Flight Test

Wonderful Widgeon

Want to fly a 1946 classic? We head to Florida to fly the last Grumman Widgeon being used for multi-engine seaplane training…

The sun rose as I drove north along I4 towards Daytona Beach and Spruce Creek. The forecast for the day was for clear blue skies and calm winds – good news considering the mayhem and destruction being predicted later in the week. I was on my way to meet Chester Lawson. Some might call him an old sea dog, but I’m sticking with very experienced multi-engine seaplane instructor. Chester also has the unique advantage of being the only person training pilots on the Grumman Widgeon!

To actually get into Spruce Creek by car you need an invitation or appointment, and when you report to the 24-hour gated security you’re given a day pass for the car along with a set of printed directions that take you to your exact destination. It won’t come as a surprise to find that the road names have aviation themes, so it was first on the right after Tail Spin Trail then left into Chandelle Court, all the time trying to avoid leaving the road as I drove past garages and hangars full of aviation treasures.

Chester and I chat briefly about the plan for the morning before stepping through a door into his hangar (how cool is that?) which is pretty much dominated by his magnificent Grumman Widgeon G44A, seemingly hiding from the sun. We need to get some fuel from the self-serve pumps before meeting with everyone else, so before we rush off it’s time for a good pre-flight. I’m not going to waste words and space running through every item, and while a lot are common with anything from a C150 to a Cirrus SR22, there are a few more that are worthy of mention. It’s a seaplane, and as far as I can tell all seaplanes (or floats), regardless of their construction method seem to take on water, so there’s a bilge to check along with any water-specific safety kit (life-jackets are called life preservers in the USA). You also want to check that the drain plugs are in place – there are 19 in all, 13 in the hull and three for each wing float, and as the flaps and gear are run by an electrically driven hydraulic pump, you want to make sure there’s the right amount of hydraulic fluid too. Pre-flight complete, it’s time to jump in… Ah yes, getting in. Entry is through a door-come-hatch behind the wing. There’s no shortage of obvious, well-worn steps and handholds, but having been climbing in and out of LSAs previously, I was taking extra care when Chester said, “Don’t worry, it’s a Grumman Ironworks aeroplane, you can step anywhere and grab hold of pretty much anything!”

Once I’d climbed in, it was just a matter of making my way towards the front and the right-hand seat. Everything about this aeroplane says ‘bloody tough’, there’s probably more weight in the many, many rivets than there is in all the skins; the undercarriage looks as if would support something twice the size and the various levers… but I’ll get to them later.

Originally, Grumman fitted the Widgeon with a pair of inverted six-cylinder Ranger engines with 200hp per side, but somewhere along the way Chester’s Widgeon, N86638, was converted and had a pair of Continental O-470-M fitted, which added another 30hp per side while removing the complexity of the other aftermarket options, which included both radial and geared engines from Lycoming.  With both engines running at idle, we set out along Lindy Loop (a taxiway) for the pumps. The side windows on each side slide backwards, so while Chester concentrated on avoiding trees, golf carts, pedestrians and other aircraft, I sat there waving hello to residents pottering away in their hangar homes.

Fishing and flying

Tanks filled and everyone briefed, I jump in and try to focus while I absorb the details in the cockpit. The instrument panel is fairly familiar, but there’s a ceiling panel full of extra bits and pieces ahead of you, another control panel above and behind your head, gear position indicators behind each of the crew seats, a door ahead of the right seat rudder pedals that can be kicked open to reveal a passage to a hatch that opens on top of the nose to help with docking (not to be used in flight, so no Kate Winslet, “I’m flying, Jack” moments) and much of it seemingly festooned with heavyweight handles, levers and knobs. Ahead and in the middle of the ceiling are the throttles and prop controls, while on the upper rear control panel (that’s the one behind your head) you’ll find similarly styled levers for selecting and cross-feeding fuel tanks and for adjusting the mixture. There are curiosities like an automatic bilge pump switch, an anchor light and, right above the throttles, three mag switches – a set for each engine and a push/pull switch in the middle that cuts them all off with one quick pull (like the Kate Winslet hatch it’s best not to use this one in flight).

