The History of the Aleutian Goose – Part 3

AleutianImage: From File

The History of the Aleutian Goose – Part 3

Aleutian

By David H. Marion – On December 29, 1992, a Bill of Sale was signed by Alf Aanensen, Chief of the Contracting Branch of the Office of Aircraft Services transferring ownership of “Grumman Goose” N780 to Terry J. Kohler of Sheboygan, Wisconsin “for and in consideration of $305,000.” Contrary to that official record, Jerry Lawhorn later recounted during his 1999 interviews that he thought that OAS completely overhauled the aircraft just prior to it being sold and that they got $600,000 for it when it was sold. Maybe just like everything else related to the aircraft, the official record differed from reality. In any case, as he also noted, the new owner wanted to use it to take charters to a fishing lodge in Canada and later to one he had in Chile in South America as well.

The Aleutian Goose while still carrying Chilean registration CC-CTG also showing the unique extended dorsal fairing enclosing new control cable routing to the empennage.

In September 1993, the new owner (Kohler) had the registration changed from N780 to N92MT. Then from September 1994 until November 1995, Kohler took the aircraft down to Chile where he had it placed on the civil registry there as CC-CTG registered to owner TerryAir Chile Inc. After being brought back to the U. S. during the winter of 1995-1996, the Aleutian Goose was formally re-registered in the US as N86MT. The records from the FAA archives in Oklahoma City suggest that it must have had a rough time while it was in Chile; it was taken first to southern California, to a company called Advanced Synergy Technologies Inc. in its old home-away-from-home, Van Nuys, CA, where it seems to have spent several months during the first half of 1996 undergoing major repairs and upgrades.

In May 1996, several new FAA Forms 337 were filed to cover major repairs to the empennage and major alterations to the landing gear, wheels and brakes. As a U. S. Navy JRF-5, N780 had been originally equipped with Hayes wheels and brakes. During its conversion nominally per McKinnon standards for a gross weight increase to 12,500 lbs. it had been re-equipped with Goodyear wheels and brakes exactly the same of those used on the Grumman G-73 Mallard series just as was originally approved for other Grumman G-21 series aircraft per Grumman Service Bulletin no. 23. In May 1996, it was re-equipped with Cleveland wheels and brakes approved for use on the Grumman G-73 Mallard as well by means of conversion kit part no. 119-113 and STC no. SA651GL. A field approval was granted for the use of the Cleveland STC for the Mallard on the Aleutian Goose on the basis of a similar field approval granted previously for the same conversion on Pen Air’s McKinnon Turbo Goose, N660PA, (serial no. 1203) in Anchorage a couple of years earlier.

Continued Wildlife Missions

While Kohler owned it, the Goose was used for another unique mission that harkened back to its original mission for FWS in Alaska. In addition to being an avid outdoor sportsman, sailor, and fisherman, and of course pilot, Kohler and his second wife were generous supporters of various wildlife conservation efforts, including the International Crane Foundation (ICF) based in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Kohler arranged sponsorships through one of his companies, Windway Capital Corp. not only to fund but to provide direct logistical support using his aircraft as well to ICF efforts to establish new colonies of endangered whooping cranes. Young birds hatched in captivity in Wisconsin were air-lifted to a wildlife refuge in Florida. In November 1996, after making seven or eight previous trips carrying cranes in other aircraft, Kohler fittingly used the Aleutian Goose to carry ten, 6-month old, young whooping cranes to a new home as part of a continuing effort to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.

In June 1998, Kohler sold N86MT to businessman and financier James R. “Jim” Wikert of Dallas, Texas; the nominal new owner was one of his companies, JRW Aviation Inc. Wikert apparently had plans for the airplane not unlike Kohler’s had been – to use it as the ultimate wilderness recreational vehicle. Unlike Kohler however, Mr. Wikert liked to do his fishing and hunting in Alaska and so the airplane went back “home” again. In order to get checked out to fly the one-of-a-kind turbine Goose, Wikert got in touch with one of the most qualified pilots he could find who had experience in the airplane – Terry Smith. As mentioned previously, Smith eventually bought a 40% share of ownership in the aircraft in August 1999 and as a result it was re-registered to a new corporate entity formed by the partners as Aircorp III Inc. Then in April 2001, the aircraft registration was changed from N86MT to its final guise as N221AG. The Aleutian Goose remained in Alaska being flown by Wikert and Smith for almost another nine years afterward. After Terry Smith died in the crash of the corporate DHC-3T Turbo Otter, N455A, in August 2010, surviving partner Jim Wikert sold the airplane to another Dallas area resident, Landon Studer, in December 2010.

