Modernized Albatross Used for Product Development

Row 44 finds great use for GA.

Grumman Albatross

Grumman Albatross

** The Grumman Albatross used as a test bed
by Row 44**

The Grumman Albatross amphibian was designed in the late 1940s and was primarily used in the Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard. But a company called Row 44 based in Westlake Village, California, recently found a new use for the large flying boat. An in-flight broadband and entertainment provider for the airlines, the company found the Albatross was the ultimate platform for testing its system.

According to Robbie Hyman of Row 44, the curvature of the upper part of the Albatross’ fuselage is very similar to the Boeing 737’s, which is the airplane used exclusively by Row 44’s first customers - Southwest Airlines and Norwegian Air Shuttle. The two airlines combined have about 200 airplanes with the Row 44 system installed, most of which are Southwest’s. So far, the offerings include high speed Internet, movies and TV shows, live sporting events and a shopping portal, to name a few.

Row 44 had completed the initial R&D on its system in 2008 and purchased N44HQ, which they call Albatross One, for its aerial testing phase. Pilot Dave Cummings aided in the purchase and he assembled a team of 13 people tasked with modifying the airplane in time for the Apex (Airline Passenger Experience Association) Expo that year. They were given 23 days to complete the project. A large ceiling panel in the center of the fuselage was fitted with the satellite antenna on the outside and hardware on the inside. The interior was gutted and equipped with nine comfortable leather seats in the rear, including a special engineering workstation. An AC electric power system was installed with regular power plugs at each station and two backup batteries to enable ground testing without the engines running. The electrical system was of particular importance since the R&D work was done with highly sophisticated, very expensive computer equipment.

In addition to the R&D specific modifications, the instrument panel was completely reconstructed, with new harnesses, instruments, avionics and radios. New comm and nav antennas were also added as well as a GSM antenna for 3G use. The fuel tanks were repaired, two out of four windshield windows were replaced and the airplane was seam sealed and painted before going to the show. According to Cummings, these were just the big modifications and the reconstruction included many other smaller projects. It seems absolutely impossible to complete such a project in less than a month, but both Cummings and Hyman claim it happened. Other upgrades have been made since, including replacing both engines.

Albatross One is based at Camarillo Airport in California. Row 44 also has an engineering test center in Chicago. But Hyman said the aerial testing is crucial to analyze how the system reacts in flight and in weather. With new options constantly being added and to ensure the dependability of the system, continuous testing is conducted. “We’re doing test flights just about every day,” said Hyman, who says the daily availability of the airplane is absolutely invaluable.