Seaplane School

Three-Day Skipper

June 1, 1995

Float flying in gator land

This is Day One of a three-day floatplane course taught by Florida Seaplanes of Sanford, Florida, located halfway between Orlando and Daytona. The checkride is scheduled in three days, but right now I am more worried about falling into Lake Monroe. Leaning from the dock, I grab the wing struts of the just-launched Maule M-7-235 and stop its movement on the water; reminds me of an astronaut wrestling with a two-ton satellite in space. The next job is to hop aboard quickly and start the engine.

The penalty for hopping aboard slowly is drifting into the dinner boat Romance or a harbor wall.

The aircraft starts easily. "Lower your rudders, skipper," instructor Dale Harper says. A cable is unhooked from the instrument panel and lowered to the cabin floor, allowing water rudders at the back (stern) of the floats to settle into the water. Idle power is set at 400 rpm: We're a boat — albeit a slow one.

Compressed-air horn in hand to warn away boaters, yoke full back, seatbelts and headsets off to aid a quick exit, we taxi past the breakwater where roosting birds point their beaks directly into the wind. We're at sea (or more precisely, at lake). It's a Florida tourist-brochure day; balmy winds, blue skies, unlimited visibility. The power is advanced to 2,000 rpm briefly for the runup and pre-takeoff checklist.

Time to raise the rudders, let the aircraft weathervane into the wind (the runway can be in any direction you want, as long as there is room), and perform the checklist. Flaps are set at 24 degrees; area is clear of boaters and obstacles; rudders are up; trim is just aft of neutral; stick (yoke, actually) is fully aft. Can you think of a catchy mnemonic for that? Florida Seaplanes did. Then, full power must be applied quickly to raise the propeller out of damaging spray.

The Maule's nose rises a few inches and pauses; seconds later — as speed builds — a second rise means it is time to push forward on the yoke quickly and go "on the step" of the floats. (Think of water skis as they lift out of the water and ride on the surface.) The floats are mostly above the water as we skim along at 40 miles per hour: For the moment, we're a speedboat.

The sound of floats slapping the waves can be heard above the engine noise, but the water is reasonably calm. There is no effort to pull the aircraft off the water, at least in a normal takeoff. Airborne in less than 1,000 feet, we're finally an airplane.

Once aloft, the floatplane handles like a land aircraft. We climb to 2,000 feet to practice the maneuvers required for the checkride: stalls, steep turns, and minimum controllable airspeed. Then it's back to our floatplane pattern altitude of 500 feet to practice landings on nearby Lake Jessup.

On the way, Harper mentions that Lake Jessup has the largest alligator population of any lake in Florida. A thought occurs to me: "Don't go there." Crocodiles, Harper tells me, are mean-spirited, equal-opportunity predators, attacking man or beast. And crocs live in Africa and South America. So, not to worry. Alligators, on the other hand, have never shown any interest in floatplanes during the years he has been here, Harper says. Oh, maybe once a few bumped into the floats while trying to swim away — after the aircraft was intentionally stopped near them to let passengers have a look. Alligators are not normally aggressive, unless there has been a drought and they are starving.

Before landing, we'll need to examine the water for obstacles from 300 feet, Harper says. The alligators appear as green sticks floating in yellowish water near the shore: first two, then a group of three, then seven in one 50-foot area. They are in a glass-smooth area of water near shore, meaning the wind is coming from that side of the lake. Fishermen in nearby boats ignore them, and vice versa. (The yellowish tint comes from tannic acid that seeps from nearby palm trees; it doesn't seem to bother the jumping shad and perch, bald eagles, ducks, seagulls, and gators that call this area home.)

The landing area is clear of obstacles, so we climb to 500 feet. The landing workload is compressed at this low altitude, and we turn base more quickly than you can say GUMPS. Slow to 80 mph, power to 1,700 rpm, flaps to 24 degrees. Base-to-final is more of a 180-degree turn than a squared-off pattern; final flaps of 40 degrees are set quickly when the landing is assured, and the speed is reduced to 75 mph.

The key to landing a floatplane is having a positive attitude, literally, says Florida Seaplanes owner Rich Hensch. It takes vigilance and practice to know when to round out (at about 10 feet), since the featureless water provides few clues as to height. Harper has me call out my altitude at 30, 20, and 10 feet. Unlike the procedure for most light aircraft landings, there is no attempt to stall the aircraft onto the water; we establish a slightly nose-up attitude and wait.