Last Owner

One of the last modifications done to the Aleutian Goose was the installation of a “glass cockpit” and a new interior (Photo courtesy of Bryan Ribbans – www.seawings.co.uk)

Studer had grown up in an aviation family and had served in the U. S. Air Force. After leaving active duty, he joined the U. S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in Texas and the Commemorative Air Force as well, even serving one year-long term as commanding officer of their premier B-24/B-29 Squadron based in Midland, TX.

By all accounts Landon Studer was quite an accomplished pilot despite his still relatively young age – he was only 26 years old when he bought the Aleutian Goose. Studer had the airplane re-registered to his newly-formed, aviation consulting and acquisition company, Triple S Aviation in Addison, Texas and then he had it flown directly from Alaska to Executive Aircraft Maintenance (EAM) in Scottsdale, Arizona. EAM was founded in 2002 by former Honeywell employees and is considered one of the premier TPE331 overhaul shops in the world. The airplane spent almost 6 months in Scottsdale while its almost unique and originally custom-built TPE331-2UA-203D engines were overhauled and re-installed.

On May 31, 2010, the Aleutian Goose was flown from Scottsdale, Arizona to Dallas Executive Airport (KRBD) where it was taken to AAT Aircraft Maintenance in order to have some additional work done on the airframe. In particular, the interior and cabin seats were completely re-upholstered. During its time at AAT, Studer was apparently also interested in exploring the possibility of installing a new Freon air conditioning system in the airplane. It had never needed anything like air conditioning while it was based n Alaska, but which he figured it could use where he planned to take it. However, since it would have required a whole new STC certification program and a significant amount of time, the plans for the air conditioning system were dropped.

International Adventure

Studer’s plans for the airplane were much different than any previous owner’s and he was also in a hurry. Studer’s company, Triple S Aviation, had recently opened a new office in the Dubai Airport Free Trade Zone in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and he had plans as well to show off the recently refurbished airplane as a prototype for a whole new line of similar aircraft to be built for emerging markets for foreign, military, paramilitary, and non-governmental organization (NGO) customers.

Owner Landon Studer of Dallas, TX

A couple of years earlier, Studer had talked to Antilles Seaplanes LLC of Gibsonville, NC about becoming a distributor for their new “Antilles” G-21G Super Goose aircraft. Atlantic Coast Seaplanes LLC, doing business as Antilles Seaplanes, had bought the McKinnon type certificate (4A24) from a previous owner in 2007. Antilles planned to resurrect the design and establish new production of the type and by buying the TC had obtained exclusive legal right to do so. Antilles’ project however essentially collapsed as a result of the worldwide economic downturn that started in 2008 and shut down all of its operations in June 2009 after its primary backers were unable to continue to fund the company.

After buying the Aleutian Goose in December 2009, Studer apparently figured that he could use it as a different way to tap into the same international market that Antilles had seen for new “McKinnon” G-21G turbine-powered amphibians. In spite of the fact that he did not own the design rights, did not even in fact have in his possession a complete set of engineering drawings and related data, Studer started making plans to build new copies of the Aleutian Goose. He set up a new Triple S Aviation Web site for Aleutian Goose and printed up color brochures extolling its unique virtues – incongruously describing it as a “G-21G Grumman Aleutian Goose” but also showing photos of the two, actual yet obviously different, legacy (old) McKinnon G-21G aircraft too.

Studer also made plans to demonstrate the aircraft directly to potential international customers. On July 15, 2010, the Aleutian Goose left Dallas, TX headed for the iconic Farnborough Airshow in England. The next day, it left the United States for the last time, headed across the eastern end of Canada to Greenland and on to Iceland and then the UK. After its well-documented visit to Farnborough, Studer apparently took the Aleutian Goose across Europe and made a brief visit to picturesque Lake Como in Italy. After that, he continued with it on to the Middle East and the other Triple S Aviation corporate offices in UAE. Once in UAE, for logistical reasons, the aircraft was eventually based at the Al Ain International Airport in Abu Dhabi instead of the main one in Dubai.

