The Sun News

WINDHAM: Behind the Scenes: The Albatross

One of the first planes added to the Museum of Aviation’s collection was the HU-16, which was nicknamed the Albatross. That was in 1983. The plane sat outside and weathered until recently when it was moved into the restoration area of the Scott Hangar. Now the museum’s plane can get the attention it deserves.

The history of Grumman’s HU-16 airplanes is an interesting one as it flew for the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard. The amphibious planes were used for search and rescue and they were also used in some combat search and rescue. Other missions were for utility, observation and special duty purposes. In addition to being known as Albatross, other nicknames were Duckbutt, Dumbo and Goat.

When you think of an albatross you think of the large sea bird. The plane and the bird have been compared to one another as in this description by retired Capt. Eric Krietemeyer, U.S. Coast Guard. “Those of us who have pinned on the ‘Wings of Gold’ as Coast Guard aviators have come to know and love a slightly different version of the bird. Its characteristics, both on and off the water, are very similar.

“Both live near the water and spend countless hours searching above the oceans for their livelihood. On the water they are both ungainly and not highly maneuverable. When taking off, they skitter across the surface, straining for the airspeed required to become airborne until, just at the right moment, they break the surface tension and laboriously claw the air for altitude. Once airborne however, they can fly effortlessly for hours on their mission, returning only for rest and nourishment when required.”

The HU-16 is a big aircraft, but it can go where other planes cannot. It can land on snow, ice, water and land. The versatility of the plane in all these situations made it invaluable in the Korean War, Vietnam War and the Cold War. Many of the rescues were downed pilots and their crews.

In 1947, the first prototype of the aircraft was flown. The United States Air Force was very interested in a search and rescue plane and was the main user of the Albatross, The models the Air force received were designated as SA-16As. Fifteen years later in 1962, the USAF changed the designation to HU-16. There were 466 planes of this type built in total. They were produced from 1949-1961.

According to the National Museum of the USAF, “During the Korean War, Albatrosses rescued almost 1,000 United Nations personnel from coastal waters and rivers, often behind enemy lines. They also made numerous dramatic and hazardous rescues in Southeast Asia, on occasion taxiing many miles over rough, open water when unable to takeoff.”

From September through December 1965 was the heyday of the HU-16 in Vietnam. It is said that the HU-16 crews landed their planes 13 times in the Gulf of Tonkin during this time span.

For the Air Force, the HU-16 was one of the planes used by the Air Rescue Service, later called the Aerospace Rescue and Recovery Service. The motto of the ARS and ARRS was “These things we do that others might live.” The Albatross saved an unknown number of lives, sometimes behind enemy lines as each mission presented difficult environments in which the crew of the plane had to “get in and get out” without being hurt or killed themselves.

The final flight of the HU-16 for the Air Force was in 1973 when it was delivered to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Ohio. The Navy’s HU-16 last flew to the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida. The Coast Guard’s last HU-16 flight was in 1983.

In 1997 there was an Albatross that was the first plane of its kind to circumnavigate the world. It took 73 days and 190 hours of flight time to complete.

The Museum of Aviation’s plane was delivered to the Air Force in 1954. It flew many missions during the Vietnam War. The only thing that is not clear is how many combat search and rescue missions our airplane flew in Vietnam. It was retired from service in 1973 and made its way to the museum a decade later.

All the program management and logistics support for the HU-16s while in service for the Air Force was at Warner Robins Air Logistics Center.

Marilyn N. Windham is a volunteer at the Museum of Aviation. Her e-mail is