These first landings are at idle power. "If you can land with power off, the other landings are easy," Harper says. As it turns out, even this first power-off landing is not all that difficult; touchdown is satisfyingly smooth, with the floats roaring like a waterfall while shooting spray 20 feet to either side. We glide to a stop, shut down the engine, and open the doors.

There are no alligators in sight. No sounds, save the quiet lapping of the water against the floats. An eagle flutters to a nest on a nearby island, something you can't see at your local hard-surface airport. Harper has me practice "sailing" the aircraft backward — with the engine shut down — by raising the rudders, turning the ailerons towards the desired direction of travel, pushing opposite rudder, and lowering the flaps. After a few practice landings I discover that I still think as a land pilot would, sometimes tapping the non-existent brakes.

At the base, Harper's charter passengers have arrived for a noon flight to JB's Fish Camp and Restaurant in New Smyrna Beach, located on the Intercoastal Waterway 50 miles to the east. I am invited along to talk with the customers while he concentrates on flying. After takeoff, I discover the standard tour includes a pass down the space shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center. As part of my tour guide patter, I start to inform the passengers that NASA regulations prohibit our touching down, and I suddenly realize the deafening noise that would cause. We have no wheels.

After fresh seafood at JB's, we return for the afternoon training flight. I am joined by Kevin Petrella, a student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University at Daytona. Flying two students at a time has proven to be a good training method at Florida Seaplanes. The student in back can observe the procedures without the pressure of having to perform them.

Winds are up as Harper directs Petrella towards the St. Johns River a few miles away. Fortunately, the wind is parallel to the general course of the palm-tree-lined river, where cows stand half-submerged along the western shore. "It makes you wonder how often the alligators have steak," Harper says.

This afternoon's topic is maximum performance landings, similar to short field procedures used by land aircraft. Petrella finds that by lowering the normal approach speed to 70 mph, retracting the flaps at the instant of touchdown, and holding the yoke full back, he is able to stop the aircraft in 300 to 500 feet.

Shortly after touchdown, Harper has Petrella increase power to 2,000 rpm and step taxi past the unspoiled wilderness at 45 mph, ailerons into the turns for centripetal force, following the winding river. A clearing ahead invites us to lift off; flaps are lowered to 24 degrees, full power is added, and we lift out of the water in seconds.

"I can't imagine anyone not liking flying," Petrella says. Then it's my turn. To change seats, the aircraft is shut down and I tightrope-walk along a cable strung between the bows of the floats, using the propeller hub as a handhold (obviously, don't pull on the blades). As dusk approaches, we return to the marina with both students enthusiastic about seaplane flying.

Conditions were perfect that first day, but fog threatens flight operations early on Day Two. A very light breeze finally moves the fog to the northern end of Lake Monroe by 10 a.m., and we taxi past the breakwater — where the birds face north, south, east, and west, clueless as to wind direction. The water is mirror smooth, a condition that robs seaplane pilots of depth perception during final approach. Without special procedures, it can cause them to fly into, not just onto, the water.

Takeoff technique must be modified for glassy water conditions by lifting the left float free of the surface at 50 mph. In normal winds, wave action creates bubbles in the water that help free the floats from surface tension, but today there are no waves. With one float lifted, however, drag is reduced and the seaplane can accelerate better.

Landing on glassy water requires special techniques, as well. The aircraft is flown low over a "last visual reference" (LVR, to seaplane pilots) to give the pilot at least some idea of how high he is just before passing over the water. Today we are using grass along the shore as a reference.

Approaching 10 feet above the grass (lower is acceptable) and headed toward the lake, the pilot quickly sets the manifold pressure to 17 inches — exactly. Any more and the aircraft will float the length of the lake without touching down. Any less and the floats could dig into the water on landing — in a move much like stubbing your toe — flipping us over. The airspeed is kept at 60 mph, with a sink rate of 150 feet per minute. There will be even less of a roundout today and no attempt to flare; we can't predict exactly when touchdown will occur. It is similar to the soft field technique used by land aircraft. Done right, it results in the smoothest of all seaplane landings, due in part to the condition of the water.

The seaplane course, which seemingly just started, is nearly complete. Rough-water landings and takeoffs are introduced in the afternoon flight. The takeoff is modified by the pilot's pulling back briskly at 50 mph, literally forcing the aircraft out of the water. A shortened takeoff run means less spray hitting the propeller and reduced chances of structural damage from the impact of the waves on the floats. The floats have no shock absorbers and transfer the stress directly to the airframe. Water droplets can cause nearly as much pitting of the propeller as sand or pebbles. With that flight, the course is basically over. There will be a brief review flight tomorrow, test day.

