That Seaplane Rating

September 1, 1969

In most parts of the country, finding a seaplane pilot is like looking for a submarine in the desert. Yet with only about 10 hours of instruction, an average pilot can qualify for one of the rarest and most satisfying ratings in aviation.

There are, of course, several reasons why many pilots are reluctant to swap their wheels for floats. Lack of suitable water-landing areas, nonavailability of avgas, the restrictions some states place on floatplanes using their waters, and the aircraft industry's emphasis on wheelcraft are the major ones.

Out of some 9,500 airports in the United States, the FAA lists only 409 seaplane bases in this total, and more than half of these are located in five states: Alaska, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington. The scarcity of seaplane bases and the corresponding lack of floatplane instruction programs are other reasons why the seaplane rating is held by only a small percentage of pilots.

While doing a story for The PILOT on Pat Magie's Wilderness Wings Airways out of Ely, Minn., last year, I sampled an hour of floatplane instruction in a Cessna 172 equipped with the new 150-hp Lycoming. That brief exposure to floatplane flying was all I needed to convince me that I wanted a seaplane rating. The only problem was when I could find the time to come back to get it.

The opportunity came this past Memorial Day weekend, almost one year later to the day. With a couple of owed vacation days and a three-day holiday weekend coming up, I decided to head north to the "Land of 10,000 Lakes." A quick phone call to Pat Magie brought a "come on up" response from him and an ear-to-ear grin from me.

I decided to fly up, in order to have more time to acquire the necessary flying hours. The day before Memorial Day, I picked up a factory-fresh Cherokee Six 300B from Lease-A-Plane at Sky Harbor Airport in Northbrook, Ill., my home base. The weather was crisp, unusually clear, and just a little bit turbulent. But 4293 Romeo, loaded with avionic goodies, put me over the Sandy Point Seaplane Base on Lake Shagawa some four hours after takeoff, including a fuel stop at Duluth.

After contacting one of Magie's pilots on Unicom, I asked to be picked up at the Ely Airport just off my left wingtip as I turned downwind for a landing to the northwest. The wind was blowing at a steady 20 knots with gusts up to 25. Ringed with dense pines, the airport with its two 2,200-foot strips formed a huge X in the green wilderness. As I passed over the high tension wires on final approach, I eased the power back, and 4293R settled firmly, but gently, on the packed cinder strip.

I let the Big Six roll out without braking and turned off to the tiedown area. By the time I had unloaded my gear, the Wilderness Wings courtesy car pulled up, and we headed for the seaplane base ten minutes away.

Two other pilots arrived about the same time to sign in for Pat Magie's special seaplane rating package, which includes up to 12 hours of floatplane instruction, meals and lodging for two for five days, and the checkride with an FAA examiner. The $295 total cost for two people and one rating is the best bargain since the Louisiana Purchase.

The other two pilots with the seaplane bug were Gary A. Shaver ( AOPA 343493), owner of an automotive repair business in St. Cloud, Minn., and Jim Vorus, a Western Air Lines employee from Los Angeles. Gary and his wife drove up, and Jim came up commercially as far as Duluth, where he was picked up by one of Magie's pilots for the 80-mile flight to Ely.

After exchanging a few quips, we all met our instructor, a young man named Wayne Clay who started flying floatplanes three years ago, and who had just recently joined Magie's operation. Clay, with 3,200 total hours, holds a commercial ticket with single-engine land and sea, multi-engine, helicopter, ground, instrument, and flight instructor ratings.

Clay informed us that we would "start flying at 7 a.m. tomorrow in a standard Cessna 150. When you check into the motel," Clay said, "work out a schedule between yourselves and I'll see you tomorrow."

We all checked into Squaw Bay Lodge, a few miles away on Fall Lake, just in time for dinner in the main lodge dining room. Owner Joseph Skala ( AOPA 306284) hosts all pilots taking the seaplane rating package, providing modern cabins overlooking the lake and three meals a day.

Memorial Day morning was a beautiful, bright day, the last we were going to see for three days. I got out to the seaplane base in time to see Jim land and dock 8681J at the big pier loaded with camping supplies, canoes and fishermen waiting to be flown north to remote Canadian lakes.

The first different thing you encounter with floatplanes is in the preflight. You check out one side of the airplane at a time, looking for water in the floats and pumping it out if necessary. You inspect the water rudders, located at the bottom rear of the float, and the cables that are connected to the aircraft's rudder pedals. The plane is then untied, turned around by hand, and the procedure is repeated.

