Red Goose Blues – Part 1/3
Red Goose Blues, written by Dave Marion: Over the course of its first 40 years, Grumman G-21A serial no. 1054 was owned by some of the most well-known Goose operators in the United States. Completed in January 1939, it was initially registered as NC3055 and spent almost a year and a half with Gillies Aviation, the de-facto sales arm of Grumman on Long Island, NY. During that time, NC3055 served as a sales demonstrator and ventured far and wide, showing off the unique capabilities of the new Grumman amphibian to prospective customers. Its forays ranged from the wilds of Canada in the north to as far away as Cuba and the Bahamas in the south. While not roaming up and down the east coast of North America, it apparently spent time at the private Long Island Aviation Country Club near Hicksville, NY, of which both Roy Grumman and Bud Gillies were prominent members.
In July 1940, NC3055 was purchased by The Texas Company (aka Texaco) ironically listed with an address of 135 East 42nd Street, New York City, NY. The Goose was assigned Texaco fleet no. 34, re-painted almost all red with a white lightning bolt stripe down each side, a black hull below the waterline, and of course Texaco Star logos on each side of the fuselage. It was put into service supporting the company’s exploration and oil drilling activities around the southern coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico. After being sold by Texaco in November 1948, it spent less than a year with a fixed-base operator named Malcolm Hardy in Pennsylvania. In July 1949, Grumman bought it back in order to use it as a general company “hack” aircraft and for SAR duties in support of its own flight test activities in and around Long Island, NY.
In 1955, Grumman changed the N-number of the Goose from NC3055 to N704A as part of an effort to unify the registrations of all of the aircraft in the Grumman corporate fleet. Then in April 1960, Grumman finally sold it again – that time to Angus G. “Mac” McKinnon of McKinnon Enterprises Inc. in Sandy, OR, who had spent the previous seven years developing custom conversions of and modifications for Grumman Widgeon and Goose amphibians.
McKinnon actually flew his very first “new” model G-21C conversion from Oregon to the Grumman factory in Bethpage, Long Island to get N704A. That G-21C, N150M, was a former British model JRF-6B (c/n 1147) that had previously served with the Fish & Wildlife Service in Alaska as N709. McKinnon bought it in 1957 and essentially rebuilt it from the ground up with, among other modifications, four 340 hp Lycoming GSO-480 engines. In the process, he actually “zero-timed” it as a new aircraft under his own new type certificate no. 4A24. During the long trip across the country and back to pick up N704A in April 1960, he also showed it off to the folks at Grumman.
After returning to Sandy, OR with both aircraft, McKinnon set about modifying N704A as well, but to a much lesser degree. It received only one of his many supplemental type-certificated (STC) conversions for the Grumman G-21 series – STC no. SA4-682 for the installation of retractable wingtip floats. Once the modification was done almost exactly a year later, the aircraft was repainted and sold once again.
On April 29, 1961, it went to the Sun Oil Company (aka Sunoco) of 1608 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA and in conjunction with that sale, it was re-registered as N33S. In spite of the corporate registration suggesting otherwise, the Goose returned to the Gulf of Mexico coast, to be based in the New Orleans area in particular, once again to fly in support of oil drilling and exploration activities in that region.
After 5 years of operating it for themselves, in May 1966 Sunoco sold N33S to the Pan Air Corporation based at the New Orleans Lakefront Airport. Pan Air reportedly continued to operate the Goose still for the most part generally in support of drilling and exploration activities for various oil companies, including Sunoco and Gulf Oil as well. It spent just over 13 years with Pan Air in the New Orleans area.
In August 1979, Pan Air Corporation finally sold N33S to another new owner in Gainesville, FL. At that point, the quite respectable and legitimate service history of this Goose took some very bad turns. About a year after it was purchased by Goose Transport Inc., the Goose was involved in an accident at the Gainesville airport. On September 9, 1980, the pilot of a Beech E18S registered as N43L lost control of his apparently overloaded aircraft during take-off at 11:22 pm. The twin Beech swerved off the runway and ground-looped right into a row of parked aircraft, including Goose N33S.
While the Beech 18 was listed as “damage-destroyed” by the NTSB, the undated maintenance records for the Goose show that it suffered damage to its right wing and empennage. A local mechanic documented five pages of “major repairs” in the logbooks, but apparently in contrast with his notation in the actual logbooks, no requisite Form 337 was ever filed with the FAA and the mechanic later redacted his own signature as if to try to invalidate his “return to service” authorization. It is just speculation, but it possibly could have been due to a dispute over his bill or his realization of the kinds of illegal activities in which the Goose and its owners were apparently involved during that time period.
The logbook records show that the Goose’s entire outer right wing panel was replaced with an “overhauled” assembly obtained from Dean Franklin Aviation Enterprises in Miami. In conjunction with that work, the mechanic had to transfer the retractable wingtip float mechanism that had been installed 20 years earlier by McKinnon. He also had to recover the right aileron, the rudder, and both elevators with new Ceconite fabric, replace the elevator balance weight on the right side, repair the keel of the right balance float, repair the cap strip on the left wing center section lower spar, replace the support struts for both horizontal stabilizers, and replace both windshield panes as well. After all of that work, the Goose was repainted by Highland Aviation in Avon Park, FL.
