It was the fall of 1993, and Colin Whyte was sitting on the beach in Cancún, gazing out at a small seaplane towing a banner behind it. Whyte, himself an amateur pilot, was intrigued by this little plane, and purchased a ride on it so he could ask the pilot some questions. On a subsequent trip to Cancún, Whyte’s curiosity lingered on, and he made a trek up the coast to the pilot’s home so he could talk to him some more.
“He comes in over the trees, flares out and lands on the water in front of his house,” Whyte said, “then he comes over and sees me, and breaks out some Dos Equis, he was a real character.” The plane was called a Drifter, it had two seats, floats, was extremely light, and Whyte could see that it or something like it would be perfect for the Vineyard, where you could drop into the many bays and ponds around the Island. Plus Whyte’s entrepreneurial streak took notice of the potential for selling this kind of plane to many other like-minded pilots.
When Whyte returned home, he saw a plane featured on the cover of “Flying” magazine called The Quicksilver GT 500. It was billed as the most basic airplane you can buy that’s been assembled in a factory. It was small, not much bigger than an ultralight aircraft, had two seats, front and rear, and was candy apple red — “a real eye-catcher,” Whyte said. It almost looked like a little helicopter with wings. And there was very little that came between you and the view; it was the next best thing to being a bird. The accompanying article on the GT 500 appealed to Whyte’s romantic side.
“I was only 30 feet or so above the water,” the article read; “there was nothing but air between me and the water … I’ve read about pilots in old times knowing where they were in bad weather by smells coming up from the ground. Maybe Lindbergh found the Post Office by its musty smell … The early history of aviation was recapitulated in the evolution of the GT 500. You’re climbing into a 60-year time warp.”
The only problem was that the GT 500 didn’t have floats, just conventional landing gear. But Whyte was undaunted. “Attaching floats can’t exactly be rocket science,” Whyte thought. What he would learn was that dealing with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) was its own form of rocket science.
Whyte mentioned the idea to Allen Look, who was working at Whyte’s company at the time, Martha’s Vineyard Construction. Look thought the idea had tremendous potential. “Colin just had to figure out a way to put on the floats,” he said in a recent phone interview.
Whyte bought the Quicksilver GT 500 for $30,000 from the manufacturer in California, and named his new plane the Pelican. The first hurdle would be getting the Pelican to the Vineyard. When Whyte was applying for his commercial pilot’s license, he had been very impressed with his instructor, a bright young guy named Doug Watson. Whyte approached Watson and wanted to know if he’d be interested in flying his new plane back from Los Angeles. Watson, who was in his 20s at the time, said it sounded like a fun idea, plus he could use the work.
Watson headed out for Temecula, Calif., outside Los Angeles, stopping off in Winter Haven, Fla., to get his seaplane rating.
Once in the air, Watson fell in love with the Pelican. “It was an incredible trip,” he said in a recent phone interview. True to the article in Flying magazine, Watson said, “You had the ability to fly low and slow and see the world go by. I thought Colin was really onto something.”
The plane was so small that when the two doors were removed, Watson could extend his arms outside the plane and actually turn the aircraft. Watson had paper charts, a magnetic compass, and a small portable GPS for navigation, and a radio he could use to communicate with the the air traffic controller. He was good to go.
Out West, Watson often flew over the desert, sometimes chasing deer, and he would follow roads and highways to get his bearings. “The plane wasn’t real fast,” Watson said, “at best it could do about 70 mph, and sometimes in strong headwinds I’d watch trucks pass me by.” Watson could only go a couple of hours on a tank of gas, and would generally stop at airports to sleep. He kept a tent and sleeping bag in the back of the plane for camping out. The trip took about two weeks, and Watson said it felt good to finally cross Vineyard Sound and touch down at Martha’s Vineyard Airport.
With the arrival of the Pelican, Whyte began the work of converting the plane to floats in earnest. The first step was hiring an aeronautical engineer to create a design that utilized both floats and landing gear, and to help deal with the blizzard of FAA regulations. Whyte discovered an 84-year-old gentleman named David Thurston to help him with the project, Thurston had invented an amphibious plane called the Thurston Teal, which later became the Lake Amphibian.
Thurston lived outside Portland, Maine, and Whyte, who owned a Bonanza aircraft, would fly up to Maine to pick him up and bring him back. Once Whyte bought the floats, most of the work of installing them was done in a hangar in Plymouth.
If Whyte just wanted to convert the plane to floats for personal reasons, it would have been relatively easy, but since the plan was to mass-produce and resell the Pelican, it put the project under a far greater level of scrutiny with the FAA.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” Whyte said. As soon as he made any modifications to the original GT 500, the FAA would bump the Pelican up to an experimental category — the goal then became getting something called an STC, short for a Supplemental Type certificate.
Thurston would have to crunch numbers for different weight configurations, different temperatures, different altitudes — the approvals were endless, and as often as not, the FAA would send them back to the drawing board. ”I wish someone had told me about how nothing moves in the FAA bureaucracy,” Whyte said. Then, after about 80 hours of test flights, something happened that would change everything.
‘Plane crashes in Lagoon’
In the May 2, 1996, edition of The MV Times, a headline dramatically announced, “Plane Crashes in Lagoon.” The story went on to say, “An experimental seaplane flipped while trying to land on Lagoon Pond, Sunday.”
Doug Watson remembers the day like it was yesterday.
The way the Pelican was designed, it had both floats and wheels. When landing on the water, the wheels were pulled up using a cable apparatus from the cockpit.
“I was approaching the airport to put the plane away for the night,” Watson said, but the right wheel cable got wrapped around the landing gear, and wouldn’t go down. So I made the decision to head back around and land in the Lagoon.”
Watson flew over the bridge at the head of the Lagoon, and could see the whitecaps on the water below, he remembers that the wind was gusting over 30 knots, which would make landing a craft as light as the Pelican difficult but not impossible. Watson headed to the end of the Lagoon where it was more sheltered, brought the plane down on the water, but the gusting wind caused the Pelican to catch a wingtip and flip like a cartwheel.
“I was all strapped in upside down, so it was a little scary,” Watson said, “but I managed to get out and up on top of the plane, and someone from shore came to pick me up.”
That was the good news.
The bad news was that Whyte still had tests to complete to get his FAA certification, and it would take several years for him to get back on track with his project, but Whyte was once again undaunted. In 2004 he brought the Pelican to Moultonborough, N.H., where a new pilot would continue to test the plane. By this time, Doug Watson had decided to fly planes for the Coast Guard, and moved off-Island.
Unfortunately, the new pilot would meet a similar fate as Watson. While taxiing on a lake, the leading edge of the floats went into a wave, and while the pilot was uninjured, it caused the plane to flip.
By this time Whyte had invested 10 years on the Pelican, and decided to call it quits. “I was undaunted until I became daunted,” Whyte said. The insurance company settled the claim on the plane, and Whyte cashed out. The Pelican was eventually sold to someone in the Midwest.
I asked Colin if he had any regrets about investing so much time in the Pelican. “No regrets,” he said, “I don’t really think about it. Success would have been nice, but success is very rare in the aircraft business. Plus we had a lot of fun flying it in the meantime.”
Doug Watson said Whyte has every reason to hold his head high. “Colin was a visionary and had a great sense of adventure,” Watson said. “He’s been foundational to my career as a flyer.”
Long live the Pelican!