Unlike the fuel-injected engine in the Cessna 172 I’d been wrestling with, the carb’ed Continentals started easily and we taxied to the runway (after making sure the tailwheel was unlocked – that’s one of the levers in the ceiling). Steering is by rudder, a bit of differential power and differential braking (toe-brakes on the left-hand side only) – talking of brakes, there’s another knob sticking out from the floor on the left that looks a bit like a single heel brake, although it’s rarely used; this is the parking brake… I mean, why wouldn’t you put it there? This aeroplane was built four years before the word ergonomics had been officially accepted.

Lined up, the tailwheel gets locked and there’s a quick brief about speeds and actions in the event of an emergency, power increases, airspeed moves off the stop and the tail is brought up to what seems like a very nose-low attitude. Somewhere around 80mph we lift off, accelerate and climb away at about 100. Gear and flaps come up while the fuel pumps are turned off going through 500ft – Spruce Creek sits below the 1,200ft shelf of Daytona’s Class C, so we sneak away at low level towards a couple of lakes to the south. Remarkably, for a big bulky aeroplane (in piston GA terms) the Widgeon handles really nicely in the air; the roll rate is respectable, it’s stable in pitch and the control forces are nicely balanced, all of which means you can enjoy the experience of flying the classic without having to fight it around turns. But most people don’t buy Widgeons for the pleasure of flying them straight-and-level over long distances, most people buy them because the fuselage is a boat hull and you can go play on the water… remember I said that the weather was shaping up to be perfect? Well, it seems like we weren’t the only ones looking at the forecast and the first lake we’d planned to land on was full of fisherman in their boats, so a bit more general handling on the way to a larger lake, and although that too contained fishermen, there was more than enough water for everyone to share… imagine that, people having fun doing what they like doing without complaining about one another, it’ll never catch on.

A fan of GUMPFTS

While the lake was big it was also very calm, and very calm lakes make for very glassy water and in turn that makes depth perception extremely unreliable. So unreliable that many pilots of all sorts of aeroplanes have flown themselves straight into the water with disastrous and often fatal consequences, but on the upside it makes for great photos when you get it right, and happily there’s a technique to help with that. Chester’s a fan of GUMPFTS checks, so after a recce of the lake and landing area (I love that the French differentiate between atterrissage and amerissage… on land and water) we run through it while downwind: Gas on and Cross-feed off, Undercarriage up (lights, mirrors, hydraulic pressure and markers behind the seats confirm this – seaplane pilots are rightly paranoid about landing in water with the gear down or on land with the gear up) and then the normal mixture, props, flaps, trim and stick (position). It’s then a case of picking a ‘last visual reference point’, i.e. somewhere where depth perception isn’t a problem, and for us the lake shore came in handy. The approach is set up and going over the LVP, the pitch and power are set to give you a very gentle descent. From there you just hold that, resisting any temptation to adjust because you think you know where the surface is. Get it right and you feel the most gentle of arrivals. I say gentle, but to be clear, the act of a 5,400lb aeroplane meeting water at just under 80mph may feel gentle, but structurally it’s a challenge, more so if there are some half-decent waves, which will be doing their best to rearrange the shape of the hull.

Once on the water, the power comes gently off and the aeroplane slows to the step (about 50mph) and without power it will then slow to an eventual stop. The Widgeon has a relatively narrow trim band in the water and if you are outside this (because you are too nose-low for example) the hull will start to porpoise; it’s something that can happen on landing or take-off. I asked Chester about this aspect of the aeroplane’s personality. “The area for porpoising is narrower than most seaplanes but it’s no problem with proper training. It’s all how slow the pilot eases the nose down onto the step. After all, porpoising is caused by the pilot not by the plane.”

On the water you can either taxi in displacement mode (i.e. on idle power) or over long distances on the step – this is harder on the hull and takes a bit more skill; to keep you alert there’s also the possibility of aeroplane damage or even a capsize turning from downwind to upwind as centrifugal force and the wind could get together to spoil your day. Thanks to the wing float, pulling in alongside a dock is not really practical, so berthing straight ahead, beaching or climbing up a ramp is preferred.

Although you have to land with the gear up, once slowed and in the water the gear can be lowered to slow you down, make displacement taxying more controllable and to enable you to leave the water by driving up a ramp (we didn’t get a chance on this trip, but the seaplane lake at Tavares in Florida has a ramp and floatplane park right by a restaurant, one for the bucket list).

