It’s an unusually cool morning for mid-May in central Florida. Low scud races overhead, indicative more of winter in this area than of the cusp of summer. But the humidity is still here. It always is in Florida. The lake is generally calm, despite a wind that is starting to wake up. Soon the silence is broken by the manmade sound of an air conditioner, which begins another day in paradise.
Sure, it may not be Key West or the U.S. Virgin Islands, but for many pilots, Winter Haven, Florida, is the site of the best vacation imaginable. This small, central Florida city is home to...well, not much. But it does house an unlikely flight training operation—the busiest seaplane training center in the world. Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base sits on Lake Jessie, one of a few hundred small lakes in the area, directly adjoining the Winter Haven-Gilbert Airport.
This day, Doug Herr from Syracuse, New York, shows up a little before 8 a.m. to fly one of the school’s Piper J-3 Cubs. Herr is a soft-spoken man who planned a family vacation around his training at Brown’s. But sporting a clean, collared shirt, pressed shorts, and nice loafers, he’s not playing the part yet. The school’s office is literally on the water, and obviously learning to fly seaplanes is done on or near the water, so anything more than sandals, sunglasses, and a crazy Hawaiian shirt seems like overkill.
It’s an unusual day at Brown’s. Herr is the only student who walks through the door. Since the school runs two-day courses for the single-engine sea rating, students start almost every day of the year. School owner Jon Brown says this day is the first in six months that no students begin the training. Mid-to-late May is the start of the slow season. After the April Sun ’n Fun event in nearby Lakeland, things start to wind down, Jon said. Herr started yesterday, meaning this day will be his last, assuming he does an adequate job of getting through the training and passes the checkride.
Soon after Herr arrives, his instructor Will Hickman strolls in. Hickman is young, but after instructing at Brown’s for nine months, he’s already highly experienced. Hickman has been at Brown’s since he was in high school, first by working the line to earn his certificate, and finally moving up the ranks to become a flight instructor. He’s unsure of his future plans, although he mentioned going for a job at the regional airlines. This comment sparks debate among the others sitting on the porch. The ranks of floatplane pilots are filled with highly enthusiastic and dedicated individuals, and the thought of flying for a regional airline is, for some, worse than the kiss of death. But Hickman no doubt has thoughts of flying good equipment for good pay, and not having to schlep passengers’ bags while doing it. All are potential hazards in a career flying seaplanes. No matter, the experience at Brown’s is likely to get him there.
As Herr and Hickman brief the upcoming flight, the wind picks up even more. Now it’s gusting at around 15 knots, which is pretty stiff for a student on water flying a Cub. Just then Brian Meadley walks in with his wife at his side. Meadley wears a smile of a guy who looks like he’s on permanent vacation. His story is unusual. After flying fighters for the U.K.’s Royal Air Force, he flew Boeing 737s for Saudi Arabian Airlines and Fokker F27s and Douglas DC-9s for East African Airways in Kenya. Retired, Meadley and his wife live in Spain most of the year, but come to central Florida for four months so he can teach at Brown’s. “I get four months and it keeps me going for the rest of the year,” he says.
Today, it doesn’t matter that Meadley doesn’t have any students. He comes in to see if he is needed and to enjoy the cool morning air and the coffee. He was going to fly with Jerry Caudill, an instructor who’s learning the ropes, but the wind is beyond their comfort level. Instead he shoots the breeze with Caudill and Hickman.
By now Herr is ready to fly and we all watch as the airplane is prepared. Since Brown’s runs on a very tight timeframe, little to no attention is paid to extraneous tasks, such as learning how to pump out floats, or how to preflight the airplane on the water. Instead, young linemen get the airplane ready next to the hangar, balance it on to a converted bomb loader, and then roll it over to the ramp. It’s a well-choreographed routine that everyone has done hundreds of times. What’s next is a bit exciting. The ramp has strips of Teflon that are sprayed down to make them slippery. The linemen each grab a strut, and the airplane is sent down the dock. The whole thing looks like a cross between a well-rehearsed dance and a future $10,000 winner on America’s Funniest Home Videos. You’re almost rooting for someone to go in the drink, which does happen from time to time.
