AirCam river run

Low and slow along the Big Muddy

November 1, 2012

Illustration by Francis Livingston

With a sudden flick of its tail, the alligator dives beneath the rippled surface of a Florida lake, the appearance of a pterodactyl-like AirCam overhead apparently triggering some primitive reptilian dive reflex.

A five-foot, silver-scaled tarpon leaps from the cypress-lined Suwannee River as we lift off the placid water.

Vacant foundations where scores of homes and buildings were swept away by a series of killer tornadoes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, are still visible a year after the devastating event.

A tugboat churns up a muddy wake as it shoves a flotilla of barges up the broad and curvaceous lower Mississippi River, its air horn sounding a high-decibel greeting.

aircam illustrationRounding one of the river’s innumerable bends, the entire Memphis, Tennessee, skyline appears at once, orange evening sun reflecting from the steel-sided pyramid arena like a golden signal mirror.

A gathering tailwind pushes us by the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, as red-clad Cardinals fans begin to fill the nearby stadium for a night game.

A mockingbird bravely harasses a marauding eagle over a sandy Wisconsin riverbank while a tall blue heron stands by, serenely ignoring the aerial confrontation.

After 22 hours of flying a newly restored AirCam on amphibious floats from Sebring, Florida, up the Mississippi River to Minnesota, the Twin Cities skyline lets us know the end of our journey is near. This airplane, owned by Veterans Airlift Command founder Walt Fricke, has allowed AOPA videographer Paul Harrop and me to skim the Gulf Coast, trace the Mississippi River, and touch down virtually anywhere we pleased along the way.

The three-day trip covered about 1,300 nm at an average groundspeed of 62 knots and consumed 162 gallons of fuel, both avgas and auto fuel, at a rate of about 7.5 gph. But what those numbers can’t convey is the intimate and wondrous perspective the AirCam gives for viewing our vast, beautiful, and scarred American landscape.

Flying it is a sensory feast that leaves indelible impressions.

I was in a state of shock the first time I saw N612WF. A tornado had just struck the 2011 Sun ’n Fun Fly-In, and the gorgeous burgundy AirCam with fewer than 30 hours on the Hobbs meter had been ripped from its tiedowns and slammed onto its back. The airplane looked like a total loss, along with dozens of other similarly unfortunate display aircraft.

Fricke, a former Vietnam War helicopter pilot and executive, isn’t easily deterred, and he decided right away to have the badly damaged airplane rebuilt at the AirCam factory. The engines, instruments, and Clamar floats were undamaged, but the vast majority of the airframe would be painstakingly replaced during the next 14 months.

Phil Lockwood, the soft-spoken perfectionist who designed the AirCam and manufactures the kits, test flew Fricke’s rebuilt airplane in May and pronounced it the best-looking of 187 finished to date. Seeing 612WF again at the Sebring factory, it was hard to disagree. The gleaming airplane had recently completed a series of test flights and it was ready to go north to its new home in the land of 10,000 lakes. Fricke was too busy with VAC work to make the trip himself, so I kept pestering Fricke until he said I could ferry it in his place. Harrop enthusiastically agreed to come along and tell the story in video.

After a local familiarization flight with Lockwood, Harrop and I loaded our gear into the storage lockers at the center of the floats, and I asked Lockwood for any last-minute advice.

“Don’t hurry,” he said. “If you’re trying to get somewhere fast, you’re in the wrong airplane. Just take your time, fly at 75 miles an hour, and land before the fuel gauges get below a quarter tank. If you do those things, you’ll really enjoy the experience.” aircam view

I’ve long had a multiengine rating, and I recently added a single-engine seaplane rating, but flying the amphibious AirCam on and off the water requires a multiengine seaplane rating. Fortunately, Richard Johnson, a veteran seaplane pilot and instructor at Winter Haven’s Gilbert Airport in Central Florida, provides such training in his own AirCam. We met on a Sunday afternoon and made several flights, and he arranged for a checkride with seaplane legend Chuck Brown the next day.

The first thing you notice about a float-equipped AirCam is its hulking size. It towers above wheeled AirCams, and performing a preflight inspection or putting fuel in the tanks is like climbing a jungle gym.

The AirCam is designed for redundancy and simplicity, and the systems are as basic as they can be. Each 100-horsepower Rotax ULS engine, for example, is fed from its own 14-gallon fuel tank. There’s no way to cross-feed fuel from one tank to the other; mixture control is automatic; and fixed-pitch props can’t be feathered.

The floats don’t have water rudders, so steering is accomplished with differential power (and the air rudder). On land, the floats have free-castering nosewheels. Gear retraction and extension on Johnson’s airplane is hydraulic, with a hand pump and a pilot-operated one-way valve to move the gear up or down; on Fricke’s airplane, the gear is electric.

AirCams are sold as kits, not complete airplanes. Kits sell for $49,000; a pair of new Rotax engines and props adds $54,000; and avionics and paint typically cost another $10,000. The 25-employee factory produces up to 24 AirCam kits a year.