The Aleutian Goose on approach to Farnborough in July 2010

Not so well-documented is what transpired with the aircraft over the next 5 months. The Aleutian Goose seems to have just been parked in a hangar at Al Ain for most if not all of that time. At least no hard evidence of particular activity with the aircraft was uncovered during the subsequent formal investigation. In February 2011, Studer was rumored to have found another potential buyer for the airplane, ironically all the way back in the United States, and started making plans to ferry it home once again. On February 27, 2011, three days after his own 28th birthday, Studer and three others climbed aboard the airplane planning to depart Al Ain for the first leg of a long journey back home via the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, crossing the Atlantic via the Canary Islands to Brazil, and transiting Central America and Mexico all the way back up to Texas.

The Fatal Crash

The trip was supposed to take about a week and they expected to be back in the Dallas area by the 6th of March, but they never made it out of the Al Ain Airport. On take-off, the airplane made an unexplained sharp roll to the left, lost altitude rapidly, crashed into and cart-wheeled along the parallel taxiway, and exploded into a fireball. Everybody on board was killed instantly and the airplane was completely destroyed. Killed in the crash were the pilot/owner, Landon C. Studer, 28, along with his friend, Joshua Hucklebridge, also 28, who worked for Triple S Aviation in the capacity of International Project Manager. Also killed were seaplane expert and long-time American Airlines captain Chuck Kimes, 63, of Lake Tahoe, NV, who was thought to have been acting as co-pilot, and his own friend, Tyler Orsow, who was a seaplane-rated pilot too and came from Angel’s Camp, CA. The day of the crash was actually Orsow’s 25th birthday.

It typically takes civil aviation authorities about a year to conduct a formal investigation of an airplane accident and to issue a final report. In the case of the Aleutian Goose, a final report was not issued by the General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) of the UAE until November 2013, more than two and half years after the fact. Part of the extra time it took may have been the result of the fact that efforts had to be coordinated internationally between the GCAA in the Middle East and the FAA, NTSB, and various original equipment manufacturers (OEM) such as Honeywell and Hartzell in the United States. It also may have been, as the final reports suggests, because there was so little hard evidence remaining to explain what exactly happened.

Testing and analysis of the engines and propellers indicated that they were working and developing full power at the time of the accident. Much attention was also given to the fact that an auxiliary fuel bladder or “ferry tank” had been installed in the main cabin to be used on the long trip back to the United States, but there was no evidence after the crash that it has been filled with fuel prior to what would have been a relatively short first leg to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Some consideration was also given to the issue of weight and balance. With the ferry tank installed in addition to personal baggage and cargo that witnesses said had been loaded, there was some concern that the center of gravity may have been unusually far aft, although not necessarily out of approved limits. An aft-biased center of gravity however can be significant because it reduces the inherent stability of an aircraft and can make it more difficult to control, but such a condition could not be verified in this case.

Similarly, there were some questions regarding the amount of fuel that was put on board just prior to the attempted flight. Records showed that much less fuel was loaded than had been requested by the pilot and there was some official speculation that had been because the aircraft retained more fuel from its previous operation than had been realized. If that was the case, it was deemed possible and even likely that the aircraft was refueled to its maximum capacity and as a result may have been as much as 200 lbs. in excess of its certified maximum take-off weight.

Findings of the Investigation

Josh Hucklebridge

In the final analysis, most of the attention and blame for the crash was focused on the pilot in command, the owner, Landon Studer. Although the airplane had logged about 73 hours in service since the engines and propellers had been overhauled the year before, only about 50 of that was at the hands of the owner. He also had not had any recent experience in the airplane as required by FAA regulations and he apparently had not performed or logged the minimum of three take-offs and landings in the type in the past 6 months that is required before flying with passengers in the aircraft.

According to copies of his own logbooks provided to the investigation, except for a couple of flights as part of a larger crew on a Consolidated B-24 “Liberator” (presumably CAF’s “Diamond Lil”) most of Studer’s recent experience was in much smaller aircraft such as a Mooney, a Beech QU-22B (an ex-military surveillance variant of a Bonanza) a Piper PA-31 Navajo, and a Beech 55 Baron, all of which were significantly smaller and lighter than the Aleutian Goose, handled much differently, and were not similarly powered by turbine engines.

