Smell the fish

September 1, 2004

Mark R. Twombly, a writer, editor, and pilot, now lands on two different runway surfaces.

The epiphany hit me sometime during the first flight of the second and final day of instruction. I had been so deeply absorbed in the training, so focused on trying to master the unique techniques required for the rating, that I had not taken any time to stop and smell the flowers. Correction: Smell the fish, not the flowers.

There were no flowers where we were, which was out in the middle of one of hundreds of shallow fresh-water lakes in Central Florida's Polk County. We were puttering along at idle speed, our twin hulls carving short-lived parallel paths in the tannin-stained water.

In a moment we would be soaring above the lake, looking for the next inviting expanse of water to challenge. But for now we were just two guys riding around in an awkward boat that looked an awful lot like a Piper J-3 Cub on straight floats. And that's when it hit me.

"We're not supposed to be here," I thought. "We're in an airplane on the water. That's just not right." Airplanes fly in that great ocean of air above, not on the ocean itself — or lake, as the case may be. But that was my 38 years of doing nothing but landing on wheels talking.

Properly built or equipped, airplanes do float, of course, and it's a very good thing they do. If they didn't, a lot of people would be having a lot less fun doing things that are a lot less remarkable than flying seaplanes.

I was hoping to join them — as soon as I could get the hang of those confounding glassy water landings and pass the looming checkride. Those anxieties faded for a moment as I turned toward the Cub's open hatch, surveyed the scene beyond the silver floats, and muttered, "This is too cool."

It had been too long since I went flying just for flying's sake, instead of using an airplane as a tool to travel quickly from point A to B to C, then back to A. I've flown ultralights and tailwheel aircraft including Cubs and Stearmans, aerobatics in both a Pitts S-2B and Citabria Decathlon, and have taken a few lessons in a sailplane, but for the past decade I've been flying high-performance singles and twins almost exclusively.

The closest I've been in years to stick-and-rudder fun has been weekend-morning breakfast flights and doing a few thump-and-go patterns. It was way past time for me to do something just for grins. I could get current again flying upside down, finally complete that glider rating, find a simple taildragger to fly, or do something else far off the IFR airways.

That "something else" recently became clear when I began editing Water Flying magazine, published bimonthly for members of the Seaplane Pilots Association. It didn't take many issues of reading and editing stories about flying on floats before I was committed to getting the formal seaplane pilot credentials.

I signed up for the five-hour course at Jack Brown's in Winter Haven, Florida. With some four decades of experience training pilots for the rating, good year-round flying weather, and more than 500 fresh-water lakes beckoning within a few minutes' flying time, it's no wonder Brown's is perhaps the best-known seaplane training school in the country. Adding to its appeal is the fact that each student trains in a J-3 Cub on straight floats. Could it be any more fun?

To be honest, I was lulled into thinking the training would be a cinch. How difficult could it be if Brown's says it takes most people just five hours of instruction, plus the checkride? Flying the Cub wasn't difficult, although I'm sure Ben, my instructor, was silently critiquing my indelicate footwork on the rudders as we bounced our way from lake to lake in the hot and humid Florida summer air.

The difficulty for me came in making the mental and visual transition from flying relatively large-scale patterns to hard-surface runways with glidepath guidance and marked touchdown zones, to flying short, close-in patterns to a "runway" defined only by subtle wind cues. Take your average airport and remove all runways, taxiways, windsocks, the VASI/PAPI, and the ATIS/ASOS while you're at it, then figure out the direction to land and a touchdown point by noting which way the grass is bending in the wind, and you begin to get an idea of the challenge of seaplane flying.

And another thing: One of aviation's many righteous clichés is that the flight doesn't end until the airplane is tied down on the ramp or tucked away in the hangar. If you want to find out what that cliché really means, try seaplane flying. When you touch down on the water in a seaplane, the excitement is just beginning.

Seaplanes make for terrible watercraft — barely maneuverable, slaves to weathervaning, vulnerable to tall posts and other metal-bending objects sticking up out of the water, and magnets for brain-dead recreational boaters. Guiding a seaplane from ramp or dock to takeoff and back again in windy conditions on the water — now that is a skill set any pilot should be proud to possess.

I'm a long way from joining that fraternity, but I did manage to complete the basic training and pass Jack Brown's checkride. I'm breathing easier now. It must be the fish.