Floats and boats

October 1, 1998

The breeze kicks up as I feed in the throttle. Soon the wind is stinging my eyes, despite the sunglasses. Every time I turn my head to look around for traffic, the sunglasses seem about to depart my face. I quickly gain new appreciation for the strapped-down-tight goggles worn by the open-cockpit set — they aren't just for show. No doubt those silk scarves serve an equally valuable purpose beyond looking cool.

At full throttle now, we're tooling along at a good clip, the cool breeze a welcome relief from the late summer's heat. The bright afternoon sun glints off the water's surface. It's a perfect day for flying.

Spray flips up over the bow of the jet ski (personal watercraft to the politically correct crowd) and soaks my legs. Well, there's a sensation we don't often feel in an airplane — even a leaky old one in a rainshower. About then, we hit the wake of a passing speedboat. As we skip across the waves, I'm reminded again about how similar are these two avocations: boating and flying. And, having just flown the Cessna Caravan on amphibious floats a week earlier (see " Town and Country Caravan," page 90), I have a new understanding of what it's like when an airplane becomes a boat.

The rocking and rolling caused by the speedboat's wake teaches a valuable lesson about the dangers of wake turbulence, no matter what sort of craft you are in. If we skim along paralleling the boat's path at a safe distance beside and behind — riding the wave, if you will — the little jet ski seems to have a mind of its own. Turn left and it goes right or at best responds lethargically in the intended direction. One second it feels as if we could be sucked into a path directly behind the boat; the next, we're being repelled from the path.

It's like that when caught in the wake of an aircraft as well. Often when we are flying in formation for the photos in Pilot, the subject aircraft — the one being photographed, which trails the camera ship — gets toyed with by the lead's wake. Shift a little too far to the six o'clock position and that wake will grab you like an angry gorilla. The wake sucks you in and usually the only way out is to apply aileron in one direction and rudder the other; the crossed controls break the gorilla's grip and allow you to scoot back into position.

Most of the time, the wake doesn't cause a problem, but some combinations of aircraft are worse than others. A pilot flying a light aircraft, such as a Taylorcraft or Piper Cub, behind a Beech Bonanza or Piper Saratoga serving as the camera platform, will earn his or her pay — particularly because the lead will probably have to deploy flaps and gear to stay slow enough for the lighter airplane to keep up. Remember from your private pilot exam that a dirty airplane creates more wake than a cleaned up one. The worst combination I have experienced was between two relatively similar aircraft, a Piper T-tail Lance and a Rockwell Commander 112. Photographers love to shoot from the T-tail Lance because, with the two aft doors removed and the tail up out of the way, they have a large, unobstructed area to shoot through. However, it was apparently the combination of the Lance's T-tail and the Commander's cruciform tail that meant a lot of work for me, flying the 112. It was a calm winter day over St. Louis, but you'd have never known it in the Commander as we were tossed about in the roily air behind the Piper.

You needn't be in tight to the lead to feel the effect. I was tail-end Charlie in a three-ship photo formation consisting of the Bonanza platform, a Mooney TLS, and the Mooney MSE I was flying. The first two took off in a loose formation, and I followed a minute later as the others turned downwind to depart the pattern. By the time I turned downwind, they were approximately two miles ahead. About then I felt their wake capture the MSE and give it a good shake.

In those cases the wake was not unexpected and certainly not a real safety issue, but sometimes it can be. It was a nice day over New York and I was fat, dumb, and happy, also in a Mooney MSE. We were returning to Maryland from Connecticut. New York Approach was in a cooperative mood, providing us with traffic advisories. Out of nowhere from behind and above zoomed the biggest Beech King Air I've ever encountered. This monster aircraft, its copilot wearing a white shirt with a button-down collar and David Clark headsets, passed right in front of us, seemingly within feet, and the closest I've ever come unintentionally to an aircraft in flight. As I punched the push-to-talk switch to report a near midair collision to Approach, we encountered the King Air's wake. For a second, I was unsure how this was all going to turn out as the Mooney wing dipped one way and then the other. But just as quickly, it was over.

It is such encounters that have caused the airlines and corporate pilots to include what is essentially emergency maneuver training in their curricula. As Bruce Landsberg writes in " Safety Pilot: Wake Turbulence," page 160, such training can make the difference between surviving and not surviving when dealing with wake turbulence.

Our counterparts on the water have the distinct advantage of being able to see their wake turbulence approaching, and they don't have far to fall if things go bad.

Wouldn't it be nice to be able to read the air the way an experienced boater (or seaplane pilot) can read the water? John Kelly, owner of Shoreline Aviation and a longtime seaplane pilot, certainly knows his way around the water. As I was doing stop-and-go landings and high-speed taxi turns in the Caravan Amphibian on Gardiners Bay along New York's Long Island, Kelly pointed out the subtleties of the water's surface on what was a relatively calm day. Wind gusts and zephyrs, for example, show up as dark rippled pools on the water's mottled surface.

Kelly put his knowledge to work later as we set up for landing on Manhattan's busy East River. West winds howl down the east/west streets and spill out over the river, creating havoc for the seaplanes on gusty days. Kelly says that he can name the major streets by the turbulence they create as he progresses up the river while descending for landing: "Bam! There's Fourteenth Street. Bam! Twenty-third Street. Bam! Thirty-fourth Street."

This day, the winds are out of the north, which can be a problem when the tide is coming in. The north-moving water and the south-moving wind create all sorts of havoc on the surface. But the winds are not strong and the tide isn't coming in. We skim over the top of the Williamsburg Bridge, pick a clear area among the barges and ferries, and plunk the big floatplane onto the inky water. A Cessna 206 on floats is positioned on the east side of the river, serving as the photo platform. Pilot photographer Mike Fizer straddles a float on the 206, snapping away as we taxi by. We draw no more attention from the jaded New Yorkers than if we had been in a run-of-the-mill cabin cruiser.

After a few photos at the Twenty-third Street seaplane dock, we rack the Caravan around and skip town, transitioning seamlessly from boat to airplane. Like some harbormaster, New York Approach clears us on our way.

Some days you get to experience the best of both worlds: floats and boats.