Musings on a Beaver and a Goose
Shamim Ehsanul Haque
|Grunman Goose on BFC tarmac.
In the beginning of 1984 Bangladesh Television (BTV) use to broadcast an American TV serial called “The Tales of the Gold Monkey”. This, now totally forgotten, TV series cut a deep impression on me. I eagerly awaited my weekly ration of this aerial action episode. Alas! Those were times when reality TV shows were unheard of and we preferred substance to froth, and children relished an evening show or sitcom with excitement and delight. The short-lived series ended before the year was over, but that must have been the beginning of my fling with aviation nostalgia. The TV serial featured a red and white amphibian aircraft; and the action aboard that aircraft unfolded in a thrill packed 1930s Pacific Island setting. The protagonist of the serial Jake Cutter was not only an extraordinary adventurer but also a fun loving, rough yet likeable character sporting a sardonic smile. He called his flying boat “Cutter's Goose”. It was awe-inspiring to watch Jake Cutter advancing the throttle of his 'Goose' and easing her into air while the bad guys' gunshots chased and buffeted his Goose! At the controls of his plane this pilot demonstrated extraordinary cool and insouciance: his peaked cap tilted at a rakish angle and his lips holding a cigar as the engines of this splendid aircraft deafeningly roared, spewed black smoke, in their wake fashioned great waves in the sea, and finally took to the skies. That flying boat was no less a hero than its 'tough guy' pilot. The cinematic portrayal of such un-blown cool have endeared droves of enthusiasts to aviation's Golden Age- the period between the two world wars when air-travel became a viable means of carrying cargo and passengers and propeller driven propulsion technology reached its maturity. The amphibian aircraft that Jake Cutter christened 'Cutter's Goose' is actually a Grumman Goose: an apposite exemplar of this era. In 1937 the aircraft made its maiden flight when it was developed by the US aircraft manufacturer Grumman in response to the requirements of a set of wealthy Long Island residents who wanted a flying boat to comfortably commute to New York from Long Island. The Grumman Goose like quite a few other aircrafts of its era proved to be a sturdy and versatile design. It saw service as a luxury airliner and also as a cargo carrier, eventually ending in military roles in several air forces of The Allies during the Second World War.
My next encounter with another 'true' flying machine did not happen on TV; but it droned over our neighborhood flying too low: the bright yellow 'Beaver' of the Bangladesh Government's Agriculture Expansion Department. In the eighties they flew over our rooftops on the extraordinary duty of repelling mosquitoes. These planes had to fly low so that aerial spraying could be effectively applied. I still remember the exposed engine cowling of this flying anachronism. The cylinder heads behind the arc of the propeller could easily be spotted as the pilot maneuvered this flying machine just a few hundred feet above us spraying insecticide. Hazardous as it were, these 'sorties' nevertheless left many like me curiously observing the aerial exercise!
Years passed and the aircrafts disappeared into oblivion in the inner recesses of memory.
I never expected to see both of them at the same place; and was literally taken aback when I found both the aircrafts sitting at a quiet corner of Zia International Airport, almost within hundred metres of each other. The Grumman Goose first. The sheer thrill of stumbling on my old amphibian friend became diffused when I took stock of the state in which this grand old bird sat on the edge of the tarmac. Alas it was in an advanced stage of dilapidation! One could clearly make out that it was a flying boat as the aircraft's fuselage remained intact but it had neither wings nor engines. The engine components were strewn about on the grass beyond the perimeter of the tarmac. Its landing gears and related apparatus lay in a tangled mess of wire, rubber tubes and steel frames and the propellers rested on various 'debris' that were mangled around the airframe. I guessed this must be one of the very few if not the only pre-world war II airframe in Bangladesh. On an outer wall of the Bangladesh Flying Club Hangar Complex reposed a wing of the Grumman Goose and you could tell these wings were unserviceable as the metal sheets that covered the wings were mostly missing, baring the frame of the wing. Close inspection of the aircraft led me to peek through the now opaque Plexiglas window of the cockpit. No instruments survived save the throttle mounted on the overhead console. The Goose wore the melancholy look of unrequited love. Yet it had certain nobility even in its decay. I wondered how many years of monsoon rain and westerly thunderstorms must have pummeled it and how the scorching heat baked its aluminum skins. Uncared for many years I wondered when was the last time it was airborne and what misfortune brought it to be marooned here to meet a slow and silent death.
The De Havilland Beavers (DHC 2) were luckier than the Grumman Goose flying boat. They were sheltered inside the Bangladesh Air force Maintenance Hangar that stood by the Flying Club. They were acquired during the late 50s and early 60s by the then Pakistan government for crop dusting purposes. Dubbed as the Land Rover of the skies, the De Havilland Beaver is one of the most robust airframes ever designed in this category. This aircraft is highly sought even today for its rugged design, versatility and great durability. It is one of the most successful bush planes and the Canadian plane had been a mainstay for serving the remote parts of Canada, which are mostly in wilderness. The Beaver is also noteworthy for it heavily lends itself to modifications and upgrading. The airframe proved to be remarkably efficient when retrofitted with turboprop engines and can outdo many modern contenders with greater service quality and reliability. The Beaver that originally sold for less than $50,000 in the 1950s can fetch up to $500,000 owing to these. Hollywood legend Harrison Ford owns a Beaver, and he celebrated the plane starring in the movie Six Days Seven Nights (where it is dominantly featured). These valuable aviation artifacts lay under a thick film of dust inside the hangar. Still painted bright yellow, one of the two aircrafts that lay there did not have any engine or wings. I could not be sure whether the custodians of the Beavers had any plans for them. The cockpit had consoles missing and it appeared some portions of one of the aircrafts had been cannibalized to keep the other in service. Conjecture alone cannot address all the questions but the actuality remained that the Beavers were just as vulnerable as the Goose from wingtip to wingtip and could wither away one day just as quietly.
Could there be much point in rescuing these aircrafts? The answer must be considered from the standpoint of trying and acknowledging an aviation heritage of a country. However rudimentary and dispensable, these are part of our aviation heritage. They give us a chance to construct our aviation heritage and consider the history.
We can trace the beginning of flying, aviation and the contribution that aviation made to our lives from a typically national purview. There is recorded history of how 'Muktibahini Air force'- an air force summarily formed by Bengali pilots of ex PIA and PAF with a Douglas DC 3 (Dakota), a De Havilland Otter and an old French Alouette helicopter- supported the ground battles of the freedom fighters. They flew quite a few successful sorties bombing and damaging enemy establishments. I wonder how livelier and memorable it would all seem if we could gaze at the actual airplanes (in a hangar) that had seen such action. Superseded technology is also a phenomenon of great curiosity for it shows us how the past had been, and how technology has evolved. The sharp edge of the newest and most complex of aviation we get to experience through modern jets, dazzling airport terminals and satellite navigation will never allow us to pay due homage to what preceded them unless we get to experience the history. And one way of experiencing that history is to stand before a great old bird like the Grumman Goose and have a reverie about the adventures the amphibian must have seen. If we had a museum of historic aircrafts and aviation artifacts many a future aviator would gain inspiration to think about the future of aviation in this country. It would be a great education on technology, heritage and the queer intricacies and romance with which great technology often begin and evolve. It is not too much to ask if we think of the Goose and the Beaver as a possible starting point.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009