Most significantly, investigators could theorize no logical explanation for why so soon after breaking ground during the take-off the pilot banked the aircraft into what was an unusually low and steep turn. He had previously informed local air traffic control that he planned to make one complete circuit of the airport traffic area after take-off in order to assess its handling and performance prior to departing the area heading for Riyadh. According to the analysis of eyewitness reports and radar data, the GCAA determined that the aircraft rotated from the runway after a ground roll of approximately 1,000 meters and that the critical left turn was initiated at only 300 feet AGL and an airspeed of about 130 knots. It didn’t even make it as far as the control tower halfway down the runway.

Presumably due to deceleration in the turn, the airspeed at the time of impact with the ground was calculated to have dropped to only 97 knots. The calculations were based on the spacing of impact scars on the taxiway where the airplane crashed and rotational speed of the engines and propellers under full take-off power. The judgment of the investigative authority was that the turn was too steep, too slow, and too low and that it resulted in an accelerated stall and an “un-survivable” loss of control.

The accident investigators computed several different performance models for the airplane using different possible weight configurations since its exact take-off weight was not known with any certainty. They determined as well that the airplane’s stall speed at gross weight would have been only about 83.5 knots in a take-off configuration (wheels and flaps down) as long as it was flying straight and level. They also determined that at those same weights it would have stalled too at 90 knots in a bank that exceeded 22 degrees or even at 130 knots in a bank that exceeded 50 degrees.

The investigation concluded that the fatal steep left turn was executed because of an ill-advised and unnecessary sense of urgency on the part of the pilot to make up for delays in his planned schedule. The take-off had been delayed or postponed three times during the course of the afternoon while the crew waited for fueling to be done and the auxiliary fuel “ferry” tank to be installed. Instead of departing by 6:00 PM local time (1400 UTC) as originally planned, the fateful take-off was delayed until 8:07 PM local time. The final accident report referred to the pilot’s sense of urgency as an example of the “hurry-up syndrome” but it is also more commonly known in aviation circles as “get-home-itis.”

Official Verdict

The final judgment of the GCAA accident investigation team was that the pilot in command (PIC) was guilty of a “lapse in judgment” and “failure to exercise due diligence” when he made the fatally unnecessary turn using too much bank angle and not enough altitude or airspeed. While the GCAA investigation made note of the fact that the certification history of the aircraft was not only unusual and seemingly incomplete, even possibly not valid, it determined as well that fact was in no way a causal factor in the crash itself. They also determined that there was no evidence of any “pre-existing aircraft structural or mechanical anomalies that could have contributed to the accident.”

Tyler Orsow and Chuck Kimes

The crash of the Aleutian Goose on February 27, 2011 was tragic beyond any meaningful kind of measure because of the unfortunate and unnecessary loss of life. The people who were killed had already contributed so much not only to their families and friends but to the larger aviation community as well. Even more significantly, there was every reason to believe that they had so much more yet to contribute in the future as well. The loss of each of them had a profound effect on many people directly and continues to affect others who never knew them or maybe know only a little bit about their story. In memory of Tyler Orsow and Chuck Kimes in particular, the Seaplane Pilots Association created a seaplane training scholarship fund to help young pilots learn to fly seaplanes and carry on the legacy of which they were such a meaningful part.

The following table shows a direct comparison of “realMcKinnon model G-21G aircraft built and certified as such actually by McKinnon Enterprises Inc. of Sandy, Oregon and the Aleutian Goose, which was designed and built actually by the Fish & Wildlife Service in Anchorage, Alaska. Note the number of ways they were alike versus the number of ways that they differed.

Comparison of Features – McKinnon G-21G vs. Aleutian Goose

Feature

McKinnon G-21G

Aleutian Goose

FAA-approved Master Drawing List (MDL)

MPD-90995

MPD-BWL-001

Engines (2 ea.)

680 shp Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-27   “Free” Turbines

715 shp Garrett TPE331-2UA-203D Fixed-Shaft Turbines

Propellers (2 ea.)

Hartzell HC-B3TN-3 / T10178HB 96 in. diam.

