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Albatross One: flying Row 44's amphibious in-flight WiFi test plane

Zach Honig

Every manufacturer needs to test its gear throughout the product cycle, and if in-flight connectivity is what you're peddling, frequent trials and partner demos can be tremendously costly for even the best-funded operations. For satellite internet providers, an antenna in the sky means you can accurately test performance even on the ground -- when JetBlue and ViaSat teamed up to launch Fly-Fi last year, the duo ran through a variety of scenarios from an ordinary Ford passenger van.

Gogo, on the other hand, gets you online using modified cell towers, so that company needs to test its service from the air in its own private jet. Regardless, there's no better place for any in-flight content provider to demo its product. Row 44, the satellite-based provider best known for getting Southwest's 737s online, figured it might as well have some fun with the compulsory endeavor, so the company purchased a Grumman HU16B Albatross flying boat -- it's one insanely awesome ride. Join us aboard Albatross One.

Gallery: Flying Row 44's Albatross One | 32 Photos

In the five-plus years that Row 44's been showing off its ever-evolving service on this twin-engine amphibious aircraft, Albatross One and her hotshot pilot, Dave Cummings, have logged more than 800 hours together. The plane, which has a profile similar to the Boeing 737s where you'll find Row 44 service, is equipped with a full suite of equipment, including a large antenna and radome up top and a wireless hotspot mounted inside the relatively roomy cabin. And, in a twist unique to Row 44's parent company Global Eagle, the current third-gen system is capable of serving up both broadband internet and live Dish TV programming using the same antenna.

After our recent JetBlue Fly-Fi test, however, the highlight of our one-hour flight on Albatross One was clearly the experience of flying on a 1950s-era seaplane. JetBlue's Ka-band solution is leaps and bounds ahead of Row 44 when it comes to performance, and while we were able to send and receive email and load Engadget on board the Albatross, image uploads were not successful. Row 44 Chief Technical Officer John Guidon tells us that Ka-band service will arrive within the next few years, at which point you'll be able to browse the web and stream video with vastly improved speeds.

You can experience Row 44's affordable (albeit sluggish) satellite WiFi on board Southwest, Allegiant, Icelandair and Norwegian Air Shuttle. And on Southwest, you can also watch free (ad-supported) Dish TV. As for a ride on Albatross One? Our video tour will have to do -- Global Eagle's incredible plane is reserved for test flights and partner demos across the US.

Video edited by Edgar Alvarez.

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