Colonial Aircraft Company – The Better Middle Years
Written by John Staber – I hope you have enjoyed Part 1 & Part 2 of these articles, as now, I will take you into the better middle years of the Colonial Aircraft Company. By this time in my story we have gotten up to 1968. Aerofab, Inc. was slowly building Lake Amphibians for Al Alson to sell.
I would occasionally fly out to the Elkhart Indiana area to deliver a brand new Lake from Sanford, just for the fun of it. This one time I flew number 384, N7611L and it was one of those planes that fly much better than the others. Shortly after, when I sold N2002L, I found that 11L was still available, so I bought her on the spot. Amazingly enough, I found a buyer for 11L within a few months and the trip was made again to bring home N7631L. At this point Aerofab had built just over 200 aircraft and each one was a hard sell, due to the fact that they were slightly under-powered, in fact just under-powered enough so that one could not carry 4 souls on board. Occasionally you would see someone do it – I did a few times – but on a hot day with a 90 degree crosswind, you had your hands full, sometimes using well over two miles to get off the water.
At around this point, Lycoming, builders of fine aircraft engines, introduced the 200 horsepower, fuel injected engine and Hartzell came out with a more efficient lightweight propeller. Alson wasted no time getting an installation approved for the Lake Amphibian. This resulted in a tremendous decrease in time-off-the-water, better rough water control, better climb rate, and the ability to carry 200 pounds more load. Of course, more horsepower meant more fuel usage. The 40 gallons that was fine for the Colonial Skimmer just wasn’t enough for the newly named “Buccaneer”. Fuel tanks in the wing floats became optional and made life a lot easier for the long haul Lake pilot.
At this time Alson ordered a non-amphibious, straight flying-boat to see if he could interest the dyed-in-the-wool float-plane buyers. Only one was made and sold. It had a huge useful load, due to not having any heavy landing gear and its related hydraulics. I still feel it was overshadowed by the Buccaneer which came out at the same time.
Lake Aircraft had just moved to Tomball Texas where they could sell planes all year long. Hooks Airport had a 2500ft long by 75 feet wide water ditch built to service the oil rig float-plane contingent. It was perfect for selling Lakes also. Aerofab asked me to deliver the Seaplane from Maine to Texas. I needed a bit of adventure as the summer was drawing to a close, so away I went making water landings only, via Rochester NY, Kalamazoo MI, Peoria IL, Memphis TN, Alexandria LA and finally on to Tomball TX, worrying all the way about landing (and stopping) on only 2500 feet of ditch. It was a piece of cake with no obstacles to fly over and I used way under half of the available length.
Al shortly thereafter asked me to come work for him there. I was hesitant to leave lovely New England, but as winter drew on, Texas became more appealing and in February of 1970 I attached a trailer to my 1968 Mustang convertible and headed for the Lone Star State. It was tough going what with heavy snow in Virginia and solid ice across Tennessee. The job was just OK and didn’t pay well and by June I had had it.
Besides which, I still owned N7631L, sitting idle, and N2015L which was leased to a flying club. Shortly after I got home the flying club damaged 15L, sending it to the bottom of a local lake. However, we got it up and out and had it running in about an hour and it was sent off to be repaired, which takes time and money. Money that I didn’t have, but the club was generous and saw that it was repaired properly. Meanwhile, I still had N7631L to fly, although it, too, sold within the year, leaving me “Lake-less”.
With the new-found performance of the Buccaneer, they started to sell well, not only in the USA, but in Canada, Australia, Brazil and many other exotic places around the world. Aerofab, with about 200 people on the payroll was producing about 4 aircraft per month. The 70s were good years for general aviation. In the mid 1970s one Armand Rivard, from New Hampshire became a dealer and proceeded to do it the correct way, with a nice sales office, a maintenance shop and instruction. It was not unusual to see 10 to 15 new Lakes parked around his hangar.
Al Alson, who was now involved with other things plus the sale of Lakes, decided to retire and sold the business to Armand in 1979. Armand closed the Texas operation and opened a new center in Kissimmee, Florida for sales, instruction and maintenance, complementing the Laconia, New Hampshire facility. Kissimmee was booming, like Houston was in 1970, and Florida was covered with usable seaplane landing sites.
Sales continued well and Aerofab continued to build amphibians. But shortly after the general aviation boom years came to a halt. There were many reasons, but product liability was probably the biggest. Now when one visited Laconia or Sanford, you would see 10 or 12 unpainted, unsold Lakes at both places. What to do?
The lovely Lake in the picture belongs to a local friend of mine and was taken at Brant Lake in the Adirondacks during a training session. It was built in 1981 during the slowdown mentioned above. In my last piece next week, we’ll take a look at the last 20 years of the company.
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!