This time everyone stays dry and Herr jumps in the airplane. Hickman swings the prop and they’re off. After a bit of plow taxiing for training purposes, the airplane lines up into the wind, the power is thrown wide open, and they’re off the lake. It’s a beautiful sight, especially with sun peaking through the clouds to show off the water as it drips off the floats.
As Hickman and Herr go flying, Brown takes a few minutes to talk about the lake and the school. He says that despite early morning flights and lots of training throughout the day, neighbors are happy to have the school. But, he says, “I wouldn’t want to be starting out now.” To mitigate the noise impact, instructors perform only one takeoff and landing per lesson at Lake Jessie. The rest are done on other lakes in the area. Choices are abundant. Winter Haven doesn’t look like land with a series of lakes so much as a huge body of water with a series of islands.
The school has been in operation at this location since around 1964. No one is quite sure when exactly. At the time, Jon’s father Jack Brown ran Winter Haven’s FBO. Jack was a former Navy pilot who first learned to fly seaplanes in an Aeronca C-3 off the Kanawha River in West Virginia before World War II. In the war he flew the old boats, and it became such a love affair that he later acquired a Cub on floats to satisfy his own cravings, never intending to conduct training in the airplane. Jack and Jon brought the airplane in on a boat trailer, and to get it on the lake next to the airport they had to work through many yards of tall grass on the undeveloped Lake Jessie shoreline. From there Jack would joyride and conduct “splash and goes” on area lakes.
By 1975, Jon was teaching school in the mountains of east Tennessee and Jack had trained hundreds of seaplane pilots, starting with friends and colleagues curious about mastering an airplane on water. He was trying to get out of the FBO business, which is partly why Jon was up north with a Cessna 172 on floats teaching friends to fly on the side. Late in the summer of that year, Jack was flying up to administer checkrides to Jon’s students when the elevator failed on the airplane he was flying. He never arrived. Jon has co-owned the business with other family members ever since, and it has thrived under his hands. Now the school owns four Cubs, many of which Jack found in barns and other out-of-the-way locations over the years.
In-house mechanics support all the airplanes. Wandering out to the maintenance shop, one begins to realize what an extensive operation it takes to keep them flying. There are two full-time mechanics and the shop looks like a Cub parts warehouse. Three or four wings hang on the walls; one is on a stand awaiting fabric cover. There are etchings on the spar such as “group ok 9/20/47.” One of the mechanics says that marks like this are common from the factory parts. It’s a fun glance into history.
We step outside to watch Hickman and Herr approach from the north. Herr pulls the power off slowly and they splash gently onto the lake. After a short step taxi toward the dock to close the long distance quickly, they coast in and shut down the engine. Both hop out looking like they’ve had too much fun. The linemen tie down the floats and instructor and student head to the porch for a debrief. Hickman asks typical instructor questions, such as the purpose of “the step,” and how to perform rough water landings. They’ve had lots of practice with that today. Now Jon mills around, knowing that it’s almost time to start the checkride.
Being such an informal location, the checkride takes on a more relaxed tone than what most pilots are accustomed to. Obviously Jon is confident his instructors have taught the student well, so there isn’t much question as to how he or she will fly. There are failures, however, so the pressure for a student to perform is there. Herr is aware of this, and seems a bit nervous. He and Jon go behind closed doors for the question and answer portion of the ride, and Herr emerges a few minutes later and walks to the airplane. A little less than an hour of flying later and they splash back on to Lake Jessie. Instead of the customary docking procedure, they beach the airplane on the opposite side of the office. “I’m not sure if that’s a good sign or not,” says Hickman. The two jump out of the airplane and talk on the shoreline of the lake for a few minutes. Herr has passed his checkride. He’s free to go home and pursue his dream of owning a floatplane and flying off of his local canal. “I got a license to learn,” he says.
Other flights are scheduled throughout the day. Hickman needs to renew his CFI. Meadley and Caudill think about flying again. But by now the wind is gusting to 25 knots, beyond the comfort level for most instructors without a pressing need to fly. Instructors come and go. The coffee continues to burn. The phone keeps ringing. Before they know it, the busy season will be here again and things will be moving at a breakneck pace. But tomorrow is just another day in paradise.
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