Proficient Pilot

Water wings

August 1, 2004

Retired airline captain Barry Schiff has flown 290 types of aircraft, 10 short of his 300-type goal.

Once in a while I am asked what aircraft I most enjoy flying. That's a no-brainer. My answer is always the same: "seaplanes."

The sea bug bit in 1959 when my close friend, Roger Fleishman, and I responded to an ad offering seaplane ratings in Sausalito, a picturesque town on the west edge of San Francisco Bay only a mile or so north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The ad said that the average pilot could get a rating in an 85-horsepower Luscombe 8E floatplane in one day for a grand total of $100. That was a lot of money for college kids trying to make it on their own in those days.

We scraped together the money to pay for our training but could not afford the airfare to get there. (Neither of our cars or the thin rubber upon which they rode could be relied upon to complete the 800-mile round trip.)

Lady Luck, however, smiled in our direction by offering me the chance to pilot a charter flight to San Francisco only two weeks later. The problem of getting Roger there was solved by the simple expedient of having him stow away in the baggage compartment of the Cessna 310 for the two-hour flight. Illegal? Of course, but at least the weight-and-balance were within limits.

We spent that weekend getting our water wings in N77990 and discovering where aviation's real fun hangs out. You do not have to worry as much about engine failures unless over land, and even then you can land on grass without damaging the floats (or hull, in the case of a flying boat).

There usually are no windsocks on the edges of rivers and lakes, but the most accurate wind indicator is the airplane itself. Simply idle the engine, let the nose weathervane into the wind, and go.

You soon learn to feel for and find the "sweet spot" during takeoff. It is that precise attitude at which the floats run through the water and on the step with minimum drag. At this point, you can lower the nose or raise it slightly and feel the drag increase. Return gently to the sweet spot and sense the improved acceleration.

If the water is smooth and the flare just right, you can touch down so softly that it feels like a hot knife through melted butter. Two things you will never do more than once in a seaplane: land nose low (as some tend to do in tricycle-gear landplanes) or extend the landing gear of an amphibian prior to a water landing.

Landing on glassy water is hazardous because the water is so reflective that you cannot judge the height at which to flare. The recommended procedure involves establishing a nose-high approach attitude and speed while at a safe height above the water, and then adjusting power to maintain a 200-fpm descent until the floats touch. You then pull off the power and back on the stick. The most difficult part of this is exercising the discipline needed to resist the temptation to flare irrespective of visual cues that might otherwise lead you astray. This, too, might be something you do only once.

It is exhilarating to land on a pristine mountain lake, shut down, float to a stop, toss the anchor overboard, and climb out of the cockpit and onto a float or bow. I cannot think of a more relaxing or peaceful way to while away the time.

But you can't land just anywhere. Entire states, such as New Jersey, and some local jurisdictions are off-limits to seaplanes because of the misguided belief that they are incompatible with boats.

Not long after we obtained our ratings, Roger and I flew together in the Luscombe. This was not a great idea; the two of us together in any cockpit was not a great idea.

"Hey, Barry," Roger urged. "Let's fly under the Golden Gate Bridge."

I knew that this would not be kosher but thought that it would be OK to land under the bridge. (That was before cables were suspended from the bridge into the water.)

So it was that Roger and I set up an approach, noticed that the Pacific Ocean was too rough for a safe landing, and executed a go-around just in time to see the bridge passing overhead. (My pen writes loosely when the statute of limitations has expired.)

My most recent seaplane flight was in June when John Nordstrom invited me to log time in his beautifully restored de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver on amphibious floats. We flew from Seattle to a remote, tranquil lagoon near Sequim, Washington. After beaching the "Beav," we got out and took in the brisk air and breathtaking vista, reminding me that there may be no better way for a pilot to commune with nature.

I envy those who have yet to earn their seaplane ratings because they have the joy of discovery ahead of them. It is a relatively easy rating to obtain and typically requires only about five hours of instruction plus the checkride. Like all ratings, this one counts as a flight review.

The worst part of having a seaplane rating is the difficulty a newly rated pilot will have building experience unless he owns his own aircraft. Most schools do not rent seaplanes even to their own graduates. Insurance, I am told, is the problem. So what else is new?

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