Those who’ve had the pleasure of flying a Piper J-3 Cub know that there is something undoubtedly special about the little rag and tube machine, with its bright yellow paint job and black trim. If you’ve never flown one (or if it’s just been a while), break away to quiet central Florida and visit Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base. Here, you can try your hand at the stick while earning your seaplane rating. Since opening in 1962, all the single-engine training at Brown’s was done in these marvelous antiques, until a few years ago, when they added a Maule M-7. In just two days, a single- or multi-float rating can be in your pocket, along with unforgettable insight into aviators past.
Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base (F57) is on a lake next to Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field (GIF). It is in central Florida, about 32 nm southwest of Orlando (MCO) and 15 nm east of Lakeland (LAL), which is convenient if you’re flying to the annual Sun ’n Fun fly-in. From the west or northeast, you’ll have to fly below the Tampa or Orlando Class B floors, or get a clearance from Tampa Approach on 119.9 MHz or 120.65 MHz, or Orlando Approach on 119.4 MHz. If you need an IFR clearance for departure, you can contact Tampa Clearance Delivery from the ground on 121.75 MHz.
GIF is uncontrolled, though Unicom is usually monitored by the FBO. Watch for seaplanes at the adjacent seaplane base, since most have no radio (their approaches and departures are away from the normal traffic pattern). There are two paved runways: the unlighted, 4,001-foot Runway 11/29, and lighted, 5,006-foot Runway 5/23. The calm wind runway is Runway 5.
The taxiway to Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base is at the threshold of Runway 11. The tree-lined taxiway is well maintained so that even a King Air could pass by the trimmed tree limbs. Follow it to the paved ramp in front of the seaplane base, where land planes, seaplanes, and cars park. (The seaplanes were deposited there by hydraulic lift.) The large hangar is where Jon keeps his Cubs each night, but you’ll want to head to the peach-colored building on stilts over the water. Inside are an office, two classrooms, and a lounge area.
The seaplane base does not sell fuel to transient pilots; fuel is available at HOVA Flight Services on the ramp southeast of the intersection of the two runways, 7 a.m.–7 p.m., 863-956-3300.
Since opening in 1962, Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base has trained more than 14,000 pilots. Jack Brown was born in 1918 and picked up the water-flying bug first in an Aeronca C-3 Floatplane in West Virginia, and later while piloting PBYs in the Pacific during World War II. After the war, he worked at Bartow Air Base, and eventually went on to manage Gilbert Field, the airport in Winter Haven.
In 1963, Jack established his seaplane base on Lake Jessie, next to Gilbert Field. The base’s first airplane was a 65-hp J-3 Cub that qualified between one and three new float pilots a week at $125 each. Back then, pilots could solo after completing the course. (Pilots can no longer fly solo, due to the Cub’s rarity and insurance.) Jack didn’t have gas pumps then, so pilots would carry a five-gallon gas can and bring it back full to top off the Cub upon return.
As sleepy Winter Haven grew, celebrities began arriving at Brown’s. Author Richard Bach lived in a house next door to the base. He has long-since moved away, but the house remains. He has visited during the annual Sun ’n Fun fly-in and reminisced about earning his floatplane rating with Jack. Jimmy Buffett got his water ticket at Brown’s and later bought his Widgeon amphibian. Jack was a celebrity in his own right, as is his son Jon; both flew as stunt pilots in numerous movies.
In 1975, Jack was sadly killed in a crash, and Jon, who was setting up a river-flying operation in Tennessee, came back to Florida. He was soon qualified as the youngest pilot examiner in the FAA’s records. (“Now,” his wife Frances says with a smile, “he’s one of the oldest.”) Today Jon, his brother Chuck, and the staff qualify as many as three pilots a day who go home with a new rating and a big smile.
A single engine seaplane rating can be achieved here in just two days. Students from all over the world come to Lake Jessie, which is one mile in diameter and perfect for floatplane fun. Almost every day, J-3 Cubs splash down on more than 25 lakes within five miles of the base. Graduates leave with an FAA certificate in hand; Jon and his staff do licensing right at the base.
Most students take the single-engine seaplane course. On the first day, you’ll begin with 1 1/2 hours of ground school that covers a little bit of everything, including water handling, docking, and sailing techniques. Once these basics have been covered, you’ll head outside for a closer look at one of the school’s four 85- to 100-hp J-3 Cubs. After instruction on pre-flight procedures including pumping out the floats, you’re ready to fly.
To get used to the stick, basic air work such as turns and slow flight comes first. Once comfortable, you’ll practice water landings (surprisingly, they feel similar to runway landings) and progress to water handling moves such as step taxi and step turns. To get on the step, you accelerate and then relax backpressure on the stick as the nose comes up. Both ends of the floats lift up and only a small area in the middle contacts the water, placing you “on the step.” With less drag, the airplane no longer plows through the water, but planes on its surface, and you accelerate. Step turns are a bit more challenging, but are useful in confined areas like small lakes where a circle takeoff is required. The pilot gains speed in the turn before straightening out for lift off. During this maneuver, students have a tendency to think the airplane will blow over. But, if you apply just a little bit of rudder for a shallow turn, the airplane is, in fact, very stable. After a few more takeoffs and landings, you’ll break for lunch. If the schedule permits (and it usually does), you’ll eat at a restaurant on another lake (you’ll fly to approximately 20 lakes during the course); otherwise you’ll head to a restaurant close to the base.
