Life on the Water

Fun flying, and a paycheck too

August 1, 1996

One warm winter Sunday I was out on the boat, doing the 45-minute run across Pine Island Sound to Usseppa Island, a favorite southwest Florida munching spot of mine. The sun was blazing in a sky toned from deep indigo to light azure on the horizon, dusted by thin ribbons of high cirrus, harbingers of the next day's cold front. I didn't even hear the airplane until it was right on us, then sweeping overhead some 200 feet off the deck: a Maule M-7 on straight floats, with the pilot on his way to the same munching spot. Except, of course, he got there in 10 minutes, compared to my 45.

His wasn't the only floatplane on the Pine Island Sound that day, either. Only minutes after the close encounter, I spied a Cessna 185 on amphibious floats crossing east to west, headed toward Cayo Costa, an uninhabited barrier island with one of the whitest sweeps of beach along the Gulf Coast. Coming back up the Caloosahatchee River near sunset, I was treated to a de Havilland Beaver on amphibious floats lining up on a long final approach to nearby Page Field, and a flight of two Cessna Caravans splashing down near a favorite tourist watering hole along the bank.

The romance of flying low and landing on water — then taxiing up dockside to your destination — is attractive, I thought, remembering the pristine, protected waters surrounding me, and the more than 225 days of solid VFR sunshine we have in South Florida each year in which to fly over them. What a life it would be, flying from remote paradise to remote paradise, always VFR, never above 1,000 feet. It seemed too good to be a real job. I had to check it out.

A quick call out to Boca Grande, haven for the discreet and wealthy, confirmed my best guess; the airplane I had seen that day was owned by a full-time floatplane operator, Mark Futch (See "Pilots: Mark Futch," January 1995 Pilot), and business was good. Another call up to Sanford, Florida, turned up Florida Seaplanes (see "Three Day Skipper, June 1995 Pilot), with an FAR Part 135 operation that runs passengers up and down the barrier islands and inland waterways on the other side of the state. Brown's Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Florida, keeps its flight instructors busy. Last, I checked out the Florida Keys and found Key West Seaplanes operating three Cessna 206s on straight floats to the Dry Tortugas National Monument every day. All the operations had three things in common: they were conducting water-to-water operations (no amphibious floats), employing pilots and making money.

The job opportunities for seaplane pilots were there, but the owners of each operation were quick to let me know that insurance and common sense keep them from hiring anyone but the most experienced seaplane pilots they can find. During the winter in Florida, that's not a challenge. "I lived in Alaska for 14 years as pilot/guide at a 135 air taxi operation, then I would come down here for the winter," says Bill Dayhner, owner of Key West Seaplanes. "When I bought the business seven years ago, I came down here to Key West full-time. I don't regret it." Dayhner has one reason why he usually hires Alaskan bush pilots to work for him. "I like the skill level of the Alaskan bush pilot; plus, there aren't many seaplanes in the Mojave Desert. The pilots who have 1,500 hours of float time in type — that's what I want."

A trip to Fort Jefferson Harbor in the Dry Tortugas on a windy day made it clear why Dayhner's pilots needed to be experienced for the job. "Strong wind days, you get swells right into your landing area," says Hogan Massingill, a 62-year-old laid-off Midway Airlines pilot who flies for Key West Seaplanes now to make up for his lost pension. "There's lots of boat activity because the commercial fishermen come in to get out of the open water. There are a lot of coral heads, too, which you can see from the air better than from the water because of the glare."

On the day we rode with him out to the fort, the wind was howling out of the north at 25 knots. Takeoff in the sheltered bay on the lee side of Key West was routine enough. With half flaps and full power, the Continental engine had us on the step and off the water in about 17 seconds.

Dayhner's pilots run the airplanes full rich all the time, burning around 16 gallons per hour at 25 inches manifold pressure and 2,450 rpm, which seems to eliminate cylinder head problems. Mandatory three- to four-minute cooldown periods before shutdown help, as well.

Maintenance woes have put many seaplane operations out of business. One hard landing can bust a vacuum pump, and the war on corrosion in the saltwater environment is constant. Both the amphibious Beaver and the amphibious Cessna Caravan operations never made it past their first seasons in South Florida. Passenger volume is the key to success in a seasonal seaplane operation. The increased cost of the amphibious float maintenance, combined with the loss of payload (amphibious floats are significantly heavier than straight floats), made the ventures unprofitable.

