Five Guys and a Goose

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The Grumman Goose was a workhorse patrol plane that saw widespread use during World War II. Image: Public Domain

The assignment was to take an Army CH-47D Chinook helicopter down from Fort Wainwright, Alaska, for a static display at the Elmendorf Air Force Base airshow in Anchorage back in the 1990s. Airshows are always a blast for military aviators. There’s the inevitable gratuitous hero worship, and this one was on an Air Force base. The Wing Nuts knew how to live.

There was an airshow feast planned for the evening. All the active aircrew were to attend in their Nomex, while local veterans were invited as well. Designated seating intentionally interspersed active-duty aviators with combat veterans of conflicts past. A grand time was had by all.

By divine inspiration, we four Army fliers drew seats next to an Anchorage attorney named John. John’s entry ticket was his immaculately restored, 1943-production Grumman Goose patrol plane. We whiled away an absolutely delightful evening swapping lies about flying around the world. As dinner drew to a close, John invited us to take a spin in his Goose after the airshow closed down the following day. Be still my heart …

The Grumman Goose was used by a variety of friendly nations on a myriad of tactical missions. Image: Public Domain

Twin-Engine History

The airshow came replete with the inevitable barrage of “How fast does it go?” and “What does this do?” As things wound down, we locked up our plane and posted ourselves at John’s extraordinary Goose. Wow. Just wow.

To say John’s Goose was factory new grants undue credit to wartime aircraft production. Nothing that came off the production lines during World War II could rival the condition and quality of that airplane. John’s Grumman entered service with the Marine Corps on August 31, 1944. After flying through World War II, the plane was transferred to the Navy. In 1956, it was gifted to the Alaskan Department of Fish and Wildlife, where it flew on game counting and wildlife management missions. Fish and Wildlife disposed of the aircraft in October of 1965. John purchased the Goose’s hulk after it sat abandoned for 30 years on the shore of Alaska’s Lake Spenard. Two years of meticulous restoration by a team of as many as 11 aircraft artisans resurrected the derelict into a machine of simply breathtaking quality.

The Goose remained true to its 1940s origins throughout. The twin Pratt and Whitney radials gleamed factory-fresh. The original Marine Corps color scheme was the result of extensive support from the Grumman historical office. The tiniest details of the original warplane had been painstakingly resurrected, from the uniquely designed anchor system in the nose to the weapons’ hard points on the wings. The cockpit was state-of-the-art in 1943.

Our fearless Guncrank Diarist. The beast behind him is the Boeing CH-47D Chinook he flew.

Tasting A Little Heaven

Climbing behind a set of flight controls, I traded the twin turbines, triple hydraulic system and AFCS flight control computers of my CH-47D helicopter for the fuel mixture, hand-operated landing gear retraction mechanism, and carb heat of a different era. After manually pressurizing the patrol plane’s fuel system, John threw a switch or two, and the magnificent twin radials each blew a cloud of smoke, sputtered and churned hypnotically to life.

We lifted off and climbed away from Anchorage and its environs. We then crossed the Turnagin Arm, hugging the coastline of the pristine Alaskan Kenai peninsula. We soaked up the view around the outrigger floats and bulbous engine nacelles before heading across the gulf for Lake Illiamna.

We made landfall after about half an hour and droned through an emerald green valley that stretched unblemished for miles in all directions. Tree-covered cliffs rose a thousand feet above our flight level on either side of the valley’s meandering riverbed. The river’s crystal-clear water betrayed gargantuan king salmon visible from the air as they pressed into their kamikaze spawning runs.

The first grizzly was a mere 600 lbs. or so and seemed to show little interest in the sky-blue underside of our vintage patrol plane. We eventually sighted 10 more, all feasting fat on salmon. A pair were massive earth-shaking bruins that probably pushed 14 hundred lbs. This valley would not have been our first choice for a forced-landing location.

We eventually found a huge wilderness lake clearly unspoiled by human presence and rolled the old warplane in for landing. We then shut the machine down and clambered out onto the wing to soak up God’s creation. Tragically, time passes more quickly in places like that. Finally, we reluctantly reboarded for the short hop back to Anchorage.

We put the plane to bed but were at a bit of a loss as to how to repay John for his hospitality to a motley mob of visiting Army aviators. We did insist upon treating him to supper at a restaurant of his choosing. Gracious to the end, he chose an atmospheric place near the marina and ordered something cheap. What a stud.

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