On May 17, 2013 a Grumman HU-16 Albatross displayed by the Museo dell’Aria del Castello di San Pelagio (Air Museum of San Pelagio Castle) in Padua, Italy was wrecked and turned into a heap of aluminum scrap by the people who had bought it with the purpose of returning it to the skies. The wanton destruction shocked the aviation and warbird communities all across Italy, sparking a furor, with anger directed towards both the museum’s management and the perpetrators of the slaughter of an intact and historically significant aircraft.
While the circumstances surrounding the destruction were unclear at first and both parties pointed to the other in blame, with the help of some people with deep ties to the Italian historical aviation community we have managed to put all the pieces together. The resulting picture is both alarming and disappointing. Putting aside the gross incompetence of two historical aircraft organizations, whose mismanagement led to this disaster, two monuments were violated in this debacle. The first is the Albatross, an aircraft which was emblematic of an era, and whose unique qualities caused it to be looked at with affection and devotion by both the men who served on it and by many aviation enthusiasts. “The Albatross of San Pelagio” was well known and admired by both the Italian aviation community and the citizens of the small Venetian town in which it resided and throughout the 30 years it was on display, the plane drew many visitors to the museum which possessed it. The other desecrated monument is the Castello di San Pelagio itself. On August 9th, 1918 this location saw a handful of men accomplish one of the most audacious feats of the First War War, when the pilots of the Squadriglia Serenissima took off from San Pelagio for what became famously known as the “Flight Over Vienna.” On that day at San Pelagio an important page of Italian aviation history was written while on May 17th 2013, at San Pelagio another page was maliciously destroyed.
This Grumman Albatross SA-16 rolled out of Grumman’s Bethpage, New York plant early in 1954 as an and was delivered to the United States Air Force on January 18th of that year, assigned serial number 51-7253. Its initial deployment was with the 580th Air Resupply and Communications Service Group (US Air Force Europe), operating from Wheelus (now Mitiga) Air Base in Libya and Nouasseur Air Base in Morocco. In November 1956, the Albatross flew back to the states and underwent a general overhaul at Grumman’s Bethpage plant and in February 1957 it was reassigned to the U.S. Air Force Reserves’ 2585th Air Reserve Flying Center, based at the Miami International Airport, in Florida. From November 1957 to February 1959 the Grumman amphibian served with the U.S. Air National Guard 130th Air Lift Squadron, based out of Kanawha airport in Charleston, West Virginia, initially serving in the Resupply and Communications Service Group, subsequently serving in the 130th Troop Carrier Squadron in January 1963. The last assignment for the Unites States military was with the 130th Air Commando Group.
In 1962 all Albatrosses were re-designated to HU-16 in a U.S. Military designation simplification scheme and in October 1963 51-7253 was declared surplus and was flown to the USAF 2704th Aircraft Storage and Disposition Group, based at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona where it remained until September 1965, when it was decommissioned and sold to the Aeronautica Militare Italiana (AMI), the Italian Air Force, along with 5 other HU-16s. After the purchase, the Albatrosses made their way to Italy, landing in early 1964. From the time of its arrival to its retirement in late Seventies, the Albatross was operated extensively, performing a wide array of duties, from VIP transport to search and rescue missions. 51-7253, which was assigned the Italian Air Force designation 15-14, took off for the last time in 1980, flying from Ciampino Airport in Rome to Padua where it was dismantled and moved to the Museo dell’Aria Castello di San Pelagio, where it was reassembled and displayed on the museum’s grounds, where it would remain until the day of its destruction.
The Museo dell’Aria Castello di San Pelagio acquired the Albatross from the AMI through a leasing contract. Under the terms of the contract, the Italian Air Force remained the owner of the craft and while there would be absolutely no cost to the museum for the plane, the museum was required to maintain and preserve the plane and keep it in good condition. Despite the undemanding, convenient agreement, the museum’s board of directors soon revealed a complete disregard for the veteran plane and not unlike their treatment of the other planes exhibited in their halls and on their grounds, they neglected even perfunctory preservation efforts, letting the plane weather and ignoring the corrosion that began taking hold. In the first few years, AMI personnel would come to San Pelagio to inspect the Albatross and tinker around it in order to keep it sound, starting up the engines and letting them run on a yearly basis, but that regime didn’t last long. As time went by, its paint faded noticeably and rust and moss spots became evident on the aircraft’s battered surface. By 1990 the plane’s condition had so deteriorated that the air force, concerned that the plane could not survive continuing neglect, began pressuring the museum to live up to the terms of the contract and take steps to preserve the Albatross. Unaccountably, the AMI’s demands went unheeded and the deterioration of the aircraft was allowed to carry on unabated.
