A father-son team spent nearly two decades restoring a pair of Grumman Widgeons, with award-winning results.
Rebuilding a 64-year-old amphibious airplane is a monumental undertaking, but taking on two such projects requires serious—some would say fanatical—dedication. That’s exactly what the father and son team of Mark and Steven Taylor have displayed in their meticulous restoration of two Grumman Widgeons to flying status. The Taylors’ craftsmanship and attention to detail paid off in 2000 when their first restored Widgeon, owned by Mark, was named Grand Champion at EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wis., and again last summer when son Steve took the Reserve Grand Champion award at the 2009 AirVenture for his Widgeon.
Veteran pilots from Riverdale, Mich., the Taylors completed Steve’s aircraft in July 2009, just in time for the competition. It’s listed as a Grumman G-44A/SCAN-30, one of 41 license-built at La Rochelle, France, starting in 1946. Father and son estimate they worked thousands of hours side by side in a hangar at the Gratiot Community Airport in Alma, Mich., to finish construction on the blue and white amphibian.
Grumman Aircraft Corporation built a total of 276 Widgeons from 1941 to 1946. The amphibious flying boats were originally intended for the civilian market, but during World War II 176 of them performed military duty, assigned to antisubmarine patrol with the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard and Britain’s Royal Navy. The Navy and the USCG designated the amphibians J4Fs, while the Royal Navy dubbed theirs Goslings. The U.S. Army Air Corps/Air Forces and Civil Air Patrol also put the amphibians to work as utility transports, designating them OA-14s.
The Widgeon was a smaller version of the successful Grumman G-21 Goose. Powered by twin Ranger 200-hp inverted inline 6-cylinder engines, the amphibian originally accommodated five people. When WWII ended, Grumman redesigned the Widgeon with a deeper V-shaped hull for better roughwater handling, and added one more seat, bringing the cabin capacity to six including the pilot. Seventy-six of these aircraft were built, designated G-44As and targeted at the civilian market. The last one rolled off the production line in January 1946.
That same year Grumman licensed the French aircraft manufacturer SCAN (Société de Constructions Aero-Navales) to build 41 civilian versions of the Widgeon. According to Steve Taylor, the French-built Widgeons proved to be inferior to the American-built Grummans because the aluminum used in their construction was not anodized and corroded quickly. Their metric hardware also proved unpopular in the American market, and the twin Salmson inverted V8 engines installed on them were reportedly unreliable and underpowered. This led to the majority of the airframes being imported into the United States unassembled and without power plants.
Though it’s not known exactly when Steve’s airplane, serial number 3, came to the U.S., it appears that Lee Mansdorf, an aircraft entrepreneur and salesman from Compton, Calif., imported 30 of the French-built SCAN-30s over several months in 1959. Mansdorf’s firm then refitted each Widgeon with a pair of 300-hp Lycoming R-680-13 radial engines, and secured U.S. airworthiness certificates for the modified aircraft from the Federal Aviation Administration. He subsequently sold the amphibians to private owners, in no particular order regarding the manufacturer’s serial number.
Steve said that the aircraft he would eventually restore received its certification in 1959, and began its working career as an air ambulance after a stretcher door was fitted to the fuselage. Serving in that capacity, according to its logbook, the Widgeon was based in Miami, Fla., flying up and down the East Coast and also logging landings in the Baha – mas as well as many coastal cities.
Between 1959 and 1964, the Widgeon suffered significant saltwater damage. Both sponsons had to be replaced, as well as the bottom half of the rudder, both elevators and one of its ailerons. Some hull repair work was also needed during that period due to corrosion.
In 1964 the Widgeon was sold to Ned Rice, director of research for the Pratt & Whitney aircraft engine division of United Technologies in East Hartford, Conn. Rice used it to take trips to the Bahamas, northern Maine, Canada’s Hudson Bay and Alaska’s arctic regions. In 1990 Rice and Dennis Burke, an oil executive who also owned a Widgeon, teamed up to perfect a design to replace the old radials with counterrotating, turbo – charged Lycoming LTIO-540-J2BD power plants. To accommodate the new engines, cowlings from a Piper Navajo Chieftain were installed, giving the amphibian a more up-to-date, streamlined profile.
Restoration of Rice’s aircraft actually started as a matter of necessity in 1980, when the wings had to be rebuilt after a tornado struck the Widgeon’s hangar. Rice, who had befriended the Taylors, lost a decade-long battle with cancer in 2002. He willed his Widgeon to Steve Taylor.
On the way to Michigan in his new amphibian Steve discovered that the wet-wing center section fuel area leaked badly. Upon closer inspection he found it was severely corroded. It also came to light that the main spar had five splices—and it too was corroded. The Taylors concluded that the wing’s center section would have to be totally rebuilt.
During the wing inspection they discovered that the hull had significant corrosion as well. “Every rivet of the airplane came out, all of the ribs, all the skins, the chine, the keel— everything came off,” Steve said. It was all drilled apart, and each piece was inspected. If it could be cleaned and reused, it was; if not, a new part was made from aluminum stock. “We did a lot of brake work,” he added, “and I got to be pretty adept with the English wheel [a metalworking tool].” In the end, however, all that hard work paid off when Steve’s refurbished Widgeon took the 2009 Reserve Grand Champion award.
In 1992, 10 years before Steve’s windfall, his father had seen an advertisement for a derelict Widgeon G-44A/SCAN-30, serial number 4. That amphibian was located at a small airport near Seattle, Wash. “When we found it, there was a hole in the aft hull near the battery compartment where a tree had grown up,” Steve recalled. The wings were off, and overall the plane was in very bad condition. The dilapidated Widgeon had been sitting at the airport, unprotected from the elements, for about a decade.
The Taylors had the airframe pieces trucked back to Michigan, and started in on their first Widgeon restoration shortly thereafter. Later that same year, when they learned about Ned Rice’s engine conversion project, they decided to make the same modifications.
Over the next eight years, Steve and Mark Taylor spent many hours with Rice, learning all they could about the Widgeon from him. Restoration work on Mark’s plane took place in two shops, the Taylors’ place in Riverdale, Mich., and Dennis Burke’s facility in Cranland, Mass. “We did all the fuselage restoration here [in Michigan] ourselves,” Steve pointed out. “Out in Cranland, they did all the engine modification fitting for the wing center section.”
The original outer wing sections of Mark’s aircraft turned out to be in such bad condition that they were unsalvageable. “We found a brand new pair of wings from surplus in Bangladesh,” Steve explained. Grumman had manufactured those wings from anodized aluminum, likely before World War II came to an end.
The fuselage on Mark’s Widgeon, ac – cording to Steve, “might be 10 percent original,” but the balance was completely rebuilt with new formers, ribs and exteri – or skin. In the cockpit, a new instrument panel was fabricated along with six newly built and upholstered seats.
Once the wing center section was completed and the engine conversion was done in 1998, the new parts were installed on the rebuilt fuselage, along with all the hydraulics, electrical and mechanical fittings. Another two years of hard work followed before Mark’s plane was finally complete and ready to take to the air once again.
Today, with both Widgeons fully restored and FAA certified, father and son enjoy flying their vintage aircraft for pleasure and on vacations. Asked if they’d be willing to take on another restoration, the Taylors pointed out, “We built these for ourselves,” adding that another rebuild would require too much time. They’re understandably happy with what they’ve already accomplished.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.