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The Catalina Islander
Avalon, California
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July 4, 2014     The Catalina Islander
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July 4, 2014
 

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The precarious origins of Catalina Island's 'Mother 6oose' BY JIM WATSON For more than a decade during the Golden Age of the seaplanes on Catalina, the mighty o on her way to and from Long Beach Harbor. The plane was the flagship of Dick Probert's Avalon Air Transport. But the story of how Probert acquired the Sikorsky is the stuff of legend and is as impressive as the aircraft itself. On any given flight, she carried as many as 47 happy passengers, plus two pilots and even a Stewardess. The pilot was nearly always Probert himself and the steward- ess was always his girlfriend (and later wife) Nancy. Only three of the VS-44s were ever built, all of which were purchased by New York-based American Export Lines, which named the planes Excalibur, Exeter and Excambian after three of the company's existing ocean- going liners. Excalibur and Exeter both crashed in separate incidents during the 1940s, leaving only Excambian to carry on the tradi- tion. In 1957, Probert received a phone call from a friend in the insurance business informing him of the availability of the Sikorsky in South America. He was already running a gaggle of Grumman Gooses in cross-channel service, but believed there was still room for at least one more passenger plane. Initially offered at $250,000, Probert quickly got the price cut in 4tl: ore -::sp: nickel, he wanted to see the plane Willm a month, tie in perg0fi2 " ...............  was southbound on a Pan Am DC: 6 to a desolate Peruvian fishing village named Ancon where the Sikorsky sat on a beach. Upon noticing that the plane was missing some of its beaching gear (lightweight wheels that can be used only for getting a flying boat in and out of the water--not for take offs and landings), Probert was advised that the plane's flight engineer, Henry Ruzakowsky, had sequestered the gear because he ABOVE: The mighty Mother Goose takes off from Avalon Bay. RIGHT: The Sikorsky VS-44 undergoing repairs in South America. had not received his final pay from the plane's owner. After seeing to it that owner squared away with Ruzakowsky, the beaching gear was retrieved and Probert and his crew per- formed the first test flights in the new plane. Within 20 minutes of beginning the first flight, two of the Sikorsky's 1,200 horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines shut the ocean began. With no navi- down, forcing Probert to land on gation lights in the harbor, and the two remaining good engines, with the added peril of numer- After being assured by local ous unlighted fishing boats in the mechanics that the problem was harbor, Probert set the Sikorsky's bad sparkplugs, Probert replaced controls to descend the craft at a all 56 plugs on the two problem : rate Of 200 feet per minute and engines and made plans to leave hoped for the best. on the 4,000-mile trip to Long In time, the crew heard the Beach just before sundown. The gentle rush of water under the idea .igto fgfclucf"thc4l,20=:graf# :ko hada-ffded mile/over-waer lfkionof .the.,safely. ; :    flight at night when Probert could When the crippled plane navigate the plane using celestial eventually taxied to the dock, navigation, they were greeted by a contin- Again, less than 20 minutes into gent of local police officers who the flight, the same two engines promptly arrested them all for shut down. Suddenly, Pr.obert and "re-entering Peru without papers." his men found themselves once After lengthy negotiations at the again flying on only two engines, polic' station, and pulling some but this time it was at night. On strings, the charges were eventu- top of that, the plane was heavily Mly dropped and the crew was loaded with fuel released. Only by using the lights of There ensued over the next Ancon as a guide was Probert able month a sequence of trial-and- to see where the land ended and error attempts to pinpoint the mechanical problems including the possibility of sticking valves as well as bad magnetos. The latter turned out to the case and after making repairs the ship was once again ready to head back to/lorthernohemisohere. Probert still had:nOtyel paid a dime for the plane and before leav- city of Acapulco where they might effect repairs. In Acapulco, Probert teamed up with a mysterious German pilot named John Wemburg who saw to it that the damaged float was removed for shipment to Long Beach and that the plane was refueled and readied for the final 2,500 miles to California. Probert was never quite sure, but he sus- pected Wemburg was a Nazi fugi- tive that had set up shop in Mexico after the war. Fearing that Mexican aviation authorities would prohibit the plane from taking off without the wing float, Probert paid a "gra- tuity" of 200 pesos to the agent assigned to his case; an amount he would later learn was the equiva- lent of a year's pay for the man. Upon taxiing for take-off on this final leg, disaster nearly struck. The float-less right wing dipped into the waters of Acapulco Bay and began filling with seawater. Probert hurriedly ordered the crew out of the cockpit where they shin- nied their way to the tip of the left wing in the hopes of bringing the right wing out of the water. With the weight on the left wing and the help of a nearby motorboat, the plane was eventu- ally righted. Unfortunately, the flight engi- neer had failed to shut off the fuel valves before climbing out onto the wing. As a result, an undeter- mined amount of fuel had either drained from:qae ,tft wing tank into the right wing or straight into ing for Long Beach he pointed out the ocean. Or both.i tIum60U' - mech-:prOb "" With n*iit'l ' alerrto the owner and tdhey had left whicfi:tan s  whittle the price down to $55,000 that fuel might be, the Sikorsky from the original $250,000. Probert once again lifted the Sikorsky off the waters of Ancon Harbor, but when making a steep right turn to avoid an inconvenient mountain, the plane's right wing float dipped in to the sea, jam- ming the float into the wing and freezing the aileron. Despite the mishap, Probert-- who at this point was tiring of his "vacation" in Peru--continued the flight on to the Mexican port lifted off from Acapulco Bay. More than a dozen' hours later, after sticking as close to shore as possible in case the plane ran out of fuel, the aircraft finally made it to Long Beach--with 15 minutes of fuel left. Several weeks later, after retro- fitting the plane, she was put into daily summer service carrying passengers and freight to Catalina Island; a service she performed for the next 10 years. Freshly Made All i Friday, July 4, 2014 THE CATALINA ISLANDER