In retrospect, other historical records show that Goose Transport Inc. was in fact an illegitimate front for a drug-smuggling operation that was funded by money laundered through various real estate businesses around Central Florida. Official records archived by the FAA in Oklahoma City show that the purchase of N33S from Pan Air by Goose Transport Inc. in August 1979 was funded by a chattel mortgage in the amount of $135,000 provided to company president and chief pilot, Richard Lynn “Rick” McPherron, by a vague corporate entity called Av-Investors Inc. that in turn was represented by a man named Robert McTeer. Those records also show that the financing deal was arranged and executed through an attorney in Gainesville named Stephen K. Johnson.
Testimony and other evidence later presented at a criminal trial starting in 1984 showed that the entire deal to buy the Goose was part of a master plan to transport marijuana and cocaine from Bolivia through Honduras, where the drugs were first loaded onto the seaplane, and then to import, distribute, and sell them in the U.S. Initially the intent was to sell the drugs throughout North and South Carolina as well, but the operation eventually focused just on central Florida.
On February 16, 1982, the drug-smuggling operation using N33S was literally picked up on radar and first came to the attention of various local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. On that night, the Goose was followed by agents from U.S. Customs and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) as it came across the Gulf of Mexico from then unknown points south and as it re-entered US airspace headed for Gainesville.
Unfortunately for the law enforcement officers involved, they lost track of the low-flying Goose for approximately 20 to 30 minutes during the flight. When they eventually confronted the crew and searched the airplane after it landed at Gainesville, it was empty and no evidence of any illegal activities was found at that time. They later learned from cooperating witnesses at a subsequent criminal trial that during the time contact was lost during the aerial pursuit, as pilot Rick McPherron flew the airplane low over a pre-arranged drop site, crew member Johnnie Dean Hall pushed out bundles of drugs amounting to some 1,000 lbs. of marijuana.
As lucky as they had been to get away with their illegal activities on the night of February 16th, the good luck of the drug smugglers operating N33S did not hold up. Almost nine months later, on November 9, 1982, pilot Rick McPherron and a different crew member reportedly named Robert Gilstrap made an unfortunate stop-over on a beach near Warree Bight in the Corozal district of northern Belize, about 3 miles east of the coastal fishing village of Sarteneja.
One report indicates that the crew made a rough landing in the open ocean off the coast and damaged the airplane, possibly rendering it un-flyable and stranding themselves. Testimony later given by a local police officer indicates that he heard the seaplane fly over and then went down the coast in a small boat to investigate. After sighting the airplane, he witnessed the crew jettisoning packages into the water, some of which he recovered and which later were revealed to be approximately 25 lbs. of “Indian Hemp” (i.e. marijuana) in each package. Although it did not take-off again, the seaplane eventually out-distanced the police launch and disappeared down the coast for a while.
On the alert because of the suspicious activities that had been reported in the area, another police officer later encountered a “white man” unknown to him at the one public phone booth in the fishing village of Sarteneja and asked him for identification. The man admitted to the police officer that he had been on the seaplane, that he had been stranded, and that he was calling his wife back in the United States for help. At that point, the police officer arrested pilot “Richard Lynn McFaren” on suspicion of drug smuggling, called for back-up, and had him escorted to the police station in town. (Although apparently misspelled in the official police affidavit, the name given by the pilot was phonetically identical to the name of the pilot who later went to trial in Florida, Rick McPherron.)
Afterward, the police searched for the seaplane again and found it and its other crew member in the Rock Point area. There they arrested Robert Gilstrap and searched the aircraft, finding additional “small packages of marijuana, dust and parciles and also some ammunitions and firearms (3 firearms.)” Upon returning to the police station in Sarteneja, both men were formally charged and “found guilty” of possession of dangerous drugs, which they adamantly denied, claiming instead that the only thing that they had thrown out of the airplane was diving gear which made it too heavy to take-off.
The two Americans refused to countersign envelopes containing samples of the marijuana prepared by the police for testing by the local chemist. They were then taken into court, formally charged for possession of 125 lbs. of illegal drugs and for “illegal entry into Belize”, fined various amounts for each alleged offence (“$105 each for Firearms and $105 each for Ammunition’s and $200 each for Marijuana found”) and then finally granted “bail” in the amount of $2,000*.
The aircraft was seized and towed back to the town dock and a court date of March 10, 1983 was set by the local magistrate. But of course by that time, the two Americans were long gone and never again seen in Belize. As a result, the Goose was deemed as forfeiture and became the property of the government of Belize on March 24, 1983.
In July 1983, two brothers, also coincidentally named Johnson, from Ft. White, FL near Gainesville, showed up in Belize and bought the forfeited seaplane from the government of Belize through its agent, Mr. C. L. B. Rogers, Minister of Defense and Home Affairs, for the sum of $20,000 Belize dollars. (*Currently, the exchange rate is $1 USD = 2 BZD so it may be that it cost the Johnson brothers as little as $10,000 USD to buy the forfeited aircraft and also that the bail paid by the alleged smugglers for that matter was equivalent to only $1,000 USD!)
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]nemagazine.com