“Do you have time this week for a flight in a 1952…”
“What time do you have ava……”
“I’ll make time available. Just grab me a seat!”
That’s pretty much the conversation I had prior to the 2015 APEX Expo, where Global Eagle subsidiary Row 44 had its Grumman Albatross on hand to give demo flights throughout the week. Naturally, when offered the chance to hop on board for one of the flights, I made it my business to be available.
Global Eagle is the in-flight internet provider to a few major airlines in the United States, including Southwest Airlines. While its satellite equipment is installed on hundreds of commercial aircraft, an aircraft it can call its own is necessary to constantly test the service and upcoming products. While our friends at Gogo now have a 737 to call their own, Global Eagle kind of went the other way on this one. Its test aircraft is this wonderful old Albatross. What better way to test the future of in-flight connectivity than with a half century old twin–radial engine amphibious flying boat?
Many of you are probably thinking to yourself “that’s crazy, why would they use that ancient plane!?” Well, there is actually a pretty good reason. Sitting on top of the Albatross is a satellite WiFi antenna encased in a large radome. The radome must sit perfectly on top of the fuselage to protect the sensitive satellite equipment. The top of the Albatross’ fuselage just happens to have the same curvature of a Boeing 737, making it an ideal test aircraft for a fraction of the ownership and operating costs. Also, it looks pretty damn sweet. Oh, and it freaks out local media, too.
Have you seen this huge seaplane on the Willamette? Where it's from is a mystery: http://t.co/lAe9GomjUt
— Teresa Blackman (@tblackmanKGW) September 30, 2015
This year’s APEX Expo was held in Portland, Oregon, and the Willamette River just happens to be right down the street from the convention center, giving Global Eagle the perfect opportunity to show off the Albatross. Along with a number of other journalists, I made my way to the river bank and onto a speedboat, and the Albatross was waiting for us, anchored in the middle of the Willamette.
With a portable generator on the roof acting as an APU (auxiliary power unit), I climbed on board and seemingly went back in time just a little bit. The cabin has been nicely refurbished with cushy leather seats and tables, and the ceiling is lined with all sorts of high-tech WiFi equipment. The flight deck is just as updated, with totally modern avionics on board. This aircraft from the 1950s has more tech on board than most commercial aircraft flying today.
For takeoff, I sat just behind the pilot up in the flight deck so I could get an unparalleled view. The two radial engines spun to life and we began our taxi (voyage?) to the center of the river for takeoff. Even with my noise canceling headphones on, the engine noise was incredible, but in the best possible way. Before long, we were at speed and slowly climbing to our cruising altitude of a whopping 700 feet.
After only a few minutes, we turned back towards downtown Portland and made our approach to land. Over high-tension power lines, under a bridge, and just like that we were once again a boat drifting on the river. There really is nothing else quite like it.