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N47C is now based in Anchorage after Lewis M. Ernhart completed Mark Taintor’s original rebuild.

A Ghost in the Machine

By Lorin R. Robinson
2/22/2018 • Aviation History Magazine

An airline pilot working to rebuild a Grumman Widgeon says he was assisted by a mysterious voice in his head.

As Mark Taintor approached the hangar he heard a voice say “turn right.” He looked around and didn’t see anyone. The voice seemed to be inside his head.

Taintor, a 29-year Hawaiian Airlines veteran, retired in 2006 as captain and check airman with more than 30,000 hours. He’s not prone to flights of fancy. He was on his way to cut sheet metal for a part he was fabricating for a Grumman Widgeon he was rebuilding.

Taintor followed the directions; to the right was another hangar. He entered and the “voice” directed him to a trash can where he found a cigarette pack containing a tiny jack screw he needed for the elevator trim.

It was 1992, and Taintor had purchased N47C following a two-year quest in California’s Central Valley. He lived on a small ranch, commuting to work through San Francisco International Airport. One day a buddy of his ranch hand asked Taintor if he could have any airplane, what it would be. “An amphibian,” Taintor responded. 

 “I’ve seen one of those,” the man said. “It was just sitting in a peach orchard.” From his description it sounded like a Grumman Goose. “Where?” Taintor asked. 

“Wow, that was years ago. I really can’t remember.”

Taintor probed and pinned him down to a 50-square-mile area through which he drove to SFO. Over the next two years, Taintor left for work early to search and also did flyovers, systemizing the effort with a grid. In 1992 he finally found a dirt strip not appearing on the sectional. 

He asked the strip’s caretaker if there was a Goose on the field. “We ain’t got no Goose,” he said, “but we do have a Widgeon. Only it’s in pieces all over the field.” He took Taintor to one of five outbuildings and trundled open the doors. There it was—the hull and wing stubs of a Widgeon sandwiched between crates and boxes.

The aiplane had belonged to Bob Nelson, former owner of the Brentwood field, which was known locally as the “Funny Farm.” Nelson had taken the Widgeon completely apart for a major overhaul. After disassembly, parts began to migrate to other buildings. Nelson died before getting back to the project. 

According to the caretaker the parts were all there, but nobody knew where. The plane’s ownership also was uncertain. Nelson had willed it to his girlfriend, Connie Davis, but the will was being contested.

In 1992 Taintor bought the Grumman Widgeon after a two-year quest in California’s Central Valley. (Courtesy of Mark Taintor)
In 1992 Taintor bought the Grumman Widgeon after a two-year quest in California’s Central Valley. (Courtesy of Mark Taintor)

Before calling Davis, Taintor checked out N47C. It was built in 1942, one of 317 Widgeons produced starting in 1940. Initially intended for civilian use, 176 saw military service for surveillance and anti-submarine patrols in the British Royal Navy and the Canadian and U.S. coast guards. N47C served in all three, and was sold at auction in 1949. 

Davis was amazed to learn of Taintor’s obsessive search. She said she’d like to sell it to him, but when she finally acquired title, put it up for auction. “I knew I didn’t have the money to snag it,” he said. 

Several weeks later, Taintor was conducting a simulator training session when Davis called to offer the plane. She explained that the auction had been a disaster, and attendees had groused that the parts were all over the field.

They settled on $50,000. “Oh, and you have to promise to rebuild and fly her off the field,” Davis said.

Taintor had previously restored an Aeronca and a Piper Aztec. For this rebuild, he and friend Paul Weston, an FAA inspector, borrowed an RV for housing and to run lights and tools in the powerless hangar.

One of the “funny farmers” had been a maintenance crew chief on a Grumman Albatross—big brother of the Goose and Widgeon—and got them a parts list and booklet providing information on fluids, pressures, cable tension, etc. The pair spent six weeks over the next three months on the rebuild. Much of the time was devoted to rummaging through the hangars. On one of those hunts Taintor again encountered the voice. This time it led him to a jar of oil. Invisible in the black fluid were bearings he needed for the flap mechanism.

“I know this sounds nuts,” Taintor said. “I never believed in this sort of thing. But how else can I explain how I found these parts?” His best guess: “Bob really wanted his plane rebuilt and flying!” Taintor was able to find all the parts except one: He had to buy a 2¼-inch pulley for one cable run.

The goal was to complete enough work for a reassembly-for-ferry permit to fly the Widgeon to Columbia Field (COA), near Taintor’s home. When the big day arrived, Davis and the funny farmers turned out in force. Prior to takeoff, a bystander said, “Been nice knowing you!” The field’s owner flew chase in his Twin Comanche. Since the Widgeon had no trans­ponder, he wanted to “tail so I can report the crash site.” Taintor flew at about 160 knots, gear down and without a radio. Meanwhile, at COA, his friends had—in good-natured concern—readied crash and rescue equipment that fortunately was not needed.

Taintor continued to work on 47C for 13 years. He overhauled one gearbox plus the hydraulic and electrical systems, re-covered the fabric elevator, stripped the interi­or, overhauled the props, installed permanent windows and more.

In 2006, however, he realized he couldn’t afford to complete the job. “It needed a new electrical system,” he said. “The engines needed a rebuild. And, even if I could manage full restoration, I couldn’t afford to operate it. Annual insurance ran $13,000. Fuel consumption was about 50 gallons an hour.” So, with heavy heart, he put 47C up for sale.

Lewis M. Erhart bought the Widgeon and, according to son Lew Erhart Jr., finished the restoration and got it recertified. Erhart Jr. believes 75-year-old 47C may be the oldest G-44 Widgeon still flying. If not, it probably has the lowest hours—about 2,200 on the airframe and 20 hours on the engines. The amphibian is based at ANC in Anchorage, Alaska.

As for the voice, no one associated with N47C since Taintor’s search for parts has reported hearing it.

 

This feature originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Aviation History. Subscribe here!

 

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