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Louisville's Seaplanes: History of a landlocked city and its naval aircraft (part 1)

by GlobalAir.com 21. May 2010 17:21
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The following is by Louisville historian R. David Schooling. Images are used with implied permission. Part 2 will be posted next week.

Piper J-3 Float Plane, photo courtesy Gary J. Nokes co-author of "Wings over the Falls"


During the years following World War II, just in the east shadow of the Second Street Bridge, stood the fully operational Ohio River Seaplane Base, with several aircraft making their fascinating water skimming takeoffs and landings.

The owner-operator was St. Matthews resident W.C. Thompson, nicknamed "Tommy.” Much of the following details are from interviews with William Happel, founder of Haps Aerial Services and Haps Airport in Sellersburg, Ind.

During and prior to the war years, Mr. Thompson was happily providing flying "hops" and flying instructions at Bowman Field (LOU). At the time, he owned a Piper J-5 Cruiser, which was a souped-up version of the Piper J-3 aircraft shown above in the floatplane configuration.

In 1942, U.S. Army air forces took over Bowman Field and converted it to Bowman Army Air Base. The biggest assignment for the field was the training of air-combat glider pilots and combat-air evacuation nurses.

This instantly made Bowman one of the busiest airports in the nation. It was suddenly overcrowded, and its new mission of nonstop training activities practically squeezed out civilian operators who had been using the field for some number of years. This issue led to the total destruction of Thompson’s aircraft.

One of the glider pilot trainees managed to crash his glider into Thompson’s Piper, which ended up destroying both aircraft.   

Mr. Thompson’s government reimbursement was to be stretched out for a long time. He did not receive his payout until sometime after World War II.   

It was during this timeframe that Thompson decided to open his "Seaport" on the Ohio River. At one time, he had at least three water-based planes operating: the yellow Piper J-3 floatplane in the bridge picture and two unique and attractive "Seabee" aircraft, shown below skimming along on a water takeoff.


Courtesy of the Seabee Owners Club

The excitement of water takeoff and landing was a novelty for sure and a big attraction, especially as far inland as Louisville. The business prospered for several years with only one slight mishap.

While landing one of his Seabee’s, Thompson’s aircraft sputtered, gasped and nearly ran out of fuel. He was forced into an emergency downriver flight over the dam and onto narrow turbulent waters. The unexpected ditch landing did some damage to the aircraft, but it is recollected as being minor.

Least you are thinking, "Hey wait a minute. There is something very familiar about that plane." You are correct. You probably remember seeing the same aircraft in the James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun.

The widespread appeal of this aircraft proved long lasting, not only in the 1940s but years later, as an exciting transport gadget for Mr. Bond. At least after his over-the-dam ditch landing, a dwarf manservant serving up bottle of Dom Perignon didn’t greet Mr. Thompson.

This author's recent discovery that Thompson at one time owned other flying boats such as a Grumman Widgeon and even a second "Seabee" amphibian was a quiet unexpected turn. Most of these were stored at local airports rather that at the river location for logistics reasons.  

Aside from the pier and floating dock, the Louisville Seaport also had a small onshore building used for parts storage and maintenance items. It was nothing elaborate, perhaps one of the Municipal Wharves smaller, unused buildings. The municipal wharves complex, however, was quiet elaborate at one time. William Happel of Haps Aerial recalls buying a propeller at this location from Thompson.


W.C. Thompson’s Republic RC3 "Seabee" amphibian in the Ohio River

R. David Schooling is a freelance author and historian based near Louisville, Ky., with deep interests in little-known aspects of the area's history. He has written numerous articles and has been published widely, in local and regional publications, especially urban-affairs issues.
An Air Force veteran who served in Japan and Europe, he eventually was assigned and detached to the Royal Air Forces in Germany. Now retired and living just across the Ohio River in Clarksville, Ind., he is working on his latest endeavor, historic electric railways. Inter-urbans, elevated’s and rapid transit were all abundant in Louisville years ago.



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