Hartzell HC-BTN-5 / T10282HRB 96 in. diam.

40-inch Cockpit extension in front of Main Landing Gear

No

Yes

Alvarez-Calderon “Clean Wing” with canted engine nacelles

Yes

Yes

STC SA4-678 Fiberglass “radar” nose cone

Yes

No

Grumman “stock” metal nose cone

No

Yes

STC SA4-680 1-pc “wrap-around” windshield

Yes

No

Custom split panel “tour bus” windshield

No

Yes

STC SA4-681 extended dorsal fin

Yes

No

Custom, full-length, extended dorsal fin with re-routed flight control cables

No

Yes

Aero Commander floor-mounted control yokes

No

Yes

STC SA4-682 retractable wingtip floats

Yes

Yes

Total Fuel Capacity (US Gallons)

586

708

Custom “belly” fuel tank between Hull Stations 13 – 16

No

Yes

STC SA4-1109 Outer Wing Panel “Metalization” aft of secondary spar

Yes

No

STC SA467AL Wing Panel “Metalizing”

No

Yes

STC SA4-1550 Wing Leading Edge Landing Lights

Yes

No

Custom Forward Fuselage-mounted Landing Lights & supplementary Navigation Lights

No

Yes

Navigation Lights on Wingtip Floats

Single, Bow-mounted

Dual, Lower Hull-mounted

STC SA4-1551 Electric Landing Gear Retraction System

Yes

No

STC SA514AL Hydraulic System for Landing Gear and Wing Flaps

No

Yes

STC SA101WE Enlarged “Picture” type Main Cabin Windows

Yes

No

STC SA2809WE Custom Main Cabin Windows

No

Yes

Tailwheel Lowered 5 inches

No

Yes

STC SA355WE Hull Suction Vents

Optional

No

STC SA2809WE Custom Hull Suction Vents

No

Yes

Maximum Certified Gross Take-off Weight

12,500 lbs.

12,500 lbs.

Basic Empty Weight

7,000 lbs.

8,000 lbs.*

Built (Converted) & type certified under FAR Part 21 actually by McKinnon in Oregon

Yes

No

Built (Converted) without proper type certification of any kind actually by FWS in Alaska

No

Yes

(*According to the GCAA final report of the investigation of the crash of N221AG on February 27, 2011, the empty weight of the aircraft as listed in maintenance records was 7,980.64 lbs.)

Final Thoughts

On the basis of this direct comparison, it seems obvious to the author that in this case too, the threshold of 14 CFR §21.19 should have been reached and even exceeded in the case of the “G-21FAleutian Goose to trigger a requirement for full, new type certification instead of it being treating it as a “McKinnon G-21G” supposedly modified by means of STC no. SA2809WE.  The number and degree of changes made to it by the Fish & Wildlife Service compared to its nominal type identification are certainly at least as extensive if not more so than the earlier alterations developed by McKinnon to convert legacy Grumman G-21A aircraft to his own new model G-21C, G-21D, G-21E, and G-21G designs under Type Certificate no. 4A24.

It seems obvious from the historical record as well that the FAA did find “that the proposed change in design, power, thrust, or weight is so extensive that a substantially complete investigation of compliance with the applicable regulations is required.”  After all, during the course of project, FWS and FAA conducted two complete and separate, major flight test programs to “show compliance with the FARs” totalling over 1,600 hours of experimental flight time.

This far down the road, however, it is impossible to discern the reasons why full, new type re-certification was not done in this case.  Was it bureaucratic incompetence on one hand – that those in the FAA overseeing the project were too near-sighted to evaluate it fully, properly, and objectively?  Or was it on the other hand a matter of undue professional courtesy between Federal governmental agencies – that the FAA gave preferential treatment to FWS, OAS, and the USDI for a project so large and extensive that it would tied up any private or commercial operator in a mountain of red tape?  That much it is hard to say.

Dave Marion is the Technical Content Editor at Seaplanemagazine.com. As A&P and IA with 29 years of experience in aircraft maintenance, he is also a Commercial Pilot with Airplane, Single & Multi-Engine, and Instrument ratings. He has a BA from Colgate University in 1984 and also graduated cum laude from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (DAB) with a BS in Aviation Technology in 1990. He can be reached along with all of the editors via E-Mail: [email protected]