Wayne and I climbed in, and we were pushed away from the dock. Wayne cautioned me, as I was starting the engine, not to let the tach indicate more than 1,000 rpm, to avoid water spray in the propeller. As we taxied out to our takeoff point, Wayne explained the importance of the water rudder in maintaining directional control during taxiing. "Water rudders must always be down when taxiing," Wayne emphasized. We checked the controls for free movement, and the mags and carb heat at 1,000 rpm.

I turned down 10 degrees of flap, closed the throttle, and retracted the single water rudder by pulling a cable and fastening it to a hook on the floor. Most floatplanes are equipped with two water rudders, but 8681J had only one. You never have any trouble finding wind direction, since a floatplane will always weathercock directly into the wind. "Pull the control wheel all the way back and apply power," Wayne said. I followed his instructions, thinking how similar this was to a soft-field takeoff. The plane churned through the water in its nose-high attitude for what seemed like a long time when Wayne said, "Now get it up on the step. Push the control wheel forward steadily until you get her in an almost level attitude."

The trees on the opposite shoreline came into view as the nose lowered. We were planing along on top of the water, picking up speed, when Wayne hollered, "You're digging your toes, apply a little back pressure."

I moved the control wheel back to raise the bow of the floats slightly. "Hold it right there," Wayne said, "and she'll fly off by herself."

He no sooner got the words out than we were airborne. I lowered the nose, picked up some speed, and retracted the flaps. We climbed to 2,000 feet, about 500 feet over the lake, and leveled off. As far as the eye could see was a panorama of deep green woods and lakes of varying sizes and hues of blue. I wanted to sightsee, just a little, but Wayne was all business.

"Let's try a normal landing with 20 degrees of flaps," Wayne said.

"Do you know how to tell the direction of the wind by looking at the water?" Wayne asked. Before I gave him the wrong answer, he pointed to the lake below. "See those lines on the surface of the water? The wind always runs parallel to those lines. Water on the leeward side of an island will be calm, and on the windward side it will be more active, depending on the velocity of the wind," he explained.

I made a normal landing, the same as if that lake were a ribbon of concrete. Actually, I experienced no difficulties in any of the landings we shot that hour, including touch-and-goes and rough-water landings requiring a full stall.

We went up again in the afternoon and early evening for 45 minutes each time. We practiced docking, roughwater takeoffs, and step turns. The step turn is an on-the-water maneuver of great value to the seaplane pilot, but one which requires skill and judgment. You put the plane on the step just as you would for taking off, but throttle back, carrying just enough power to maintain the planing action.

It's amazing how quickly and sharply a step turn can be made, under certain conditions, without upsetting the plane. The step turn is particularly useful as a fast taxi to a distant dock or for circular takeoffs on a small lake.

That evening Wayne joined all of us out at the motel for dinner, during which we each talked about our two and a half hours of floatplane instruction that day. I asked Wayne what he considered the biggest hangup for wheel pilots in making the transition to floats.

"That's easy," Wayne said. "Three things: not always conscious of wind direction; docking and throttle control; keeping the rpm under 1,000 to cut down water spray. If you don't watch your rpm, water spray can ruin a prop in two weeks."

I took the 6 a.m. flight the next morning, which was one of the most depressing days I can remember — mostly because of the weather, but partly because of the hour. A light, chilling rain fell from low, dark clouds. The water of the lake was calm and the wind was negligible.

Under these conditions, we simply could not get the 150 off the water after getting her up on the step. We raced up and down the lake, more like a motorboat than an airplane. This experience seemed to confirm my suspicions that the standard Cessna 150 is underpowered as a floatplane.

We taxied back to the dock, drained some gas from the tanks to lessen our load, and headed out again. Meanwhile, the wind had picked up, and with the lighter load we got off the water — not completely without difficulty.

We had a 400-foot ceiling, so we stayed over the west end of the lake and practiced landings. Watching the fuel gauges bouncing on empty, I kept my pattern over the shoreline very close to the lake. Wayne apparently had been scanning the gauges too, even though all my previous references to fuel drew a "we've got plenty of gas" reply. He told me to take her in, and I headed for the east end of the lake.

As I came over the trees, landing south, and started to level off, the prop stopped straight up. There wasn't any danger, nor was there anything to do but simply continue the landing. As the plane came to a normal stop on the choppy water, Wayne and I were both laughing. I gave him an "I told you so" glance as I hooked up the water rudder.

"Start it up," Wayne said. I looked at him disbelievingly, pulling the starter handle at the same time. The engine came to life after a couple of turns, much to my surprise and chagrin. "Like I said, plenty of gas. Idle just needs to be set up higher," Wayne said in an authoritative tone.

