Pilotage: Recreational vehicle

April 1, 2008

Mark R. Twombly is a charter pilot on a Citation II based in Southwest Florida.

I have a to-do list, stuff I would like to accomplish someday. It includes a vacation in Hawaii and flying a Cirrus. I must be one of only three or four pilots left in the country who has not flown the iconic twenty-first-century general aviation airplane. I also want to fly a Van’s Aircraft RV, the iconic homebuilt. RVs are all things to almost all pilots. They are fast, economical, and versatile—great for goofing around, for going places, or for going upside down. There’s a model to suit every taste—tricycle gear or taildragger; one-, two-, or four-place; tandem seating or side-by-side. And they have classic, beautiful lines—RVs are good-looking airplanes. It’s no wonder that half the pilot population has already built one, or so it seems. (Van’s Web site says that more than 5,600 have been completed.) I’d just like to fly one.

A few weeks ago I got an introduction to one of those gotta-do-its when I flew in an RV. Not just any RV, mind you, but a one-of-a kind amphibious floatplane RV.

Trey Johnson lives on Lake Washington just north of downtown Seattle, where floatplanes are the preferred recreational vehicle for exploring local waters, popping up to the San Juan Islands, or heading north across the Canadian border to Victoria Island, the Inside Passage, British Columbia, and Alaska. Johnson was immersed in the Northwest’s float-flying culture as a commercial pilot flying a de Havilland Beaver. (This followed a foray into competitive skydiving—he was on a champion U.S. Nationals team and also competed internationally.)

Johnson was drawn to the freedom of float flying, but felt it lacking in one important characteristic—speed. Most seaplanes are nothing if not slow. The solution was to build his own. He devoted some 2,000 hours to constructing an RV-7 that he initially put on wheels (conventional gear) for a few months to complete initial test and certification flights. He hung the airplane from the rafters of his hangar, removed the landing gear, and attached a set of Claymar 2200 amphibious floats, the same ones Claymar builds for Piper Super Cubs.

Johnson finished his ambitious build project in 2007, and flew it to EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh for its public debut. The all-over bright yellow airplane was a sensation at the Vette Seaplane Base on Lake Winnebago, and Johnson left the show with a Gold Lindy award in the Seaplane category.

I met Johnson at AirVenture, and met him again when he flew his floatplane from one corner of the country to the other—Seattle to Southwest Florida—to visit his mother. He took it easy, spreading the flying out over four days, with overnight stops in Reno, Nevada; Albuquerque; and Jackson, Mississippi. “I was lucky—light tailwinds and no weather all the way,” he says.

He invited me for a ride. After settling into the right seat I tried to decipher the largely electronic panel, and get comfortable with such a high perch that looked out over such a small wing. The 210-horsepower Lycoming IO-390 engine quickly pulled us off the runway, and we climbed briskly to 1,000 feet—high for a seaplane.

On the way out to cruise the barrier islands, Johnson offered me the controls. It’s been a long time since I flew a Robinson R22 helicopter, but I immediately recognized some similarities. I was overcontrolling to the extreme (my excuse: it was turbulent), so I tried resting my right hand on my leg and barely grasping the stick. As with the R22, in Johnson’s RV-7 you try not to physically move the stick to make a control input, you just think about it. Silky handling was one of Johnson’s motivations for choosing an RV-7. The other was speed. He says he cruises at about 137 knots true airspeed, which is phenomenally fast for a piston-powered seaplane, especially on heavier and draggier amphibious floats.

We turned back east and tracked the Caloosahatchee River, looking for a stretch that was free of boats and obstacles. Johnson set up for a landing, and the RV settled onto the rippling surface like a car coming to a smooth stop on a gravel driveway. After water-taxiing for a few moments—there is nothing quite like the feeling of sitting in the cockpit of an airplane that is floating on water—Johnson checked for boats, stowed the water rudders, and poured on the power. We were off the water in seconds.

It’s impossible to overstate the dogged determination, boundless energy, unshakable commitment, and endless hours of just plain hard work that are required to build your own airplane. To build one that is unique in the world—that is special indeed. Wonder what’s next on Johnson’s to-do list?

E-mail the author at marktwombly@earthlink.net.