Colonial Aircraft Corporation – The Early Years
Written by John Staber – During 1946 the Colonial Aircraft Corporation was formed by a few young engineers from Long Island, New York. The two leading people of this group were David B. Thurston and Herbert P. Lindblad, former classmates at the Guggenheim School of Aeronautics. Thurston was working for Grumman and Lindblad for Republic, who had been building the Seabee amphibian. They had built just over 1000 Seabees (at great financial loss) and ceased production, due to the expected boom in personal aircraft failing to emerge. Thurston and Lindblad, however, believed there was still a market for small personal single engine amphibians.
Thurston began drawing up plans for their amphibian using good ideas from various other large and small amphibians and many of his own, and the two began to build what was later to be called the XC-1 Skimmer. Much work was done in a garage somewhere near the Grumman factory and with Grumman employees in their spare time. By 1948 the team had a flyable aircraft. It incorporated a pusher engine and propeller mounted overhead the fuselage on a pylon, a mid-fuselage wing, and hydraulically retractable landing gear mounted in the wings giving it a wide footprint along with a nose wheel, as compared to a tail wheel. Many of the same practices for building fighter aircraft were used in the Skimmer’s construction making it a very sturdy aircraft which is needed in the water flying environment.
The Skimmer is of the flying boat category as compared to pontoon equipped planes which are converted from land planes. One alights on the water directly on the bottom of the fuselage which is shaped similar to the bottom of a boat. Light weight wing floats are attached to the bottom of the wing to keep the wings level when the amphibian is at rest or taxiing at slow speeds on the water. Needless to say, the “hull” must be watertight to prevent leakage and eventual submersion. The center of gravity must be carefully plotted for both boat use and aviation. There are many factors to be considered over and above building a “land only” aircraft.
While all this was going on, I was growing up in Bergen County, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City. I would have been 10 years old in 1948. I wasn’t introduced to aviation until 1963, when I bought my first Colonial Skimmer in 1964.
The photo below was taken during the first 25 hours of flight. This was determined by various modifications that were not yet made and is one of only two color photos from that era. She was given the registration number N6595K which she still has to this day. Several years of development followed. The original engine of 115 horsepower was replaced by a 135 horsepower Lycoming and finally in 1955 a 150 horsepower Lycoming. Many structural changes were made during this time for various reasons. During the Korean War things came to a standstill. However, in September of 1955 the company received a Type Certificate from the CAA allowing them to produce the Skimmer for sale to the public. At this point the company moved from Long Island to Sanford, Maine and set up a factory in an old woolen mill where they remained making amphibians through the turn of the century.
The small Colonial Aircraft Corporation went on to build a total of 23 C-1 Skimmers with 150 horsepower. Serial numbers 1 – 14, 16 – 20, 22 – 25 were built during 1956 and 1957. The configuration was for 3 people; two on a fixed bench seat and one sitting cross-wise behind. However, the actual useful load of the aircraft generally limited the seating to 2 with a full fuel load. While these were being built, work was going on to increase the horsepower to 180 and to reconfigure for 4 seats. This was done by eliminating the fixed front seat and installing two moveable seats and a bench seat behind. The control column in the C-1, which came up from the floor between the pilots legs, was changed to one that came out of the instrument panel. Serial number 15 was the aircraft used and its serial number was changed to 115 to indicate that it was a model C-2. Serial number 21 was also a C-2 and its number was 121. C-2 serial numbers were 115, 121, 126 – 143, and for the most part were built during 1958 and 1959. There is very little outward difference between the two models; just the shape and size of the engine pylon and the method of trimming out control pressures.
All Colonial Skimmers had a 34 foot wingspan and a nose wheel that protruded forward from the nose of the aircraft when retracted, to act as a dock bumper. Both incorporated “slotted” flaps about 15 feet long, which extended out and down to 20 degrees of deflection, especially effective at slow airspeeds. The fuel tank consisted of a rubber type bladder in a sealed aluminum box located under the engine pylon behind the cabin and could hold a maximum of 40 gallons. Since “gravity flow” was impossible in this configuration a small electric pump was used as a “back up” for the engine driven fuel pump. Both models used a hydraulic system to actuate the landing gear and the flaps, and on the C-2 only, the trim system. This consisted of a reservoir, an electric pump, a pressure switch, a hand pump (in case of electric pump failure), and an air-charged accumulator for fast landing gear operation. Each airplane has a “water rudder” that drops down from the airplane rudder for very positive turning at slow speeds while in the water. The “N” numbers ran pretty much consecutively from #2, N244B to #143, N284B except for a couple of Canadian registrations, 1 Australian, and 1 Guatemalan.