In the afternoon, you’ll practice different landings such as glassy water landings, where the lack of depth perception requires a power approach to a no-flare landing. Weather-permitting, you’ll learn rough water landings, which are similar to soft field landings; keep the nose higher than normal, use a little bit of power to regulate descent, and touch down as slowly as possible. Learning to read the wind is another essential skill, especially if you intend to land on canals or rivers, where a crosswind may be unavoidable. For docking maneuvers, boating experience helps, but isn’t necessary. Seaplanes should be docked into the wind, along the door side. At first you’ll practice with buoys, later on wooden docks. You’ll even learn to sail backwards to a beach using aileron, rudder, and the wind. Emergency procedures like engine failures round out the lessons. The action-packed day will wind down around 4 or 5 p.m., after you’ve logged about 3 1/2 hours of seaplane flying.
Get a good night’s sleep, because you’ll arrive early on the second day for a 1 1/2-hour review of the previous day’s lessons. At this point you should be ready for an official FAA flight test (there’s no written exam to add a seaplane rating to an airplane pilot’s license). About 95% of students successfully pass the check ride after five hours of flying time, but more can be arranged.
Commercial and ATP seaplane ratings are also offered, as well as recurrent training for those who want a refresher course. You may even be able to train in your own aircraft; instruction is $75 per hour.
Even if you don’t plan to put floats on your airplane, the course is still a worthwhile investment. You’ll be brought back to basics, flying by sight, sound, and feel—no peeking at the gauges—and without a radio. Flying in tune with the environment will make you a better pilot. And last but not least, it can count as your BFR. High season is from January to May, when five to six part-time instructors team up with three full-time, year-round instructors. The busiest time is in April during Sun ’n Fun, when spots fill up as much as four months in advance. The basic single-engine seaplane course in a J-3 costs $1,400, the Maule is $2,100. Dual instruction in the J-3 is $185 per hour with a minimum 30 minutes, and $350 in the Maule with a one-hour minimum, 2704 Hwy 92 W, daytime 863-956-2243 or nights 863-967-5891.
You’ll find several accommodations within a short distance of Brown’s. Six miles southeast of the seaplane base is the Holiday Inn Winter Haven. Near most of the restaurants, the six-story hotel boasts 112 guestrooms, an on-site health and fitness center, swimming pool, WiFi, 24-hr business center, and free parking, $140–$150, 200 Cypress Gardens Blvd., 863-292-2100 or 888-465-4329.
South of the Winter Haven area is a chain of 16 lakes connected by navigable, manmade canals. On this chain of lakes almost nine miles from Brown’s, the Lake Roy Beach Inn & Suites offers waterfront accommodations and its own private fishing dock. This 45-room, family inn has comfortably furnished traditional rooms and one-bedroom efficiency suites complete with sitting rooms and kitchenettes; all have WiFi, $80–$270, 1823 Cypress Gardens Blvd., 863-324-6320.
Additional information on lodging can be found by contacting the Greater Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce, 401 Ave. B NW, 863-293-2138.
A favorite among Brown’s pilots is Café 92, just a quarter-mile from the base. This casual, country diner is a convenient spot to fuel up for the day’s activities. Ron Schaefer, a former executive chef who has cooked for Elizabeth Taylor, Mary Tyler Moore, Kenny Rogers, Joe Frazier, and the New York Yankees, is committed to the highest quality food around. The eight-ounce New York strip steak with two sides and soup or salad is only $9.25, while the most expensive items on the menu, seafood specials like haddock or grouper, come in at $13. But don’t let the back-home atmosphere and low prices fool you. You’re in for a treat! Open daily 6 a.m.–2 p.m. and 4–8 p.m. (Wed–Fri only), 3009 U.S. Highway 92, 863-956-9495.
Other area restaurants will require a short drive. A local landmark is Manny’s Original Chophouse, home of hand-cut steaks and fall-off-the-bone ribs, about nine miles northeast of the base. Owner Manny Nicholaidis isn’t happy until you are. He serves char-grilled steaks from eight to 24 ounces that will satisfy any carnivore. Burgers, fajitas, seafood, chicken, salads, combo platters, and kid’s plates round out the menu, entrées $9–$24, open Mon–Thu 4–10 p.m., Fri–Sat 4–10:30 p.m., Sun noon–9:30 p.m., 35496 US Hwy 27 N, Haines City, 863-422-3910.
Five miles south of the airport on the shores of Lake Shipp, Harborside provides steaks, seafood, and an oyster bar with a view of the water. You can get your oysters raw, steamed, or char-grilled with smoked bacon, diced jalapeño, and manchego cheese. Then move on to a juicy ribeye, filet, prime rib, or baby back ribs. Seafood lovers can enjoy their salmon, grouper, or spotted sea trout blackened, grilled, or broiled. You’ll also find burgers, pasta, crab, scallops, and an assortment of chicken dishes, entrées $10–$25, open daily from 11:30 a.m., 2435 7th St. SW, 863-293-7070.
If you’re sticking to the seaplane base and your hotel, then a taxi service can solve all of your transportation needs. Imperial’s local service runs $10 for the first three miles and $2.50 per mile thereafter, reservations required on weekends, 863-968-9494, and The Checker Company’s flat rate is $2 plus $2.80 per mile, 863-665-8151.
Enterprise car rental has an office right at the airport inside the terminal, open Mon–Fri 7:30 a.m.–6 p.m., Sat 9 a.m.–noon, 863-298-4551 or 863-956-1631.
It’s great fun to earn a new rating, and in such a short time. The certificate you’ll leave with is definitely something to be proud of. But Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base offers something far beyond that piece of paper: flying for the love of it. Forget any concerns about radio, airspace, GPS, or passengers; this time it’s all about the air, the water, and the little yellow airplane that could.