet’s globe-trotting amphibian while it was water taxying near Negril in Jamaica. Bono of the band U2 was also aboard at the time but no one was injured. The song “Jamaica Mistaica” on the Banana Wind album was written about this incident.

Here is part 1 of a USAF training film about how to operate the HU-16.

Here is part 2 of the USAF training film about how to operate the HU-16.

Bonus: Here is the story of the Air Force Museum’s HU-16 and the altitude record-setting flight before she was retired and flown to Dayton.

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.