The photo below is of C-1, serial number 1, N6595K, taken by myself in 2012 and clearly shows the engine pylon, the nose wheel, the wing floats and the slotted flap. I restored her over the last 12 years (see my book “The Chronicle of Skimmer N6595K”) and the paint scheme used was similar to the original 1946 scheme with a little bit of artistic license and some patriotism.
The next photo below, shows C-1, serial number 18 in a typical factory paint scheme. Note the water rudder. A 1965 John Staber photo.
The third photo is a factory photo of C-2, serial number 115, N255B, over Miami Beach, Florida, a superb state in which to own an amphibian.
During the last few years one name appeared on many registrations as the first owner after Colonial Aircraft Corporation. This person was a test pilot for Grumman and was really intrigued with the little Skimmers. So much so that he would buy them, fly them around demonstrating them, sell them, and go back for another and repeat the whole thing over and over. As would happen in the future, the best salesman ends up owning the company. His name was Jack Strayer. It is believed to be him piloting in the above photo.
Towards the end of 1959 David Thurston decided to leave Colonial Aircraft to pursue other interests and Jack bought the rights to build the Skimmers. He had several ideas in mind regarding changes; one of which was a change of name. Enter the Lake (LA-4) Amphibian, and his company Lake Aircraft. Herbert Lindblad and Colonial Aircraft Corporation were to supply the aircraft for Strayer. Next was modification of a Skimmer (C-2 #121, now known as LA-4P; P for prototype). Both wings were lengthened about two feet, making the total span 38 feet. The nose was lengthened about 17 inches so that the nosewheel was enclosed when retracted. The existing 180 horsepower engine was retained.
All this resulted in 50 pounds more useful load and a bit more buoyancy in the nose area and less spray in rough water. A rubber bumper was installed to protect the nose. Two existing Skimmers kept the short nose, but had their wingspan increased and they were designated LA-4A models (serial number 244 and 245). With the exception of #121 the Lake LA-4 serial numbers were raised by 100 and ran consecutively through #1116. Sales started off well with three LA-4 shipped to Thailand and sales made to Skimmer owners who liked the extra performance. But it was not to be. During 1962 the doors were closed on Lake Aircraft. Meanwhile Colonial struggled on with Department of Defense contracts to make ends meet. Jack Strayer then worked for Pepsi as a “skywriter”. I can remember seeing “PEPSI” written in the sky more than once, not knowing the history behind the pilot. The next photo is of Lake LA-4, serial number 261, probably built in late 1960 and still in the factory paint job. My own opinion is that this “boomerang” look did not help to sell airplanes.
By this time, I was now 24 years old. My parents had moved from New Jersey to the bucolic town of Lakeville, in northwest Connecticut (named for its bodies of water, of course). I had followed in their footsteps and now worked for the local bank. I had no idea how apropos this would be. One day in late 1963 a good friend asked if I would be interested in a trip to the Great Barrington Airport over the border in Massachusetts, to see about learning how to fly. “Why not?” says I. We had both been up for a sightseeing flight before and he had had some ground school while in the service. Even on the sightseeing flight, I had not thought about the fact that I could do this. To make a long story short, we began lessons and after a few hours in the air it “became a disease”. I couldn’t get enough of it. I would leave the job at the bank, drive the half hour to the airport and take a lesson as often as I could. By December I had my Private Pilot License, and was itching to buy an airplane.
My first instructor, Peter Annis was also a mechanic in the shop. In his spare time he was repairing a damaged Colonial Skimmer (C-1, #14, N254B). We would talk about this project and about landing on the water and suddenly the light came on. This is what I should have. We found a newly refurbished Skimmer (C-1, #12, N252B), at Dayton, Ohio, took the train out, flew it home and then there were two at Great Barrington. Here they are in a rather washed out slide.
Peter taught me the principles of complex aircraft flying and I went on to fly her about 500 hours which included trips to the Midwest and Florida to view other Skimmers and meet their owners. During this time I wrote all the other owners of Skimmers and received many answers in return. I still do this today, 49 years later, and am still in touch with Peter keeping him abreast of Skimmer news.
This is part of a series of articles about the history of the Colonial Aircraft Company and the next installment comes out on Seaplanemagazine.com next week! I am considered the Colonial and Lake historian which prompted a compilation (on CD) of everything ever printed (and much more) about these fabulous amphibians from 1946 to 2016. Contact me via Email to obtain a copy of the book I have written, or the CD!