Posted by Lex, on June 12, 2008


There are planes that land on airstrips and planes that land on water and then there is a third, more rare category of machine: One that can do both.

Amphibious aircraft saw their heyday back in World War II, when such versatile Grumman variants as the GooseWidgeon and Mallard were adopted from their civilian designs for military work. One workhorse was the Grumman J2F Duck, a biplane atop a monocoque pontoon that housed retractable main landing gear. During the war, Grumman designed a replacement monowing before pitching the contract at Columbia Aircraft to focus on the fighters they were building for the Navy.

Which was probably a good idea: The XJL-1 proved to be a loser for Columbia. Of the three prototypes built, one was used for destruction load testing and two for flight test, but the aircraft experienced repeated structural failures and were stricken from the USN inventory in 1949, according to the Pima Air Museum, which houses one of the two survivors.

The other one sits in pieces in a hangar at French Valley airport, the scene of your correspondent’s recent trip back through time. I’m told that the owner is one Thomas Friedken, scion of the old Pacific Southwest Airways and recipient of one of Toyota’s first concessions to sell cars in the US.

For the most part Mr. Friedken appears to have lived a charmed life. He sat on the board of PSA even while remaining on the line as a pilot. When PSA was bought by US Air, the proceeds went to purchasing the Toyota distributorship whose profits allowed him to further enjoy his passions: Hunting, skydiving and buying vintage planes. His collection included a Mustang, a Spitfire and an F4U Corsair that he flew for the television series “Baa Baa Black Sheep.”

And that XJL-1.

The way I heard it, the owner spent no small sums and thirteen years re-building the aircraft to a pristine status. Engine run-ups on the ground were nominal. After a cherry WWII Navy blue paint job, the machine had its first flight from Palomar and made it just north of Oceanside before the engine sputtered and died.

It turned out that no one removed the protective tape covering the fuel tank vents before flight.

Fuel vents are used to equalize pressure between the tanks and the ambient air. As the aircraft climbed and fuel was consumed, a vacuum formed. This reduction in air pressure decreased the boil-off point of the fuel, causing bubbles to form, the fuel pump to cavitate, a drop of fuel pressure to the engine, and ultimately engine failure. They put her down on the beach rather than in ocean for some reason. A fair amount of damage ensued.


Looks like they’re putting her back together again in a desultory fashion. The engine looks good, and most of the fuselage appears to be intact. The wings are missing outboard of the fold line, taking the outriggers with them. With only two survivors, everything has to be manufactured anew.

Looking at the bright side of course, you know: He still has that Mustang.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Flying, Lex, SoCal

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