Nevertheless the Albatross stood strong and proud, and each and every visitor to the museum was impressed it’s striking, large and respect-imbuing presence, its wide hull and two big radial engines harking back to a long gone, romantic era. The true beginning of the end started in 2004 when the air force decided to exercise the terms of the original contract and a bank loan took the place of the previous payment-free arrangement. The museum claimed it could not afford to make payments and, attempting to play “hard ball” with AMI, dared them to repossess the plane. Impasse reached, there was little action until 2012 when the air force finally decided to auction the plane. Meanwhile a group of Italian vintage aviation enthusiasts had formed during the 2000’s in Ravenna with a passion for the plane to which so many Italian aviators owed their lives, forming an HU-16 devoted organization, Fly Albatross of Ravenna with the stated goal to acquire an ex-Italian Air Force Albatross and restore it to airworthy condition. Fly Albatross’ dreams seemingly came true in 2012 when the group won the auction for 15-14 with a winning bid of just €14,000 (approximately $18,500).
From the very beginning of their enterprise’s ownership of 15-14, Fly Albatross proved to be an even less suitable caretaker of this historic plane than the Museo dell’Aria Castello di San Pelagio had been. None of the organization’s personnel seemed to have any of the mechanical skills required to disassemble the Albatross or even to move it and even more alarmingly, the group’s financial assets were dangerously depleted by the purchase of the plane. It seemed the only remaining fuel driving the organization was their enthusiasm, and that would soon be depleted as well. On January 13, 2013, a contract was signed between Fly Albatross and Museo dell’Aria del Castello di San Pelagio, which was still smarting from the loss of one of their most popular attractions. The terms of the contract called for the Albatross to be removed from the man-made peninsula where it had sat for the over 30 years to a nearby apron at the facility by March 2, 2013; further, the dismantling process and shipping of its parts to Ravenna had to be completed by April 30th. Although it was given a time frame of 3 months, Fly Albatross struggled to stay on schedule and it was only with the help of a crew of AMI specialists that they succeed in removing some parts from the aircraft and got it shifted to the apron. From then on, the project stalled. Instead of giving a helping hand to their ex-main attraction’s new owner, the Museum’s management chose a more despicable course of action. Reportedly as soon as the Albatross laid its wheels on the apron, the museum began charging Fly Abatross rent of €500 ($650) a week for the storage of the plane and at a date as yet unknown to us the rent doubled to €1,000 ($1,320) a week.
With their dismantling operations falling behind schedule and lacking backing of sponsors or partner associations, and the added injury of the Museum’s extortive “storage fees,” Fly Albatross was soon buried in debt, reportedly racking up €25,000 ($33,000) in debts it couldn’t pay. Panic-struck, and with no way out of a deteriorating situation, the organization chose an unthinkable course of action, the destruction of the plane.
On May 17th, Fly Albatross, without notifying anyone of their chosen course of action had a demolition rig show up at the museum and they went at the plane with a wrecking ball. Within 5 minutes the once-proud craft beloved by so many was reduced to scrap. The only parts not shipped off to be melted down were the two Wright R-1820-76 engines, the outer wings and the ailerons. It’s reported the smelter paid the group €3,000 ($4,000) for the remains.
The Italian aviation community has quite predictably gone nuts, as the Albatross in general and this Albatross in particular, having been a star attraction for so long, is beloved by enthusiasts and the general public alike. Fly Albatross has been dismantling its website, removing the contact information for its directors and shutting down their email system. The Museo dell’Aria Castello di San Pelagio for its part, is claiming to have no idea how this occurred, conveniently ignoring the fact that this desecration took place on their property and was in large part brought about by their own negligence and obstinacy and finally their malevolent and usurious rent scheme. The museum is even taking to social media and making the hardly credible claim that they were intending to restore the plane all along, accompanied by graphic photos documenting the destruction of the Albatross on their Facebook page.
When the finger-pointing is done and the dust has settled, the fact will remain that a horrible and completely unnecessary tragedy has occurred and there is not a single organization that was involved that doesn’t deserve a share of the blame; and we’re all the poorer for it.