Goose Aircraft Will Be Backbone of St. John Air Taxi

A classic Goose Aircraft beached.

By David Brown of St. John Air Taxi, Inc.
Special to St. John Tradewinds

Antilles Seaplanes got its name from the largest seaplane service of its time, Antilles Airboats Inc.—second only to Pan American in the world. They (we) are currently working on rebuilding several original Goose Aircraft with the intent to learn more about the original Grumman factory process as well as get their production floor working in a similar fashion.

They are currently rebuilding several Gooses which were part of Antilles Airboats (AA) fleet.

This made me think that there are probably several folks who would like to reminisce as to what happened to these old birds and what might be in store for the future of St. John and its long, currently dormant, history with the Grumman Goose.

I have researched a list of the past fleet and have found that many are in private hands and still flying! Most folks believe the fleet was destroyed during Hurricane Hugo in 1989; however, a gentleman named Dean Franklin had most of the salvaged parts and resold them to whomever wanted them.

He was the authority on Grumman Gooses from the time that Grumman decided to stop production. He had purchased all of the “NOS” (new old stock) building plans, permits, production schematic drawings, etc., way back in the 50s.

After reselling and rebuilding some of these airplanes, most have continued to provide their prospective owners many memorable years of service.

As it was, Antilles Airboats had a long history of questionable maintenance. This is evident when you read National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reports or talk to old AA passengers or employees. Since the advent of the computer has come along, I have been able to find the NTSB reports that were made for each of the incidences and/or accidents that occurred to Antilles during their history in the V.I.

However, most of the so-called “crashes” had happy endings, and were only incidences.

If I sound excited about all of this, it is because we have just signed our purchase agreement with Antilles Seaplanes, and have put our order in for the production of five brand new Grumman Gooses (not rebuilt) with all the modern building regulations, avionics and technology that 2006 has to offer. They will be the most comfortable and safe seaplanes available in decades.

We feel so confident about these seaplanes, that we are willing to put in our order now. It will take them about a year to tool up for the first production Goose; however, as I said before, we are working on two rebuilds that will help with the tooling process.

These planes will be available to us for planning, licensing, and can be used as our initial seaplanes, should the V.I. Port Authority decide to lease us the entrance of Enighed Pond.

History of the Goose
The Grumman Goose was the first in a long history of amphibious aircraft designed in 1937 for a unique role. Built in Bethpage, New York, the Goose was the perfect method of transport for Manhattan millionaires as flying yachts. The Goose was soon to be recognized beyond that of a weekend luxury flyer, and it rapidly it became the plane of choice for several air services.

Civilian models normally carried two to three passengers and had a bar and small toilet installed. Because of its amphibious nature, generous interior space, and rugged construction, the Goose can go just about anywhere.

The Goose caught on and was used for other duties, such as a Coast Guard rescue plane. In 1938, the U.S. military took a good look at the Goose. The Army Air Force Gooses were designated OA-9 (built for the Army) or OA-13A bought from civilian owners.

Gooses were used for general transport, search and rescue, anti-submarine warfare and other various duties. The Goose served with every branch of the U.S. military before and during World War II.

It also flew under international colors with Britain’s Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force and many others. Around 50 to 80 were eventually passed on to the Royal Navy and returned after the war. Grumman ceased production of the Goose with the last one coming off the line in August 1945. The total production was 345 planes.

The Goose is a high-wing monoplane. The Goose’s wing also serves as a mount for its two 450 hp Pratt & Whitney Wasp Jr. R-985-AN-6 radials engines as well as carrying its under-wing stabilizing floats. The Goose also has three retractable landing gears for amphibious use.

After the war, most were bought by civilians as passenger aircraft. To generate more revenue, many airlines put one passenger in the co-pilot seat making the capacity eight to nine passengers. Alaska Coastal-Ellis Airlines, based in Juneau and Ketchikan, Alaska, boasted the largest fleet of Goose in the western hemisphere with 17.

After Alaska Airlines bought them out in 1968, seven of them were bought by Charles Blair’s Antilles Airboats based in the U.S. Virgin Islands. They held the highest record for many years with 17 total.

In the mid 1960s, a large number of Gooses were later modified by McKinnon Enterprises’ powerful PT-6 turboprops, retractable floats and modern avionics installed, and have flown for many more years—most as private planes. The cost can be well over $500,000 today.

There are only about 50 or so known Gooses that are still flying around the world today and can be found in the Caribbean, Canada, Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and as far away as Croatia.

Only a handful of Gooses are in museums all over the world from Alaska, Colombia, Sweden and one has even made it in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

Goose in Pop Culture
The Goose has shared in the pop culture of the late 20th century by being immortalized in the television shows, “Tales of the Gold Monkey” as “Cutter’s Goose,” “Quantum Leap” and “Sea Hunt.” The Goose has made many appearances in movies from “Mister Roberts,” “Commando,” “Cry Vengeance,” “Forever Young,” and “Endless Summer II,” just to name a few.

Grumman also built the smaller Widgeon. The next step up from the Goose was the Mallard, and even the still larger Albatross, which also served in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard for many years after.

Aeronautical History
The lack of air transport is due to the topography and the park status of the island, which prevents the building of any regional airport due to a restricted airspace of two thousand feet. The only available runway is the waters facing Cruz Bay and Steven Cay.

In 1964, General Charles Blair, foreseeing the potential for passenger traffic in the Caribbean, invested in a navy surplus Grumman Goose seaplane and founded Antilles Airboats.

By 1977, he had a fleet of 23 amphibious aircraft, and was offering 120 flights per day to destinations throughout the Caribbean, and carrying more than 250,000 passengers a year. While billed as the largest seaplane airline, Antilles was also known as the street car line of the V.I.

After his death, his wife, the actress Maureen O’Hara, became the first female C.E.O. of an airline. She continued to run Antilles Airboats until 1989, when the fleet was lost to Hurricane Hugo. The lack of proper aircraft available forced the closure of this territorial airline.

It was soon followed by V.I. Seaplane Shuttle. The history of V.I. Seaplane Shuttle is not well known to me except by reading experts from the V.I. court system. Apparently, law suits between ‘the Shuttle’ and the V.I. Port Authority were constant. “The Shuttle” also regularly sued the members of the board and their directors.

After closing the ramps in use by the shuttle due to Hurricane Marilyn, the V.I. Port Authority used this opportunity to permanently close said ramps. Of course, V.I. Shuttle sued again and lost. Soon after this, the V.I. National Park closed its ramp on St John for good.

What is odd about this is that, in the late 90s, the VINP did a survey concerning the need for the park to have fixed goals and regulations that would enable it to grow within the island of St. John. Of the 50 suggestions submitted to the park by employees, businesses, and government officials, the reopening of the ‘seaplane ramp’ was listed as number three in order of importance.

Even though it looked obvious that the ramp was going to open up again, the VINP published its results in 2001 and somewhere in between had decided that seaplanes could not use its ramp or waters under the jurisdiction of VINP.

St. John Air Taxi Update
Since then, St. John Air Taxi has received the right from the Federal Aviation Administration to use the waters off of Cruz Bay and Enighed Pond as its take-off and landing “sea-lanes.” Two lanes have been approved, one runs from Moorhead Point on an angle out towards Great Cruz Bay, and the other is the space between Frank Bay and Steven Cay. Neither of these is under the jurisdiction of VINP.

In a survey conducted by St. John Air Taxi, we determined that apart from the VINP seaplane ramp, the least amount of environmental and public impact is through the now commercial port of Enighed Pond. Our application with V.I.P.A. is still pending—no approval or denial has been officially received.