The 40-minute trip to the Dry Tortugas was all at 500 feet off the water, making it easy for passengers to spot schooling sharks, loggerhead turtles, and the outlines of shallow wrecks in the reefs and Marquesas atolls strewn along a 275-degree heading out into the Gulf of Mexico. The Cessna was equipped with nothing but the most basic IFR instrumentation — two VORs, an ADF, and basic vacuum instrumentation. Nevertheless, Massingill's heading was true; and 30 minutes into the flight, the east beach at Fort Jefferson appeared low in the sea haze on the horizon. I asked him whether he'd ever had trouble finding the fort. "I've had a few times with sea fog where I got here and the island was nowhere. That's when we say they've moved it," he chuckles. If the fort's fogged in, Massingill has no choice but to return to base in Key West, where Dayhner refunds his passengers' fares. It's a tough way to make a living, but such weather is short-lived and rare in these parts.

Massingill was not exaggerating about the harbor conditions. The place was packed with ragtag fishing vessels sporting names such as Maria Magdelena, Perdito, and Shogun. We splashed down at the harbor entrance, square in the channel, and came off the step only 10 feet from the pilings of the old pier, weaving our way between gaping fishermen to a jolting halt on the beach. Massingill was out on the float before he shut down the engine, making sure that he had one pontoon firmly on the beach (turning downwind in such a wind is not an option). Then it was time to get his feet wet. He swung the airplane around by the left float and hauled it tail-in onto the beach, allowing his passengers to step lightly onto dry sand.

Once the passengers were out of the way and the airplane tied down with permanent lines on the beach (the pilots carry no line, not even a paddle), Massingill kicked back with a newspaper and a cooler for an hour or two of downtime. The rangers all knew him (he brings them a fresh newspaper and the occasional special request) and the fishermen were polite, if a bit tipsy, as fishermen in port for a few days are wont to be. A case of Busch beer barters for all the shrimp or grouper you can carry home on a day like today, Massingill explains. The whole island has a sort of loose and lascivious feel to it this morning. There are worse crew layovers.

Two hours later we're airborne, headed east along the same track, after a slow downwind idle taxi and a rough-water takeoff, weaving between invisible coral heads that Massingill knew were there and anchored fishing vessels that he could see. The trip home mirrored the one out but for the angle of the sun reflecting off the whitecaps and the hazy green water below.

Key West Seaplanes does nothing but run back and forth to the Dry Tortugas every day — which, admittedly, could get boring. But most of Dayhner's pilots have already seen what flying in ice and snow and fog around big mountains is all about. As we sat back at the dock in Key West, swapping stories, not one complained about the monotony of flying for a niche market. The 4 o'clock sun is still high in December this far south, and the breeze keeps the wind chill right around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. After a couple of winters in Fairbanks or Anchorage, Dayhner explains, it is hard to complain about Florida.

Flying for Key West Seaplanes might be a pilot's paradise and an entrepreneur's dream, but only those with time in type need apply. Inexperienced land pilots have a bad reputation for tearing up seaplanes. Logging seaplane time, as you know if you've checked around, isn't that easy. Most of the pilots currently working at Key West Seaplanes either got lucky and knew someone with a hunting lodge and a seaplane or they paid their dues by teaching. If they taught, they had to teach in seaplanes. One of the few operations that hires new seaplane CFIs is Brown's Seaplane Base, located at Gilbert Field in Winter Haven.

If Key West Seaplanes is paradise for bush pilots who loathe frostbite, then Brown's is the best CFI stint I've ever encountered. Few flight training operations can boast of flight instructors who have been with them seven years or more, as Brown's does.

"If Brown's could pay me what I'm getting paid now as a corporate jet pilot, I'd come back and teach in seaplanes for the rest of my life," says John Rennie, a Lear 55 pilot based in Orlando. "I think it's the back-to-basics, seat-of-the-pants flying that makes seaplane flying so addictive. You may be flying to nicer places in the jet, but it's so sterile, and a hotel is a hotel." Rennie worked at the seaplane base whenever he was laid off, between jobs, or, now, on a day off. It's hard to get away from, and, quite frankly, Rennie doesn't want to. "I like instructing. The seaplanes have so much versatility. If you're having a tough lesson, you land, taxi up to a restaurant, have a Coke and debrief, then go again. Reading the lake and the wind is so good for pilots. There are no radios to distract you. It's a great rating for any pilot to have."

