Alaska airplane fans gawk at souped-up amphibian

Posted: Friday, July 11, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) It looks like nothing else in the northern sky: a slender amphibian with a bulbous engine jutting forward from its tail and four-blade prop spinning above the cabin.

New-to-Alaska readers should know that around here, the first definition of ''amphibian'' is not a frog but an airplane capable of taking off or landing on land or water. Dean Rickerson, a vice president at the Anchorage office of Wedbush Morgan Securities, thinks his Super Seawind is the fastest amphibian in the world.

He's in a position to know; he built it. Or a lot of it.

Champagne flowed at a coming-out party for the plane June 21 in a hangar at Merrill Field, the city's municipal airport. Guests oohed over the elegant lines, the ingenious mechanics, the state-of-the-art avionics and sumptuous interior.

''They're mostly friends who've been hearing about this for years and years,'' Rickerson said. ''A lot of people didn't think we'd finish it.''

''Including us,'' added Rickerson's wife, Margaret Ibbotson, also a pilot.

More than six years ago, the disassembled parts arrived for Double-O Seven that's the nickname the plane has acquired from the last three numbers of its official identification, N6007 from the Seawind company of Kimberton, Pa., which has manufactured the build-it-yourself plane since 1991.

Rickerson began assembling the flaps and ailerons in his garage.

''It's supposed to be a two-year project,'' he said. ''But this is a very big, complicated piece of equipment.'' After three years, he admitted, ''it got too big and complicated for this old dog.'' So the partially assembled plane was shipped to a specialty shop in Washington.

''We brought a lot of (the delay) on ourselves because we modified so much,'' said Ibbotson, who put in her time sanding the fiberglass exterior and sweating the interior details.

The modifications make the Super Seawind notably different from the usual Seawind. Rickerson changed the shape of the hull and position of the retractable rudder. He extended the wings for greater lift and installed retractable sponsons (stabilizing wingtip pontoons).

The interior is nearly as eye-popping as the silhouette, with enough room for two people to sleep and comfortable reclining seats from a Saturn sedan.

The canopy features a single window-windshield wrapped around the cabin. The yoke (think ''steering wheel'') is Cessna gear but embellished with baleen and gold nuggets.

''That's the Alaska touch,'' Rickerson said.

The German propeller is reversible. That means the N6007 can back up in the water.

But the main difference is the engine. Seawind sells its planes with a 300-horsepower Lycoming. The company considers that ample for most travel in the Lower 48, where flights average about an hour and where, generally, getting over mountains is less of a concern than in Alaska.

What makes Rickerson's Seawind ''super'' is twin turbochargers and other alterations that boost its power to 460 horses.

One reason Rickerson wanted the extra muscle was Alaska's unpredictable weather. He'd previously flown the Lake Buccaneer amphibian but found it too pokey to take advantage of brief breaks in foul weather; such windows sometimes provide the only opportunity for days to get out of a remote site.

In early May, Rickerson took off from Arlington, 35 miles north of Seattle, and followed the Pacific coastline to Merrill Field. Total time in the air: 8 1/2 hours.

Seawind's Web site cites a cruising speed of 190 mph at 8,000 feet and 75 percent power. A turbine-powered Cessna Caravan on pontoons, often cited as the fastest single-engine production floatplane, tops out at 175 mph. Rickerson said his plane has hit 230 mph at 8,000 feet and 75 percent throttle.

At the time of its Anchorage debut, the N6007 was still going through its shakedown flights. When you build a plane yourself, every unexpected murmur and glitch is reason to put it down and check it out. Rickerson hadn't even had it in the water yet.

There's reason to be cautious. Last November, a standard home-built Seawind crashed in Washington, killing two people. The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the accident has not yet been released. From press reports, it appears the plane stalled at low altitude.

Seawind general manager Paul Marshall said that, of the 169 kits sold, 59 have been completed and flown. Other accidents have been traced to engine problems or pilot error, he added, but ''there's never been a structural problem with a Seawind.''

The Super Seawind has gained a reputation around Merrill Field on account of its eye-catching design suitable for an aerial exploit by, well, James Bond.

''We've even got the tower calling us Double-O Seven,'' Ibbotson said with a laugh.

To get the joke, it helps to know that air traffic controllers would usually say ''Zero zero seven'' and stick with it no matter what.

Smirks are fine, but the high spirits can't drift over into high jinks like buzzing or any other infraction. The authorities won't mistake 007 for any of the hundreds of Pipers, Cessnas or Beechcraft in Alaska. That's the downside to flying something that looks like nothing else in the sky, Rickerson said.

''You can't get away with anything bad.''

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