With its massive radial engines, powerful stance, and seemingly indestructible aesthetic, the Grumman G-21 Goose is an aircraft that evokes more than an air of folklore.
A relic of World War II brute force engineering and design, the seaplane’s wide-ranging performance envelope and service capacity continues to be unique among airplanes today. Indeed, with only an estimated 30 still flying, there is something almost mythical about its hulking presence. Rare it is, to see one flying — rarer yet, the chance to actually fly one.
Yet, at the gates of the Alaskan Wilderness, on Lake Hood, the opportunity exists.
All one needs is a guide. Not only to help navigate the surrounding network of unoccupied waterways and mountains, but also to instruct on how to handle the characteristics of an airplane that, nearly a century on, is still hard pressed to find an equal.
That guide is Burke Mees.
With more than 21,000 hours of flight time, the Alaska Airlines captain and part-time CFI has been flying G-21s since shortly after relocating from Northern California in the mid-1990s.
It was in California while first instructing on floats that he realized that flying seaplanes was a niche that a young pilot could both build flight time and make a decent living.
After accepting a job offer “sight unseen” over the phone to fly floats in Juneau, it was just a few years later that Mees found himself piloting his first Grumman Goose as a Part 135 captain in the Aleutian Islands. There, in the rugged island chain, Mees says he learned just how good of an aircraft the Goose actually is, noting that the 1930s-era Grumman engineering team “just got it right.”
Putting the airplane through its paces on daily passenger and mail runs, a young Burke honed his flying skills dropping into remote strips and negotiating isolated sea covers where, he says, the aircraft thrives.
“It’s well suited to coastal conditions,” he emphasizes, adding that its strong points are on rough water and in windy conditions.
“It’s an honest living,” he says with a laugh.
He adds that while “fun” wasn’t the way he’d describe it, he did get a tremendous amount of satisfaction and experience from the job.
After transitioning to the airlines in 2001, Burke wasn’t without a Goose for very long.
Noticing a sparkling example docked at a local seaplane base, it was by happenstance that he introduced himself to the aircraft’s owner John Pletcher, also a commercially rated land and sea pilot, who had purchased the airplane and completed a full restoration just five years before.
Striking up a friendship over their mutual appreciation for the historic Grumman, Pletcher, in search of an experienced fellow pilot to help maintain and showcase the airplane, extended an invitation to Mees to join him as an frequent co-pilot and guest.
Initially, the duo flew the legendary airplane as sort of a “living museum,” but four years ago the combination of interest from fellow pilots, John’s intent to share the experience, and Burke’s willingness to teach led the pair to develop a multi-engine seaplane training course for those who wished to learn the finer points of piloting the Grumman.
“A lot of what we do is allow people to fly it for a day or a couple of hours, but we also offer, on a limited basis, multi-engine sea ratings,” he says.
And while it’s true that few will have the chance to fly a G-21 Goose in the wild, Mees assures that pilots of all skill levels will learn techniques that they can apply throughout the rest of their aviation career.
“I’ve got a good course and try to get them in good shape,” he says.
The experienced pilot and author of “Notes of a seaplane instructor” adds that the Goose is a very multi-faceted training platform.
“It’s a hull airplane, a multi-engine airplane, and a tailwheel land plane — a bit of a complex personality,” he says.
In part, it’s that complexity, says the pilot, that makes the Goose such an attraction.
“You get people from all over the place — professional guys, airline guys who just want to do something fun, private pilots and people from all different parts of the aviation spectrum, who just want to experience what it’s like to fly the Goose,” he says.
A fact that is re-enforced even at the airplane’s crowded home base, where the majestic Grumman still manages to turn heads.
“Lake Hood is kind of a special place to start with, but we feel like we’re able to contribute a little something to the area’s character,” he says.
What I Fly
It’s a 1944 Grumman Goose, with Pratt and Whitney 985s, the same engines you’d see on a deHavilland Beaver.
Why I Fly It
It’s probably my all-time favorite airplane. You know, it’s just one of those airplanes that is enjoyable to fly for its own sake. They got it right from the beginning.
How I Fly It
I’ve always flown it in association with some purpose: Either flying it commercially or now flying it to provide instruction.
If you’re flying commercially, remember that your role is to be the check and balance. Everyone wants to get something done, but you’re the one who has to make sure it is safe.
If you’re instructing, focus on serving your students, but realize your own abilities also benefit from flying the airplane through them.
And if you’re flying for yourself, use every flight to hone your edge and keep learning.