The story feels more like the 1920s than the 1980s.
It’s about an Australian pilot named Don Adams. After serving as an engine mechanic in the Royal Australian Air Force in the final years of World War II, he returned to his native Queensland and took up crop spraying, first using a de Havilland Tiger Moth biplane trainer. He eventually built up an FBO and a fleet of aircraft in Hervey Bay, on Australia’s east coast.
Queensland then was still the Wild West — or Wild East actually, since everything below the equator is backwards — and Adams had a contract to deliver newspapers to remote communities. Like instrument-chart pioneer Elrey Jeppesen, he developed makeshift ADF approaches based on local radio stations, compass and clock. Soon he was being asked by businesses along his route to air-drop auto parts and small parcels. Many communities built airstrips after becoming addicted to the convenience of aerial delivery; or perhaps they were concerned that one day a transmission might fall through someone’s roof.
In 1969, the enterprising Adams landed a Cessna 182 on Lady Elliot Island, a tiny, treeless patch of coral and bird droppings — though most of the latter had been removed by guano miners during the 19th century — 50 miles off the coast north of Hervey Bay. He brought pick and shovel with him and dug out enough of an airstrip to get airborne again. Bringing over heavier equipment by boat, Adams graded a proper runway and established a small resort for birders and divers — the surrounding waters are unbelievably clear, and seabirds swarm to the island to roost. For eight years he flew day-trippers over to the 2,000-foot dot of land with picnic lunches prepared by his wife, Moya. Adams used a menagerie of aircraft for the service, including Britten-Norman Islanders, a Cessna 207 and even a de Havilland Drover, a nine-passenger oddity improbably powered by three 145 hp engines of four in-line cylinders each.
In the 1980s, Adams retired to his sailboat, Seabird Seven. After a while, however, he grew tired of relaxing and decided to do the exact opposite: He founded an airplane company. From there, through a winding and decades-long evolutionary road, the Seabird Seeker came into being.
The unusual beginning begat an unusual result. The Seeker, unlike most airplanes, is a side-by-side, two-seat, high-wing taildragger. Like the old Republic Seabee, it carries its engine high behind the cabin and its empennage on a boom passing below the pusher propeller. In a seaplane, this configuration keeps the prop away from the water; in the Seeker, however, it had a different purpose: to provide an unobstructed field of view through a completely transparent nose. Except for the absence of a collective, the Seeker’s cockpit says “helicopter,” with instruments clustered in a central pedestal and Plexiglas wrapping around overhead and below the pilot’s feet.
I first learned about the Seeker from Richard Reilly, an aeronautical engineer who worked 10 years ago with Don’s son, Peter Adams, on various modifications of the design. Reilly is particularly proud of the engine cooling. This is always a problem with pusher airplanes, since the engine is not in the propeller slipstream. The Sentinel, as the earlier version was called, was no exception; it would overheat just flying around the pattern. Replacing its underwing inlets with a long, sleek scoop and diffuser above the wing, Reilly and Adams managed to make the Seeker cool so well that two now serve with the Iraqi Air Force in ambient temperatures of 130 degrees.