Albatross Was a Maryland Air Guard Classic

  • Published
  • By Capt. Wayde Minami
  • 175th Wing Public Affairs
The Grumman SA-16 (later designated HU-16) Albatross was an unlikely aircraft to find its way into the Maryland Air National Guard inventory.

First flown in 1947, the SA-16A was a "flying boat" type aircraft originally intended to meet a Navy requirement for an amphibious utility aircraft. But soon after it was fielded, the Air Force adopted it as an air-sea rescue aircraft. Ultimately, most of the SA-16s produced would go to the Air Force.

Of the 297 SA-16As delivered to the Air Force, most went to the Air Rescue Service, where it served with distinction. During the Korean War, "Albatrosses rescued almost 1,000 United Nations personnel from coastal waters and rivers, often behind enemy lines," according to the U.S. Air Force Museum.

In 1954, the Air Force decided to establish special air warfare groups within the Air National Guard. When Maryland's 135th Air Resupply Group was organized in 1955, it was one of only four such units nationwide, the others being the 129th Air Resupply Group in California, the 130th Air Resupply Group in West Virginia, and the 143rd Air Resupply Group in Rhode Island.

Originally equipped with C-46 Commandos, the 135th began receiving SA-16As in 1956. By 1958, SA-16s had completely supplanted the unit's C-46s.

Grumman, meanwhile, had continued work on the design, and an improved version of the Albatross debuted in 1955. The SA-16B had a 16½-foot longer wingspan and larger aileron and tail surfaces. The Maryland Air Guard received its first B-model in 1957, and flew both A and B-model aircraft until 1962.

In special air warfare units such as the 135th, the Albatross was used for covert infiltration and extraction of special forces, either by parachute or by landing on remote runways or bodies of water. The aircraft could also retrieve personnel from the ground without needing to land, using the Fulton Recovery System to snatch a balloon tethered to the person to be retrieved.

Flying the Albatross was not for the faint of heart. Water landings, especially when conducted at night in blackout conditions, were extremely hazardous. The unit suffered its first fatal crash in May 1956, when water pressure forced open the nose landing gear door on an SA-16 during a water landing and split the aircraft apart. A second fatal crash occurred in 1959, when an SA-16 crashed in Colgate Creek shortly after takeoff. The cause of that crash was never determined.

SA-16s were also capable of using JATO - for "jet-assisted takeoff" - rockets. JATO rockets improved the aircraft's ability to takeoff from short runways or in heavy seas. The danger was that if the rockets, which were mounted on both sides of the aircraft fuselage, failed to fire at the same time, it would cause the aircraft to turn sharply and become nearly uncontrollable. There was at least one known instance of such an occurrence with a Maryland Albatross - fortunately no one was injured in that case, although the aircraft nearly struck the base air control tower.

Prior to 1962, each service used its own system for designating aircraft nomenclature. When the Department of Defense introduced a unified, multi-service aircraft designation system that year, the Albatross's designation changed from SA-16 to HU-16.

Maryland HU-16s have appeared in a number of color configurations. Most were gray, some with the bright yellow air-sea rescue markings, and were marked either "U.S. Air Force" or "Md. Air Guard" in black letters, depending on the directives in force at the time. One interesting variation was the all-black color scheme, with red lettering. This pattern was used for aircraft intended for covert night operations.

The 135th continued flying HU-16Bs until 1971, when it converted to O-2 Super Skymasters as part of its transition from a special operations group to a tactical air support group - but that wasn't quite the end of Maryland's association with the Albatross.

The Maryland Air Guard's last HU-16 "mission" actually took place in 1985, when a static display aircraft in storage in Harlingen, Texas, was flown to Warfield Air National Guard Base as cargo aboard one of the unit's C-130s.

A maintenance team from the 135th Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron disassembled the HU-16 so it could be loaded aboard a Maryland C-130 for the flight to Warfield Air National Guard Base. Once in Baltimore, the Albatross was painstakingly restored, with the finishing touches being applied just in time for the aircraft to make an appearance at the 1985 Family Day.

Maryland's "last" HU-16 now serves as a static display outside the base fire station. From mission essential to museum piece, the HU-16 Albatross has earned a permanent place of honor in Maryland Air Guard history.