It’s a plane, it’s a motorhome, it’s both!
By Jack Innis
All it took was a piston rod protruding through the cowling of John and Joyce Proctor’s Cessna Turbo 210 Centurion at low altitude over California’s treacherous Sierra Nevada to convince them. Convince them to give up flying? To hand in their wings? Naw! After skillfully guiding their ersatz glider between several craggy peaks, landing “dead-stick” on a dirt road and discussing the whole situation over a cup of coffee, the Proctors decided to buy a 1954 Grumman HU-16 Albatross seaplane, convert it into a motorhome with wings and pontoons, and circumnavigate the Pacific Ocean!
Wow! What was in that coffee?
The Proctors’ first step was to locate an old Albatross suitable for conversion. In August 1992, they discovered a 25 x 62 x 96-foot “fixer-upper” that had languished 18 years in an Arizona wrecking yard.
But before this adventuresome couple could contemplate their FlyRV conversion, they needed to make “Albie,” as they came to call her, airworthy. She was missing one of her 1,440-hp, nine-cylinder engines and was lacking a few incidental items, such as pontoons, landing gear and most of the hydraulic system. Locating, rebuilding and installing Albie’s running gear took almost a year, a feat which should encourage anyone trying to refurbish a land-based motorhome.
With basic engine and running-gear restoration complete, the soon-to-be airborne motorhome received “fit to fly” air-worthiness certification and, in March 1993, headed to San Diego for the interior refit. Tapping into a wealth of friendships he had accumulated as a 15-year volunteer pilot for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, John spearheaded a 5,000-hour all-volunteer effort to transform Albie into the world’s first fully self-contained FlyRV.
Up front, the cockpit was fitted with a global positioning navigation system (GPS), color radar, a stormscope and a radar altimeter. While the search continues for an autopilot, steering the somewhat sluggish 15-ton Albie is “like driving a pickup truck without power steering,” Joyce says. “It levels out real well and pretty much flies itself in good weather.” Since both John and Joyce are certified to fly the Albatross, they normally take turns operating the FlyRV’s dual controls. In stormy weather, however, it takes both Proctors to keep the Albatross on course.
The aircraft’s customized living quarters, which sleeps four, includes such basics as are found in many RVs: a 9-kw generator; a DC inverter; a full galley with refrigerator, microwave and oven/range (gimbal-mounted for in-flight cooking); a bathroom with sink and shower; and a barbecue that swings out from the side window above the galley (no, not for in-flight cooking!). Albie’s stem-to-stern layout is: cockpit, navigation/office area, dinette/bedroom, galley and bath. Although the headroom is ample throughout, the FlyRV’s narrow cross section is reminiscent of a cruising sailboat.
Above and beyond the basics, the Proctors installed air-conditioning, a washer/dryer, a 40-gallon-per-hour desalination plant, a scuba-tank compressor, a computer that stores several cookbooks full of recipes as well as databased navigation maps, potted plants in the windows, and enough customized walnut cabinetwork to store their set of fine china. The cabinetwork can stand up to 9 g’s, a specification not found in most land-based RVs, but definitely useful when flying in choppy skyways. Albie’s engines were thoughtfully fitted with “dry kits” to prevent engine oil and other residuals from polluting the water upon which they operate.
Water-based auxiliary transportation is provided by an inflatable dinghy with a small Yamaha outboard. When the Albatross extends its retractable landing gear to become land-based, the Proctors’ Honda 70 motor-bike emerges from under the port-side counter. Unlike flightless RVs, Albie’s 96-foot wingspan prohibits using it for a quick dash to the local market.
Whether afloat or on land, Albie’s massive wings serve as a fabulous lounge area. The Proctors often bring folding chairs topside to take their morning coffee (doubtless to help make important decisions), to watch air shows or just to bask in the sun. John claims much success catching fish from aloft, but denies rumors that he catches only flying fish.
The Proctors’ Pacific Ocean circumnavigation began in early 1995, as Albie carried them through Canada, Alaska, Russia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Hawaii and many points of interest in between.
“It wasn’t so much a holiday as an adventure,” Joyce says of their two-year odyssey. The amount of preflight work and preparation was incredible, she notes, from budgeting fuel expenses for the pair of thirsty 1,440-hp Wright Whirlwind nine-cylinder radial engines all the way down to remembering to bring along the salad-shooter.
Like most adventures, a few uneasy times were interspersed with the good. Fortunately, the worst incident the Proctors had to report was when they were briefly detained as trespassers by the Russian military. Although the FIyRV had been cleared by the Moscow authorities for the 12-hour flight from Nome, Alaska, to Magadan, Russia, there was a SNAFU (Situation Normal, All Fouled Up). Moscow never informed Magadan. This escalated the SNAFU into a certified SAPFU (Surpasses All Previous Foul-Ups) when the FlyRV essentially flew underneath radar coverage and landed unannounced and unexpected on Magadan’s military runway. Imagine the surprised looks on those air-traffic controllers’ faces.
It took 4 1/2 hours to straighten out the problem and smooth the base commander’s ruffled feathers (he was considered to have been sleeping on the job). The matter was somewhat aggravated by the fact that a year earlier, when the Proctors were selecting a paint scheme, they decided to restore Albie to her original U.S. Navy specifications. Thankfully, John’s familiarity with the Russian language helped him to explain the situation so that neither the Proctors (nor any Russian soldiers, we hope) were sent to Siberia.
From the icy waters of the Bering Sea to the sunny South Pacific, the Albie drew stares wherever it landed. Gawkers ranged from cruising sailboaters, crowding close to see the curious-looking FlyRV, to individuals who choked up seeing an amphibious airplane similar to one that had plucked them from the water in World War II. Friendly faces and offers of gifts and hospitality followed Albie wherever she berthed for the night, proving once again that the RV crowd is a special one, indeed.
One site that offered a welcome break from the center of attention was Lake Alabaster, New Zealand. After a local pilot guided them in, Albie spiraled down into the canyon and landed, alone at last, on the lake’s smooth waters. John says. “There was only one way into the lake, by air, and the nearest settlement was 75 miles away. There was a majestic waterfall and neat gravel sand bars. We would get up in the middle of the night just to view the full moon shining its light and see Albie’s props silhouetted on the snowcapped mountains, mirrored in the water.”
The Proctors’ most heart-warming experience also occurred in New Zealand. There, in an area so remote that people from surrounding villages trekked all day just to see Albie, a farmer, a comparatively poor man himself, insisted John and Joyce take his check for $200 to offset the cost of their journey. When the Proctors protested, saying that the farmer’s money could best be spent pursuing his own dream, the farmer responded, “No, go ahead and take it. You folks are living a dream I’ll never be able to realize myself.” John and Joyce keep him updated on their adventures, so he can continue to vicariously enjoy the dream.
John Proctor has logged about 5,000 hours flying various aircraft around the world. In addition to appropriate certifications to pilot the FlyRV, he is also an air frame and power plant mechanic. John’s past aeronautic feats include: first attempted hot-air balloon crossing of the United States (1966); USSR-USA global circumnavigation featuring an open-cockpit biplane (1991); and 15 years as a volunteer pilot for the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. Joyce Proctor’s flying certifications include multi-engine sea and instrument privileges. She is one of only two female pilots in the United States currently certified to fly the Albatross.