The unofficial logistics of flying a seaplane

Published 10:25 am Friday, May 24, 2013

by Archie Howell

We’re going to Norfolk. My crew is going to attend yet another war school “how to do it” at the training center in Norfolk; all our crews spend time in school at Norfolk. We learn the latest tactics, weapons, and maintenance. We learn conventional and nuclear weapons delivery techniques. We’ll spend time in classrooms and time pursuing other interests.

Those other interests are as varied as the needs of our squadron mates, families, and even other military persons and organizations on Bermuda. Everybody knows that one seaplane can carry a huge amount of diverse cargo in its aft holding area. Everybody knows that many more things are available in Norfolk than Bermuda, usually at a better price. Generally the requirement is that it must fit through the aft hatch.

It’s amazing what can actually fit through that hatch.

Christmas is rapidly approaching and there’s a paucity of Christmas trees on the island. Bermuda has many cedar trees, but long ago shipbuilding and furniture making reduced the forests to a precious few and it is forbidden to cut down a cedar tree. The aft cargo hold of a returning seaplane is filled with small Christmas trees. I’m not privy to where they all go, but I know they are enjoyed.

The local officers and enlisted recreational clubs run out of “Slim Jims”, those ubiquitous, spicy, much in demand small sausages. It’s a torture that cannot be tolerated and a returning seaplane replenishes that vital staple. A sigh of relief floats through the internal, unofficial network of club patrons.

Our supply officer has a problem with toilet paper. It seems the base and squadron will be in short supply, maybe even run out before the next supply ship docks. Most crews have a supply of exotic liquors “imported “ from Puerto Rico or Cuba, mostly in 40oz. bottles. We find that a skillfully placed 40oz. bottle of “the good stuff” can buy a considerable amount of toilet paper (the five cent variety, not the cheaper two cent rolls) when all the requisitions on the east coast cannot. A large quantity finds its way to Bermuda in the bowels of a seaplane.

Electronics equipment requires repairs regularly. Most of our radar, radios, and other electronics use radio tubes. Other military units use the same or similar equipment with the same tubes. Sometimes, things get a little mixed up in the acquisition and distribution of the precious glass domed, multi pin, electron flow controllers and a “not in stock” teletype message often greets our capable supply officer. We find the 40oz. solution works as well for electron tubes as it does for toilet paper. Padded boxes filled with radio tubes often occupy space in seaplanes returning from Norfolk.

Occasionally, there’s a glitch in plans. Part of our mission takes us to Quonset Point, Rhode Island, and crews purchase cases of live lobsters to be transported back to Bermuda. On one such occasion, an aircraft with a couple of cases on board diverts to Norfolk for mechanical problems. Lobsters are perishable and did not make it to Bermuda tables.

For aircrews, the unofficial logistics is a perk for an otherwise dull training school session. At a personal level, my wife and I purchase new bedroom furniture in Norfolk while on a holiday leave. The merchant agrees to hold on to the purchase until I get to Norfolk on one of the training sessions. It takes about a month. My crew is assigned to an official logistics trip, and I arrange for the furniture to be delivered and loaded into the aft cargo area for the return trip. My family, in Virginia, is in the egg business and for several routine trips to Norfolk, I load sixty dozen eggs into the aircraft for transport. Eggs are pricey in Bermuda; customers are friends and crewmembers who know of the arrangement. Everybody is happy.

Most crews that have families on the island shop for clothes, toys, and all manner of family living wants and needs in and around Norfolk and transport a huge variety of articles in the seaplane cargo bay. There are hidden advantages of being aircrew.

On extended trips of two weeks or so, the in between weekend is available for visiting with relatives, sightseeing or other interests. I have a friend and crewmate who has a truck that he leaves at the base in Norfolk for travel to visit his family in Rich Square, North Carolina when the opportunity permits. My home in Southampton County is on his route; sharing gasoline expenses works well for both of us.

Breaks in the routine of military life are made much more interesting by the imaginative use (however unofficial) of aircraft capabilities.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at