From a design standpoint, the AirCam is almost comically overbuilt. It can take off from a standing start on one engine, yet it has two. A single float has enough buoyancy to keep the entire aircraft at gross weight (2,100 pounds) above water, yet it has two. Full power results in about 5,400 engine rpm for takeoff and climb. VY and VYSE are both 60 mph IAS. VMC is 40 mph at 3,000 feet msl, and VS is about 38 mph IAS. Normal cruise at 4,500 rpm nets 75 mph IAS, and fuel consumption is 7.5 gph total for both engines. The engines prefer auto fuel, but avgas is acceptable, too.

The AirCam has electric flaps, but flaps aren’t required for takeoffs or landings. Johnson and Brown recommend half flaps for both operations. Full flaps are reserved for extreme short-field landings.

Johnson recommends approaching at 65 mph for both land and water landings. “That approach speed sounds high considering the low stall speed,” he says. “This airplane has so much drag that it decelerates very rapidly in the flare, so keep your speed up.”

aircam sunsetMost of the AirCam’s idiosyncrasies come from the fact that its engines and pusher props are mounted well above the airplane’s longitudinal axis. Full power on takeoff creates a strong nose-down moment, so the pilot must hold full aft stick during the takeoff roll to get a positive angle of attack. As the airplane rotates, reduce back-stick pressure to maintain the desired pitch attitude.

In straight-and-level cruise, adding power requires nose-up trim, and decreasing power requires nose-down trim—the opposite from most aircraft. Steep turns have a pronounced overbanking tendency, and unlike most twins, pusher props make the right engine critical.

The AirCam’s single-engine performance is outstanding. During simulated engine failures, the airplane turns, rolls, and yaws in the direction of the dead engine, and full power and opposite rudder and aileron easily counteract it.

Pilot workload is extremely light since there are no props to feather, mixture levers to cut, cowl flaps to open, or fuel pumps to activate following an engine failure. Just go to full power on the good engine and raise the wing about five degrees on the side of the dead engine. Even with full fuel, two people, and an 85-degree-Fahrenheit day, we were able to maintain a positive rate of climb on a float-equipped AirCam—and the spinning propeller on the idling right engine was creating more drag than if it had actually been shut down and stopped. Turns in the direction of the dead engine, and away from it, were easily and safely accomplished.

The AirCam is extremely stable, and that’s especially true on floats. Single-engine landings are almost identical to normal ones. Hold 65 mph IAS into the flare and maintain some power until touchdown. The same is true whether landing on water or a hard surface.

The view from the front cockpit is so expansive that judging attitude in the flare can be tricky. Johnson sticks a piece of dark tape to the center of the windshield, and placing the tape on the horizon works beautifully for land and water touchdowns.The only ways a pilot can really screw up in an amphibian is by putting the landing gear down in a water landing, or up in a land landing. Even though I’m paranoid about making such a mistake, I was nearly fooled into a gear-up landing on a hard-surface runway during training.

“Tell all your passengers you’ll give them $20 if they catch you getting ready to land with the gear in the wrong position,” Brown advised. “If you have to pay them, it’ll be the best money you ever spend.”

After my blunder, I told Harrop I’d give him $100, just to make sure.

i had been concerned that we were bringing too much gear, but I needn’t have worried. We had plenty of space (and payload) and could have brought more. aircam journey map

We flew west to Tampa and followed the coastline north to Cedar Key and the Suwannee River, then tracked the river north to our first fuel stop at Cross City, Florida. Next, we traveled straight to Headland, Alabama, for an overnight stay.

Our typical legs were about three hours and 180 to 200 nm. We stopped at my former home field, Gen. DeWitt Spain Airport in Memphis on the banks of the Mississippi River, and AirCam owner and pilot James Freeman flew with us on a gorgeous evening photography flight there.

We had a booming tailwind on our next leg to St. Louis, but surface winds gusting beyond 30 mph convinced us to stand down the rest of the day. That meant flying three legs (7.8 hours total) on the final day of the trip to Crystal Airport near Minneapolis, and we were treated to some of the most remarkable scenery of the entire journey over the river near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin.

The AirCam performed flawlessly throughout the long journey, and flying it was an absolute pleasure. Harrop calls the AirCam “a flying motorcycle that can land on water.” Takeoffs and landings are exhilarating, and traversing the continent is an out-of-body experience.

The mental images that linger after an AirCam trip aren’t so much about the airplane itself as things seen and felt along the way: The smell of salt air over the Gulf; honeysuckle and pine in Alabama; burning farm fields in Missouri; dairy farms in Wisconsin; osprey, eagles, and pelicans in Florida; and herons and cranes along the river; hot, humid thermals rising air over the Mississippi delta; and cool downdrafts preceding the arrival of summer rain in the upper Midwest. And this is the way AirCam designer Lockwood intended it.

“The AirCam connects pilots and passengers to their surroundings in a way that no other airplane can,” he said. “It was designed to fly low and slow, safely, in remote areas with absolutely no barriers between the occupants and their surroundings. Amphibious floats give the airplane a new dimension by opening even more possibilities for exploration and adventure.”

Email dave.hirschman@aopa.org.