Rob Drennan flies a Beech King Air for Publix Supermarkets part-time, but his full-time job is at Brown's. "I'm going to retire here," he laughs. Like most of Brown's CFIs, Drennan did his initial seaplane training at the base and then was hired on as an instructor. "If you have to instruct, this is the best type of instructing job you could get. I don't think even aerobatic instruction would be as much fun as this. There are a lot of takeoffs and landings — playing around on the water, doing things you can't do with other airplanes."

Part of the reason that the job is so enjoyable rests with the students. More than 40 percent of Brown's students are foreign nationals in town just for the rating. Some need it to get a job back home; one is contemplating a career change; but most, like ag pilot Steve Gustafson from Tallulah, Louisiana, are interested in learning to fly floats because it looks like fun. They plunk down $700 for five hours in a Piper J-3 Cub on straight floats ($1,400 for five hours in the UC-1 twin-engine Republic Seabee) and spend the next day and a half working hard.

The CFI's job is to make sure that no matter what, the customer enjoys himself and passes his checkride. "Five hours is what 95 percent of our customers need to accomplish the rating," says Jon Brown, who, with his brother Chuck, inherited the 30-odd- year-old business from their father, Jack. "My instructors know within an hour whether or not the student is capable, and if he or she isn't, we let them know. That way, if they want to go on, they pay by the hour past five hours and there is no pressure on the instructor or the student to do the impossible."

The policy seems to work. Brown's turns out nearly 500 seaplane pilots a year and makes money doing it. "We haven't changed a thing since Dad opened the place. It's a very casual atmosphere but professional at the same time. We're open seven days a week, the weather's good most of the time, and we operate the Cubs on straight Aquafloats, which is about as economical an airplane as you can get for seaplane training," he says, explaining how the business stays profitable.

He never has trouble hiring flight instructors, either. Brown's instructors log around 1,000 seaplane hours a year. "The enthusiasm of our students carries over to the instructors. You can just feel it. But it's more than that. In a floatplane everything is always changing; you are moving from the moment you start the engine and pull away from the beach or dock. That dynamic quality keeps it interesting," he says, while his eyes scan the main base lake, where a yellow Cub practices step turns.

Brown's is considered one of the prime nurseries for growing qualified seaplane pilots. But competition for jobs is fierce. Still, his pilots manage to create careers flying floats, even when they have to make the jobs up themselves. CFI Bill Smith moved on from Brown's, eventually landing a job with Alaska Air. Once settled into his airline career, he opened Kenai Fjord Outfitters to satisfy his craving for bush flying. Scott Slay went south to become vice president of Seaborne Scenic Air Adventures in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Spend a little time with any one of these entrepreneurs and they'll tell you the same: the market for seaplane operations is not saturated (even south of the thirty-eighth parallel), but you'd better know what you're doing or you'll never last.

Another Brown's alumnus, James Wagner, nailed perhaps the best seaplane job of them all: captain and chief pilot for Mirabella Yachts, based on Florida's east coast. Wagner flies the rich and famous back and forth to Mirabella's 275-foot sailing yachts in a Grumman Albatross decked out in corporate finery. During the summers he works Nantucket and Newport; and in the winter, the Caribbean. Best of all, Wagner doesn't complain about the pay. In fact, he doesn't complain about his job at all. "Airline captains come and ride jumpseat with us from time to time," he says. "After the trip they all say the same thing: 'Want to trade?'"

Wagner's grinning reply is always an emphatic, "No way!"

Hard Luck; Hard Times

Bad luck has plagued Key West Seaplanes this spring. In March the company endured the loss of one of its seaplanes and all souls on board. At press time the National Transportation Safety Board was still investigating the accident and had not determined a cause. In May the company lost another airplane to an engine failure. This time, the emergency landing and recovery of pilot and passengers went off with textbook smoothness, except that the airplane was lost in high seas before it could be salvaged.

The last of the company's fleet had just gone into the shop for an engine change, which left the company scrambling for airplanes. The timing of the two incidents invited FAA inquiry, as well. Bad press in the local newspaper followed shortly thereafter.

Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the FAA's Southern Region headquarters in Atlanta, is quick to point out that Key West Seaplanes has not been cited by the FAA for any violations, nor has the company been grounded.

At press time the company had two airplanes (one recently purchased), although neither airplane was actively flying Part 135. The company was in the process of demonstrating to the FAA compliance with the agency's operation specifications (mostly paperwork) and taking bookings for the rest of its summer season. — AL