Mike Barron, an area pilot, is working to save rare planes from destruction.

A year ago Hannibal gained national recognition for being the winter haven of a large number of endangered bats. In the months to come Hannibal could gain notice after it becomes the home to the largest flock of privately-owned Albatrosses in the United States, if not the world.

The Albatrosses bound for Hannibal are not the large seabirds that have been tagged with the moniker of “gooney bird,” but a king-sized, twin-radial aircraft that is frequently referred to as a “flying boat.”

The owner of the Albatrosses is Mike Barron, owner and operator of Barron Aviation Private Flight Services at Hannibal Regional Airport, who for some time has dreamt of buying a large, amphibious plane.

“I have been interested in Grumman Albatrosses for a long time because they’re a big enough airplane that you could use them to go on a fishing trip. You could live right on it, right on the water. It’s big enough you could also carry a boat to run around on,” he said. “I had almost given up on the idea because I wasn’t finding what I was looking for.”

That changed last July when Barron was awakened from a sound sleep by a phone call from a friend wanting to know if he would be interested in not one, but seven of the planes which measures 65 feet long and has a wingspan of 100 feet.

“In my stupor I said, ‘Yeah,’” he recalls with a chuckle. “I woke up wondering if it was a dream or if it really happened.”

Dream come true

After confirming the phone call he vaguely remembered was not a dream, Barron learned that the G111 Albatrosses he was acquiring were sitting in an aircraft “boneyard” near Tucson, Ariz., and were slated to be chopped up and recycled.

“Now I’m knee-deep in rescuing seven Grumman Albatrosses that have been sitting since 1986 in the desert,” he said.

Most Albatrosses spent their entire careers in military service, either for the Air Force, Navy or Coast Guard. Barron’s Albatrosses are seven of 13 planes taken out of military and modified by Grumman to qualify for civilian service. However, just about the time the conversions were being completed the company buying them ran into “fiscal turbulence.”

“With their financial problems they promptly parked them,” said Barron. “A lot of these airplanes hardly saw any service at all. They’re very close to new air frames. I mean they’re old, but as good as you can get for an old airplane. They put new engines, hoses and kind of rebuilt everything on the airplanes and then parked them in the desert.”

Under terms of his purchase agreement Barron has a limited window of opportunity to get his “flock” of Albatrosses air worthy and out of the Arizona airport.

“It’s a huge, huge undertaking. They gave me 18 months to get all the airplanes out. I hope I can get it done in 18 months,” he said.

One of the biggest challenges facing Barron is finding the time to work on the planes.

“There’s lots of work to be one on them,” he said.

Hurdle No. 2 is coming up with enough money to fund the project.

“A lot of the stuff they need is very expensive,” he said.

Desert dilemmas

While work is progressing, Barron is cautious because of what desert creatures may have claimed an aircraft as their home.

“Three of the planes had full colonies of honey bees. Although we haven’t encountered one yet the people out there warned us there was a rattlesnake in one,” he said, noting that tarantulas, a black widow spider and scorpions have been seen. “We don’t go sticking our hands in any dark corners or under the floors without checking it out real good first.”

Barron is cautious about making predictions on when his first Albatross will appear at Hannibal Regional Airport.

“It’s so hard to say because you just don’t know what you’re going to run into,” he said. “There are still things that haven’t been fully tested. It could go really slick and there’s nothing wrong with the remaining stuff. I could have to redo all of it.

“I’m hoping in the next couple of months to get the first one back. That could be a little optimistic.”

After restoring the first Albatross, Barron is hopeful the process will become easier and faster on subsequent planes.

“Being an aircraft we haven’t worked on before there’s a big learning curve to learn the ins and outs of the airplane,” he said.

While one of the planes is destined to be Barron’s “flying RV” and another will be loaned to an aviation museum in Kansas City, his plans for the remainder of his “flock” are less firm.

“I don’t have a solid plan on what to do with them yet, but I couldn’t bear to see them cut up,” he said.

For sale

Barron will eventually hang a “for sale” on some of his planes.

“Once I get them all back here then I’ll do a little advertising and see what interest there is in them,” he said.

Will there be a strong market for planes this old and big?

“I really don’t know. There are people out there that love the Albatross, but there’s a big difference in loving the airplane and wanting one,” he said. “We’ll just have to see what interest develops.”

Based on what he has experienced already, Barron believes the public will be curious to see his Albatrosses.

“We’ve already had numerous visitors when we’re out there (in Arizona) working who just want to come see the airplanes,” he said.

It’s possible that Barron will take his planes to locations where the general public can view them up close.

“There’s always a demand at airshows,” he said. “The other thing that could be done is touring water-based locations, taking the airplane to riverside cities that have an adequate place to moor up and give tours.”

The Hannibal riverfront could be just such a destination.

“The hard part will be looking to see if there is a location where the aircraft can be moored with the current of the river and still have access to it for people to come on and look at it,” said Barron.

Reach reporter Danny Henley at danny.henley@courierpost.com