Day Three, and the review flights go well, confirming that both Petrella and I have made the transition from landlubber to skipper in only five hours. Examiner Walt Bradshaw is waiting for us at a lake near Leesburg, Florida, where glassy conditions prevail. As expected, the checkride includes an oral examination about such things as the aircraft we are using, airspace, channel markers, and seaplane common sense. He wants to see all the landings I have learned; then we climb to 2,000 feet for stalls, steep turns, and minimum controllable airspeed demonstrations. Since I am applying for the commercial seaplane rating, my steep turns must be done at 50 degrees of bank while maintaining altitude to plus or minus 50 feet.

All goes well until I decide to ad lib, verbally and aeronautically speaking, by combining the best of glassy water technique with the best of rough water technique. The lake is, after all, glassy. It turns out I lack the experience to invent new techniques on the spot, and the float bows dig in slightly on one landing, rocking us forward. This is no pushover floatplane school; they do flunk people. I am relieved to hear Bradshaw offer me a chance to repeat the correct rough water landing technique: It goes well the second time.

After three days, the goal of all the hard work is seconds away. Bradshaw sets up a portable typewriter on a picnic table at the water's edge and types up a new pilot certificate, adding, " ... & SEA" after "single engine land." While the new rating may be used only occasionally, perhaps on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, learning any new skill is a reward in itself.

Getting Ready

Making an easy rating still easier

If your pilot skills are up to date, you should have little difficulty passing the seaplane checkride. Here are some additional things you can do that are helpful. Get a tailwheel signoff just before your training, and take a beginning sailing course. That's not a bad summer, either: sailing, five to 10 hours of taildragger flying, and a five-hour seaplane rating.

The tailwheel training will reacquaint you with stalls, steep turns, and minimum controllable airspeed: That's half your seaplane checkride. The greater attention to rudder required by a conventional-gear aircraft will help you keep the seaplane straight during landing and takeoff.

A sailing course will acquaint you with nautical rules of the road, something you need for the oral portion of the seaplane practical test. For example, do you know what a red channel marker means? (Keep it on your right when entering a harbor.) Many of the procedures used in docking a sailboat are identical to those used for a seaplane, such as approaching the dock into the wind. There is no written exam for the seaplane rating.

The cost of a seaplane rating in the Florida Seaplanes Maule M-7-235 is $995, which does not include the $100 to $150 examiner's fee. Call Florida Seaplanes at 800/359-7786.

Remember, any accelerated course can be hard work. You're not buying the rating, you're earning it. — AKM

Renting the Sea

Got the rating, now what?

Can you rent a seaplane once you get the rating?

Florida Seaplanes rents a Luscombe 8F for $80 an hour solo to those with 10 hours of experience in make and model on floats, but most seaplane schools prefer not to rent their aircraft; insurance is expensive, and the training business is simply more lucrative.

Seaplane insurance rates are typically 30 to 50 percent higher than those rates for land airplanes, says Avemco's Chuck Hubbard. He said seaplanes have a higher accident rate, since they are operated in the bush and have a greater percentage of severe accidents than land aircraft. AOPA Insurance Agency does not offer floatplane insurance and refers callers to the Seaplane Pilots Association, collocated with AOPA in Frederick, Maryland. The Seaplane Pilots Association offers hull and liability insurance through Hayes, Utley and Associates.

Norcal Aviation in San Andreas, California, and Whiskey Lake Seaplane Base in Brandon, Minnesota, are among the relatively few that offer floatplanes for rent. Norcal requires only 100 hours total time in airplanes, 10 in seaplanes, and 10 in make and model. While the Norcal requirements are low, renters must agree to pay the insurance policy's $2,000 deductible, and $80 a day for every day the aircraft is down for repairs.

Whiskey Lake Seaplane Base requires 500 hours total time, 15 hours in seaplanes, and 10 in make and model to rent its Piper Cub aircraft.

But if you can't rent, what can you do with the rating? Donna Bertling of Salton Sea Air Service in North Shore, California, which offers a seaplane rating in a Piper Cub, has a few suggestions.

"It is an interesting way to accomplish your biennial flight review," she said. "It looks good on the job resume for pilots headed to Alaska, Africa, or South America, or those hoping to work for federal agencies. Others are kitplane builders who want to put their aircraft on floats. It also furthers a pilot's aviation education. Some, especially airline captains, just want the rating." She paused a moment, and hit on the ultimate answer: "It's just flat-out fun." — AKM

For a free Seaplane Training Directory, write: Seaplane Pilots Association, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701. For additional information, see " Rock Me on the Water," July 1989 Pilot, and " Floats or Boats?" August 1993 Pilot.