By David Jack Kenny
Throughout our flight training we’re warned of the risks of hurrying, but most of us succumb to the temptation at one time or another. Time pressure, real or imagined, leads us to take off with a soft tire rather than wait for the lineman to bring an air tank, or tune radios and program the GPS while taxiing. Most of the time, things come out all right. Sometimes they don’t.
On the afternoon of Sept. 30, 2009, an Avid Catalina amphibian crashed into the surface of Inks Lake near Burnet, Texas, killing the solo pilot. Witnesses saw it take off from the water and make a steep climb to about 50 feet agl before starting a left turn. As the bank angle continued to increase, the airplane descended until the left wing hit the water. The airplane cartwheeled across the surface and eventually sank inverted. The pilot surfaced once, “apparently incoherent,” then sank out of sight. The medical examiner attributed his death to drowning.
He had made the short flight from Burnet Municipal Airport about 10:30 a.m., landing on the lake. Several people described him doing repeated water taxis back and forth without taking off again. Shortly after noon he telephoned the ranger office at Inks Lake State Park requesting permission to haul the airplane out on shore. A ranger helped him find a suitable site, and then used one of the park’s service vehicles to winch the Catalina onto dry land.
The Catalina is a kitplane, a flying-boat design with a high wing, pusher prop, and tailwheel. Retractable tundra tires are mounted to an axle running through the hull, and sponsons keep the wingtips out of the water. The pilot had bought the aircraft about three months earlier. He told the ranger that water was leaking into the hull through gaps around the main axle, leaving the airplane too heavy to take off. Investigators later found a series of e-mails between him, the previous owner, and the airplane’s builder discussing leaks that had developed around the axle after foam seals had deteriorated. In one, the pilot described water “pouring into the side glove boxes on both sides of the plane” during water taxi or while on step.
The ranger told investigators that the pilot spent about 15 minutes trying to drain water from the hull, but the ranger wasn’t sure how much water was actually removed. The Catalina is built with folding wings that allow it to be carried by trailer, and the two discussed the possibility of hauling it back to the airport overland. The pilot told the ranger, though, that going into town for a trailer, and then coming back to disassemble the sponsons, fold the wings, and load the airplane would take three hours … “or I can just fly it home.” He added that “the only way to test if he had enough water out of the airplane was to test-fly it.”
It’s true that at some point, the only way to find out whether any aircraft will fly is to try to fly it—but it’s usually better to do so when you’re not really in doubt. Significant experience in the type of aircraft you’re test-flying also helps, if only so you’ll notice any problems early. The 61-year-old pilot’s logbooks weren’t located, so the extent of his seaplane experience isn’t known, but indications are that it was slight. His last medical application, submitted almost a year before, listed 296 hours of total flight time. He held a private pilot certificate for airplane single-engine land but no seaplane rating. His e-mails to the builder and previous owner suggest that he was learning water operations on his own: One, dated Aug. 10, referred to his “first water landing.” If that’s true, it’s another case in which hurry proved counterproductive.