Seabee - My First Love!

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Seabee N6526K (s/n 792)
Photo: courtesy Keith Hiebert

The log book entry says December 25 1956 (Wrangell to Graveyard Bay - wrecked on takeoff). The story of that day starts in the Wrangell, Alaska, harbor. The wind is blowing from the south and outside of the protection of the breakwater the waves are rolling too high to fly a plane into. The Wrangell harbor is a small bay exposed to the north with a short jetty of rock sealing off the west part of its entrance to help keep out the swells that build from the winds that blow from the south, west & north.

The Seabee taxies out to the relative calm of the outside of the harbor intending on making the takeoff run across the mouth of the harbor, along the jetty and being airborne just before the large swells rolling out of the south. To the pilot the takeoff run is plenty of room but something is not going to work in his favor today, but he does not know that yet.  As the plane gets on the step the smooth runway is fast coming to an end, but the plane is not getting airborne. WHY? As the plane with only the pilot onboard hits the first wave outside the protected waters it skips into the air and lands heavily into the face of the next wave. Those on land said that the whole plane disappeared in the ensuing spray. The impact of that wave broke three ribs in the hull of the plane, broke the right pontoon strut & popped the large Plexiglas windshield half out in front of the pilot. The good news is the plane was flying from that point on and the pilot ducked his hardhat head and flew about one half a mile around the corner to land in another bay and park the plane on the beach.

The next log book entry is March 6th (his birthday) 1957 when the repairs were done & the plane flew home. The lesson learned was that the wind from the south that day caused a downdraft over the breakwater, which kept the plane from flying before hitting the big waves. As this pilot (his son) has done many flights in other planes over the years from that same water I have been aware of the need to realize the decision point where the flight should be aborted so as not to endanger the flight. As I grew up in that logging camp, my first love was to go flying with dad every time possible. Those times that it was not possible to go to town with dad on his business trips I always listened for that sound of the Seabee returning home. For those who have heard a Seabee in flight there is no other sound like it. I would describe it as the sound of a cavatating prop striving hard to find enough air to force the laws of gravity into submission so that big bubble of a plane can fly. 

It is said that a Seabee is known to take off at 80, fly at 80 & glide at 80 - all while burning at least 15 gph. A tougher plane could not have been built with the post world war two technologies. One would think that saving some sheet metal would have made for more planes to produce for someone else. The little boy listening for his father's return would always run outside to watch the plane land. The home base was located on a shallow crescent shaped gray sand beach with tall spruce and hemlock tree lined shore. As the plane would fly by on the down wind leg to a left turn to base then line up along the shore on final. The lateness of the evening twilight was obvious as the red & green position lights glowed softly as the plane lined up on final the pilot using the beach for a reference to land along. Then the plane would settle into the water and the landing gear would be pumped down for the taxi up to the parking spot beside the house. The prop would hardly be stopped before the little boy with his flannel shirt, blue jeans, rubber boots and cap was at the door welcoming dad home. The smell of the engine exhaust and the sound of the engine cooling off all played their part in the tapestry of his love for flying. Dad could never get home without his son watching the plane land, to this day airplanes flying, landing and just the sight of an airport are enough to distract him from any other important task at hand.

One of dad's most famous stories was when he took a trip to Petersburg, Alaska, in his first Bee N6526K; about ten miles from town flying up the Wrangell Narrows (I never figured out why the channel to Petersburg was named after another neighboring town) the engine sped up a little. Dad adjusted the prop control with no results. He thought the cotter pin must have come out of the end of the prop control cable. As he approached the landing at Petersburg at nine-hundred-feet he pulled the throttle to set up for a landing on the water. That is when he felt the plane shudder. What he did not know is something had broken which allowed the prop to go into full reverse. After advancing the throttle to verify his assumption he immediately pushed the nose down to maintain air speed. According to him that was the fastest nine hundred feet he ever wanted to travel. He made an uneventful landing according to him. They could not fix the problem but managed to put the prop in flat forward pitch which allowed him to fly the thirty miles home. They did things like that in 1953! The mechanic that helped him rig the prop for takeoff told me thirty seven years later he remembered that it took a l-o-n-g time for him to get the plane airborne. 

I (Keith Hiebert) his youngest son lived in Petersburg for eighteen years post 1981 and was talking to a fellow who was my age who remembered a Seabee landing in the harbor, then it just shut off the engine and sat there. His father and he had taken a small boat out to see what the problem was. He told me that the pilot was just sitting there staring at the instruments. My response was dad was thanking God and his angel for getting him safely on the water.  I grew up listening to dad tell how unpredictable the engine of a Bee was, and dad never would fly over land unless he could glide to a water landing - so you know we did not fly over much land. In S. E. Alaska when I was growing up we had no airports for one-hundred-twenty miles from our house. The Bee was the right plane for us. It would park on the beach next to our house, and in town they had a good dock that you could park at. Our first Bee was parked at the dock the day before we were to leave for Christmas vacation in 1962.  Dad had not checked the right float after he had parked in Juneau late one night and had hit a portable air compressor. That had left a small hole in the float and when it filled up, the plane rolled over and floated belly up. They pulled it out of the water with a crane, set it upside down on a barge and dad sold it wet to an air taxi operator for $500.00. We saw the plane back in Petersburg parked by our Bee number two, N87493, years later but never met the newest owner. N6526K has since disappeared off the registry and I wonder where it went.

Dad flew only Seabees after he got his license  from 1950 to 1972  but quit filling out a log book in June of 1961. He sold his N87493 in 1972 when he moved out of Alaska, (I got him to fly 60 hours that summer with me at the right seat controls)! Dad never let me do a takeoff, and only one approach to land, which I bounced. I had about twenty hours in a Cessna 150 but he considered the Bee to be a hard plane to fly so he paid for my lessons in a safer plane. I still have recurring dreams that I go out and fly the Bee and do great landings... Maybe some day... Later when he flew with me, he was happy just to ride along. My heart still has a warm spot for the Bee and I can recognize its sound anywhere it is heard flying by.

Used by Permission.

An Excerpt from ("Alaska by Air and Near Disaster") soon to be published. Written by Keith Hiebert, a commercial Instrument rated SES & SEL pilot with 2600 hours flying in Alaska

Thank you very much, Keith, for this true "love story"!

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Updated: 2010-11-24

2005-2010 Steinar Saevdal