JUNEAU, Alaska — New and improved is always used when marketing the latest adventure, boat, car, or dream destination. However, when those four items are wrapped into one flying apparatus, you have the Gweduck, a composite twin-engine flying boat-style amphibian aircraft that splashed out of a rain cloud in a stream of sunlight and softly plopped down in Auke Bay on Monday.
"We named it Gweduck because all the good water bird names were already taken," pilot Ross Mahon said. "And geoduck clams are pretty important in the Pacific Northwest."
Gweduck is an alternate spelling for that clam.
Mahon is a principal partner along with Ben Ellison in Ellison-Mahon Aircraft, an American aircraft development company located in the Seattle area.
"Ben and I were just kicking tires at an airport," Mahon said. "And decided maybe what the world needed was a fiberglass Widgeon. We needed to find a fun new project."
Company designers began studying amphibious aircraft in the early 1990s and settled on a twin-engine configuration similar to the Grumman Widgeon, which first flew in 1940.
The Widgeon had flaws such as uneven takeoff characteristics called "porposing," and corrosion caused by spray through the propellers.
By 2006 the company built a composite-material prototype they based at Renton Airport and used at nearby Lake Washington for water testing.
"The main motivation was to make a Widgeon in composite," Mahon said. "So it doesn't leak or corrode when sitting in the water. It is a much lower maintenance. It also has a lot of engineering elements like a new airfoil, a modernized hull design, so it is easier for pilots to operate and goes faster and farther."
The designers borrowed on the name of the shellfish that is indigenous to the Pacific Northwest and the first flight occurred on May 2, 2009. Since then the Gweduck has flown from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska, twice, and all points nationwide and in between.
The plane was designed to stir the nostalgia in the most seasoned pilot and the three who rotated behind the throttles on last week's trip to the Anchorage Air Show and subsequent stop for burgers in front of Tom and Cheri Carson's beach front home are Mahon, Jim Schoeggl and Jim Knutson.
Mahon first flew with as a youth in his father's seaplane, then soloed at age 16 in gliders up and down the coast. His father, Brian, was an engineer for Boeing.
Knutson also flew since childhood.
They call themselves janitors, pilots, and whatever else is needed.
"I am the flight attendant," Knutson laughed as the three ate burgers on the beach with local pilots. "I will fly the next one we build."
Knutson is a retired Delta Airlines pilot and Schoeggl retired early from Microsoft before he got his pilot's license.
The Gweduck is the first of what the group hopes to market and sell as a kit, albeit a pretty expensive one, in the experimental aircraft category that can be built in garages or for recreational use.
"Can't really say about prices right now," Mahon said. "We are currently partnering with another firm that will help us develop the kit and looking for a launch partner. It will probably be the cost of, say, a new big 60-foot boat. We want to find a customer who is excited, who will share our enthusiasm for the plane."
Kit builders will have to have some technical aptitude, but Gweduck designers can assist in certain aspects. Federal regulations, however, do not allow them to sell factory-built planes.
The Gweduck is reminiscent of old military PBYs and their offshoots, the Grumman Goose and Grumman Widgeon. The plane has the same wingspan as a Goose but is 20 percent bigger than a Widgeon and cheaper to run.
The plane seats 6 to 8 people in two-abreast seating.
It is roughly 35 feet long with a 52-foot wingspan and tip floats that retract in flight position and or extend when landing in the water. Gross weight is 6,000 pounds, empty weight 4,200 pounds, and the high-wing design has two 300HP Lycoming IO-540 engines mounted on the wing leading edge that will power a trip of 2,000 miles at 135 knots on a full tank and lift it off a water runway of about 1,000 feet.
As the Gweduck bobbed softly up and down, tied to the Carson's marker buoy in the waters of Favorite Channel and Auke Bay, two sea lions swam close to investigate.
"You did close the door, right?" Knutson asked Mahon.
As laughter echoed through the campfire's glow, the trio rowed back out to the Gweduck, lifted off the water, and banked quietly into the sunset towards the solid tarmac of Juneau International Airport. Wheels folded down, the Gweduck landed like a dream.
"I could never sleep well in a boat," Schoeggl said.
"You would if we landed in Hawaii," Mahon said of the proposed trip the Gweduck may next undertake.