Sunday, June 1, 2008
Though the Stinsons of the late ’40s weren’t designed as floatplanes, they adapt to water as if born for it
Lake Winnebago isn’t agreeable today, as we splash out from the Oshkosh Seaplane Base. The wind blows us sideways as we leave the shelter of the harbor and head out onto the lake. For one weekend every July, this small boat harbor, five miles southeast of Oshkosh, Wis., turns into one of the busiest seaplane bases in America. Today, the lake will limit water flying to a few brave souls.
Ross Benike is one of those. His bright-red 1948 Stinson Station Wagon 108-3 on Edo floats pitches on the waves, the water sometimes washing over the bow of the floats. His is the only seaplane flying this morning, but Benike is confident his Super Stinson is the equal of Lake Winnebago.
He’s right. With help from a 230 hp Continental O-470 spinning a huge 88-inch McCauley prop, the Stinson leaps up onto the step, jumps off the water after a short run and climbs smoothly into the bright Wisconsin morning. Benike comments that back in 2002, the lake was so rough that the seaplane base manager had to open the lagoon for takeoffs so pilots could get home.
Predictably, the air a few hundred feet above the lake is less troubled than the water. I form up on photographer Jim Lawrence in a land-based Skyhawk out of nearby Fond du Lac, and we begin to fly our perpetual circles for the air-to-air pictures you see in this article. To my surprise, this Stinson, made large with the addition of floats, handles very well, carving its way through the turns and holding position on the Hawk effortlessly. It’s almost as if the airplane doesn’t know it’s hauling two large, heavy, aluminum pontoons through the air. Lawrence comments on the radio, “What a beautiful airplane.”
Though I’m on the receiving end of the photos, I’m sure it is. In some respects, a Super Stinson on floats makes perfect sense. The basic Station Wagon seems almost ideally adapted for the water mission. The airplane is blessed with a generous cabin and a king-sized rudder, especially important for directional control in the wet. The conversion from the stock airplane’s 165 hp Franklin to 230 hp Continental makes it easier to overcome suction and unstick from liquid runways.
The big McCauley prop is a major factor in getting off short water. Because of its huge diameter, the 88-inch tractor is approved only for floatplanes, and though Benike loves the performance, he’s still a little on the fence about the cost versus the benefits. He says there’s no question the airplane leaps off quicker, as much as five seconds faster than before, but he’s concerned about the problem of tip erosion. In any rough-water takeoff, the tips take a beating, and over time, the erosion could be a significant maintenance problem, forcing more-frequent blade replacement. During my flight, we saw the tip shredding water as the airplane came up on the step, but we couldn’t detect any erosion later.
Good water manners and quick liftoff are key talents for floatplanes. Seaplane pilots don’t care much about cruise speed. The primary benefit of more horsepower on the water is in leaving it, but extra power also increases fuel burn, a more critical concern in an airplane that can’t refuel just anywhere. It’s important to remember that refueling sites for pure seaplanes may be more widely separated than for landplanes. Except perhaps in Minnesota.
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