You’re taking off again? Pre-take-off checks follow the same GUMPFTS checks, with the S for stick position meaning fully back with right aileron, and right rudder to keep straight. Done correctly the aeroplane can be eased onto the step and allowed to accelerate and lift off.

Flying any kind of seaplane is fun, flying a chunky classic like the Widgeon even more so. Sadly, there’s little practical use for a seaplane rating, multi or single, in the UK. There aren’t many suitable aircraft and even if there were there’s not a great deal of suitable water (although Ireland’s a good option) – but that’s not really the point. Flying is about seeing the world from a different perspective, about challenging yourself, about learning and getting better, about experiencing something new from time to time and right now it’s possible for around about $500 an hour to fly a classic Grumman from 1946 while messing about on the water. That’s not a huge amount for the fun and training you’ll be getting.

Widgeon is the smallest of the Grumman amphibious twins

On the water you can either taxi in displacement mode (i.e. on idle power) or over long distances on the step – this is harder on the hull and takes a bit more skill; to keep you alert there’s also the possibility of aeroplane damage or even a capsize turning from downwind to upwind as centrifugal force and the wind could get together to spoil your day. Thanks to the wing float, pulling in alongside a dock is not really practical, so berthing straight ahead, beaching or climbing up a ramp is preferred.

Although you have to land with the gear up, once slowed and in the water the gear can be lowered to slow you down, make displacement taxying more controllable and to enable you to leave the water by driving up a ramp (we didn’t get a chance on this trip, but the seaplane lake at Tavares in Florida has a ramp and floatplane park right by a restaurant, one for the bucket list).

You’re taking off again? Pre-take-off checks follow the same GUMPFTS checks, with the S for stick position meaning fully back with right aileron, and right rudder to keep straight. Done correctly the aeroplane can be eased onto the step and allowed to accelerate and lift off.

Flying any kind of seaplane is fun, flying a chunky classic like the Widgeon even more so. Sadly, there’s little practical use for a seaplane rating, multi or single, in the UK. There aren’t many suitable aircraft and even if there were there’s not a great deal of suitable water (although Ireland’s a good option) – but that’s not really the point. Flying is about seeing the world from a different perspective, about challenging yourself, about learning and getting better, about experiencing something new from time to time and right now it’s possible for around about $500 an hour to fly a classic Grumman from 1946 while messing about on the water. That’s not a huge amount for the fun and training you’ll be getting.

The Iron Works

First manufactured in 1941, the Widgeon was the smallest of Grumman’s amphibians. At launch it was powered by a couple of in-line, six-cylinder Ranger engines with fixed-pitch wooden and then metal props – it’s said that the aeroplane wasn’t overburdened with power. Pacific Engineering developed a conversion that saw two 300hp Lycoming radials fitted, but according to folklore the extra horsepower did little more than increase the fuel burn. McKinnon developed another conversion using Lycoming GO-435s and GO-480s and McDermott offered a conversion to the non-geared 240hp Continental O-470M. The aircraft was used by several military forces (including the RAF) and a version was built under licence in France at La Rochelle.

The factory, in Bethpage, New York, was known as the Grumman Ironworks and, depending on which source you choose to believe, that was either because they built tough aeroplanes, or the factory’s structure was constructed with girders from an iron bridge or a decommissioned ship. Either way, 276 Widgeons were built in the US and a further 41 in France.

Tech Spec

Performance

Cruise speed 150mph
Rate of climb 700fpm
Range (30 min reserve) 900+ statute miles

Weights & loadings

Empty 3,816lb
Gross weight (land) 5,400lb
Gross weight (water) 4,700lb

Dimensions

Wingspan 40ft
Length 31ft 1in
Height 11ft 5in

Spec

Airframe Aluminium (very substantially rivetted…)
Engines 2 x Continental 0-470M
Max power 240hp
Propellers 2 x Three-blade McCauley constant-speed

Price

Good question! $250k-$350k
Gently stirring the mirror-finish lake
Leave a comment
Share

Leave a Reply

Share
Topics

We use cookies to give you the best online experience. Please let us know if you agree to all of these cookies.