Mark R. Twombly is the AOPA Airport Support Network volunteer at Florida's Fort Myers airport.
Think it's difficult today to go to the general aviation airport in a town you're visiting and find an airplane you can rent for solo flight? Try renting a seaplane. You're more likely to find $1-a-gallon avgas. According to the latest seaplane training directory published by the Seaplane Pilots Association, there are fewer than a half-dozen operators in the United States, including in seaplane-dependent Alaska, that offer solo rentals. Of those, only one has bases in two different lake-rich areas of the country.
Brian Schanche had planned on pursuing a career as an airline pilot, but the purchase of a 1946 Aeronca Champ, which came with skis and soon was shod with floats, proved to be a "life-changing experience." He gave up wheels and runways in favor of snow, water, and a business venture — Adventure Seaplanes, which he founded in 1991 at Surfside Seaplane Base north of Minneapolis.
Summers are spent training pilots to fly seaplanes, renting seaplanes, and conducting seaplane adventure tours to such far-flung destinations as the Arctic Circle, Central America, and the Bahamas. When the lakes freeze and the snow flies, the floats are exchanged for skis and the flying fun continues uninterrupted.
This past year he decided to try something new — follow the sun to a place where an airplane can wear a set of floats in February. He and a staff pilot ferried a Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser and Cessna 172 to central Florida. Friend Lori Malbranck followed in Schanche's big pickup towing a fifth-wheel RV.
Their destination was Lake Lowery, located a few miles northeast of Winter Haven in Polk County. It's prime seaplane country. Central Florida may be known internationally for its countless Orlando-area theme parks and tourist attractions, but the region is physically defined by fresh-water lakes — 554 in Polk County alone, according to the county's Web site. Of those, only about 80 have some sort of public access. The best way to enjoy all that water is in a seaplane. It's no coincidence that this country's most active water wings school, Jack Brown's Seaplane Base, is located in Winter Haven in the heart of Polk County.
Schanche has set up his Florida shop at Oak Harbor, an RV park located on the western shore of shallow, 900-acre Lake Lowery. Oak Harbor owner Gregg Anderson is a seaplane pilot and owner of a beautiful J-3 Cub on floats. He learned to fly at Brown's, and didn't land on wheels until three years after earning his private certificate. Anderson's father founded Oak Harbor and about 30 years ago licensed it as a seaplane base.
Anderson has added some comfy wood-sided rental cabins to the park, and its reputation as a destination for seaplane enthusiasts is growing. Bob and Sharon Stebbins, Utah residents and Lake Buccaneer owners, spent several months vacationing at Oak Harbor this past winter, with their airplane. Other seaplane pilots have become regular renters, especially around Sun 'n Fun time.
Ron Bull, a retired United Airlines captain, runs fishing charters out of Oak Harbor in his 180-horsepower CubCrafters Top Cub on amphibious Wipline floats. I went flying and fly-fishing with Bull a couple of years ago. We took off from Lake Lowery, landed on a remote, uninhabited lake to the southeast, idle-taxied into a quiet cypress-lined cove, anchored the airplane, donned waders, and promptly began catching bass. We shooed away a small, nosy gator cruising nearby, and almost stepped on a lethargic water moccasin sunning on exposed cypress roots. No wonder he calls it Ron Bull Fishing Adventures.
Earlier this year I spent a delightful weekend at Oak Harbor flying with Schanche in both his airplanes. The 172 has leather seating and a 180-horsepower Penn Yan engine conversion. The floats take nothing away from classic 172 no-worries handling, and the horsepower boost allows for reasonable takeoff and load-carrying performance.
The Super Cruiser is a more elemental ride — sticks, tandem seating, throttle knob on the left sidewall, and basic instrumentation. The 160-horsepower Lycoming engine conversion makes it a strong performer on the water.
It's encouraging to see seaplane rentals come to Florida, especially since the minimum experience requirements to rent are relatively low — 200 hours total time, and a single-engine sea rating. If the prospective renter has fewer than 25 hours in seaplanes, Schanche may require a 10-hour checkout. With more than 25 hours seaplane experience, the checkout could be as short as three hours. Renters also pay an insurance fee, and are responsible for a 10-percent deductible on hull claims.
Schanche credits his ability to obtain insurance and rent seaplanes on a good safety record through the years. Also, his airplanes are on straight floats — no wheeled landing gear. Amphibious floats are problematic from an insurance underwriter's perspective because an inadvertent wheels-down landing on water results in an immediate, catastrophic flip.
Flying a straight-float seaplane "ain't rocket science," Schanche says. They're relatively slow, forgiving, have big feet to land on, and since they are restricted to water landings there are no narrow runways or crosswinds to worry about. All that's missing is $1-a-gallon gas.