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Restored Albatross seaplane a legacy for the ages

CLEARWATER

The dedication of a meticulously refurbished HU-16 Grumman Albatross airplane Friday at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station brought back memories to Anne Keller.

There were happy ones, like how she used to climb around similar planes as a little girl at the old Coast Guard air station in St. Petersburg, where her father worked.

But there were also heartbreaking ones.

In 1966, her father, Coast Guard Lt. Clifford E. Hanna, and his five-man crew went down in the Gulf of Mexico during an ill-fated rescue mission in an Albatross.

"The plane went down at night when I was asleep,'' said Keller, 52, "and I remember being told the next morning that Daddy wouldn't be coming home.''

The Clearwater Air Station decided to refurbish an old Albatross as a memorial to Coast Guard members like Hanna who have given their lives during their military service. Between 1951 and 1983, the Coast Guard flew 91 of these amphibious sea planes.

More than 300 people were on hand for Friday's dedication ceremony, which was moved inside the air station at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport because of rain.

Along with Keller, other special guests included Clifford Hanna's widow, Linda Hanna Stephenson, and his youngest daughter, Tamara Hanna, as well as Rear Adm. Gary Blore, commander of this region's Coast Guard district.

The Air Station began the restoration project about two years ago, said Master Chief Petty Officer Matthew Boyd, who helped lead the effort.

"We found an Albatross that was on display through a private collection in November of 2009 in Texas,'' Boyd said. "We found out that it actually belonged to the National Museum of the Air Force, and we were able to work with them to transfer custody to us.''

Boyd and four others traveled to Cresson, Texas, to disassemble the 26,000-pound plane. They drove it back in pieces on three flatbed trailers.

In Clearwater, the plane was stored in a hangar, where volunteers logged hundreds of hours putting it back together. They reattached its tail and wings, stripped off the old paint and added new colors.

This was a dream come true for Boyd, who remembers building countless model planes as a youth. "The Albatross is so elegant, and along with that, we saw this as a lifetime opportunity to provide a legacy to the Coast Guard,'' he said.

The Albatross seaplane has been replaced by helicopters like the H-60 Jayhawk and the C-130, a military airplane. But for old-timers, the Albatross had certain attributes they still cherish.

"It had an incredibly strong hull. Also, if we loaded it up with gas, we could've stayed in the air for 17 to 18 hours,'' said Steve Csintyan, a 74-year-old retired Coast Guard pilot from Sun City Center. "At the time, there was nothing better. It could take you into places that you couldn't get into with anything else."

For Joseph Bowles of St. Petersburg, Friday's ceremony was especially bittersweet.

In 1966, he was scheduled to be on the plane with Hanna, but "one of the crew members asked me to give up my seat so he could record flight hours," he said. He has struggled with survivor's syndrome for the last 45 years.

"It's something you never get over,'' he said.

The refurbished HU-16 Albatross will be on permanent display outside the Paul R. Lewis Building at the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station Clearwater, 15300 Fairchild Drive, between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays. The public is invited to view the plane during those hours.

Restored Albatross seaplane a legacy for the ages 05/06/11 [Last modified: Friday, May 6, 2011 8:02pm]
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