Finish in sight for restoration of historic aviation workhorse

Volunteers have spent 15 years refurbishing Grumman Goose

Posted: Friday, November 23, 2007

KETCHIKAN - Slowly, rivet by painstaking rivet, a Grumman Goose with historic links to Ketchikan is being transformed from a tired aviation workhorse to a museum-ready icon of Southeast Alaska.

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It's taken 15 years of effort, most of it by volunteers, to remove five old coats of paint, straighten out hull sections wrecked in a crash, and refurbish a tail section once rotted by corrosion.

The work on the basic hull - the foundation of the airplane - is nearly complete now.

The many, many parts for reassembling the Goose are on hand now, too, the result of steady accumulation through donations and a bit of horse-trading during these past 15 years.

With good fortune, the Tongass Historical Society's Save The Goose project could be nearing its concluding stages.

The nonprofit group expects to start a new fundraising effort soon. Sufficient funding would enable completion of the Goose in a couple of years, according to project coordinator Don "Bucky" Dawson.

"To get us to where we are now, there were a lot of people involved on every level," Dawson said.

He estimates that about 100 volunteers have worked on the Goose since it arrived back in Ketchikan in November 1992. But trying to finish the project with volunteer work alone would be extremely difficult and time consuming.

"Basically, the only way we can get it done is through a funded program," Dawson said.

And once it is done, Ketchikan will have a showpiece heirloom that has significance beyond just aviation history, said Dawson.

"This basically represents all the people who flew these things, who worked on these things, and all the people that flew in these things, that relied on these things," Dawson said. "It represents our air-sea lifestyle of Southeast Alaska.

"And you know what?" he adds, "I'll tell ya. It looks cool."

Now, even without its wings and engines, the bare hull that sits in an industrial building behind Hal's Equipment and Supply north of town is unmistakably that of a Grumman Goose amphibious aircraft.

This plane is known simply as "821," short for its FAA registration mark of N-88821.

It was the 157th of 345 Gooses built by Grumman Corp. at the company's Long Island, N.Y., factory between 1937 and 1945.

The plane went first to the U.S. Army Air Corps before being declared surplus in 1945.

That's when R.E. "Bob" Ellis of the Ketchikan-based Ellis Air Lines bought it and brought it from Georgia to Ketchikan, arriving here on Dec. 11, 1945.

Ellis Air Lines converted the amphibious plane into the non-wheeled "flying boat" configuration and brought it into service in March 1946. It was the first of 10 Gooses that would fly for Ellis Air Lines.

N-88821 mostly served on the daily run between Ketchikan and Juneau, in addition to Craig, Klawock and Hydaburg, according to Dawson.

Once the plane was back in Ketchikan, there were three early decisions made that determined the project's future course.

A poll of early donors decided that the plane would not fly again, said Dawson.

"It was unanimous to not fly it, owing to the fact that it was the first one ," he said. "The significance was, you couldn't replace it if an accident happened ... on a demonstration flight or whatever. So we basically had to go by that."

The second decision was to try to do the job in Ketchikan with volunteers rather sending it down south for professional restoration.

The third decision was to refurbish it "by the book," using as much of the original Grumman and Ellis designs, components and materials as possible.

"If you start taking liberties: 'Well, we'll use a 2-by-4 in here,' after a while, you just start losing the integrity of the airplane," Dawson said. "We want it to last 300 years so people can appreciate it after we're long gone."

During the project's early years, Dawson spent most of his time compiling Grumman reference materials such as blueprints and metallurgical specifications. And, because Ellis Air Lines made several modifications to the planes, he sought out documents related to those changes.

Those arrived in a donation of 100 engineering drawings of Ellis Air and Alaska Coastal modifications - many of which were drawn decades earlier by Lillian Ference (whose husband, Paul Ference, was a mechanic with Ellis Air) and Ralph Dale of Ketchikan.

Dawson said it was great to get those drawings, because N-88821 had been altered during the years it flew in Canada.

"A lot of things were removed ... but these references basically allow us to replicate and restore it to an Ellis Air Lines Goose, which would have been impossible without those drawings," Dawson said. "So that was a blessing."

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