My turn to fly came up again three hours later, and with improved conditions Wayne said we would try some glassy-water landings. Because depth perception is impossible on glassy water for even the most experienced seaplane pilots, a power-on, controlled rate of descent is the only safe landing that can be made when those conditions prevail.

The key to glassy-water landings is in the approach. Wayne had me fly a base leg that took me just over the trees along the shore. As soon as we were over the water, I turned on final as close to the shoreline as safety permits. You carry your nose in a slightly nose-up attitude, using the shoreline as a reference to judge how high you are above the water. The descent is power-controlled, with a 200 fpm sink rate the most desirable.

It seemed as though I traveled the length of the lake at about three feet of altitude, due to carrying too much power on my first landing attempt. However, when we finally did make contact with the water, it was a good landing. After several more glassy-water landings I felt comfortable doing them, and Wayne assured me I would have no problem with this phase of the upcoming checkride.

We reviewed everything that afternoon and started flying early Sunday morning, another miserable day. Neither Gary, Jim nor I had the necessary 10 hours required by the examiner for the checkride. Our flight tests were scheduled for Sunday afternoon, but because of the weather the examiner postponed his flight up from Duluth to the following day.

Monday started out with snow showers, cutting into the time remaining to complete our flying. When the weather cleared, a stiff north wind turned the choppy water a dark blue. Wayne reviewed with each of us all that we had learned during the past few days. We practiced docking, sailing, rough-water takeoffs, and all landings except glassy-water.

Gary, Jim and I completed our required time by early afternoon, and Wayne signed each of us off for the checkride. Because of weather conditions, needed hours, and the upcoming flight check, Wayne didn't have the time to solo any of us. Checkitis began to set in as we all sat around waiting for Ray Walburg ( AOPA 123995), a 20,000-hour FAA examiner who runs Duluth Airways. A written examination isn't required for the seaplane rating, but an oral is part of the checkride. Wayne gave us some weight-and-balance problems to work out, hoping to put us at ease.

Just before Walburg landed, we learned that the starter on the Cessna 150 we had been flying had given out. Wayne threw up his hands in dismay and asked Magie if we could use Walburg's airplane for the checkrides.

The Unicom crackled at the same time. It was Walburg advising the base that Cessna 2707 Sierra would be landing in 10 minutes. Gary was scheduled to go first, I was to go second, and Jim was last. When Walburg landed and was apprised of our starter problem, he told Wayne to take each of us up for a familiarization ride.

Wayne was pleased because Walburg's Cessna was a 150 with a 150 h.p. engine and two water rudders. Wayne felt the extra power and rudder control would aid rather than hinder us.

The 150-150 was a beast by comparison with the Cessna we had been flying. After a fast takeoff and a smooth landing, I was a lot less apprehensive about the checkride, especially when Wayne said, "You're ready."

When Gary came in from his successful checkride, I was told to go out and preflight the airplane. During our slow taxi out to the takeoff point, I went right down the printed checklist, answering Walburg's questions about the airplane, total flying hours, and boating experience.

Walburg gave a thorough checkride that included crosswind, normal and rough-water takeoffs and landings, docking, taxiing, and questions on safety and philosophy of winds. It was too rough and windy to attempt step turns or glassy-water landings, but he asked if I had done them and understood them.

As we taxied back to the dock, he said, "You know, today is a terrible day for flying, let alone a checkride." I agreed, but was waiting for him to say something about whether I had passed or not. Finally, I just came out and asked him. He nodded and said "Yes."

We docked the airplane, and as Jim began his preflight, Wayne called me over. He knew I had passed the test by the look on my face, so he didn't even bother to ask. "You know you took off with your water rudders down," he said somewhat scoldingly. When he saw my concern, he hastened to add that "even the pros around here do that once in a while."

Jim passed his fight test, and that evening Wayne and his wife joined us at my cabin, where we had some liquid refreshments, consumed nine pounds of fried-in-butter walleye fillets and ate the decorated cake we had ordered during one of our more optimistic moments earlier that day. Naturally, I took some ribbing over the water-rudder incident.

In a more serious moment, we all expressed concern over where we could get additional seaplane instruction in our respective areas, and how we could fly enough to keep current, in addition to becoming more proficient.

The three of us parted the next day, each vowing to look the other up at some time in the future. The FAA doesn't keep statistics on the number of pilots holding the seaplane rating, but if and when they do, they can add three more names to the list.

Robert A. Klobnak, new holder of a seaplane rating, is director of public relations for the American Osteopathic Association in Chicago. A frequent contributor to Pilot , Klobnak is planning to take an aerobatic course before obtaining his multiengine and instrument ratings.