You ready for your check ride?” asks Tom Brady of Traverse Air nonchalantly. What the heck is he talking about? That was only my second flight! My mind raced with the implications of a check ride and the possibility of failure. I think I’m getting the skills of flying a floatplane on and off the water, but how can I be proficient enough to take a check ride already?
“Well, I wouldn’t mind another flight to practice what we’ve done,” I reply.
Flying a floatplane is deceptively easy to learn, but there are dangers that lurk just below the surface. The trick to flying a floatplane, of course, is learning how to get only the airplane wet. Fortunately, there are a few simple rules.
Brady will be happy to let you in on the secrets. He operates out of Traverse City, Mich. During the summer, he teaches pilots how to fly on floats, and in the winter, he uses the same airplane, a Piper Super Cruiser, to teach flying on skis.
Brady says, “Our typical student will take about a day and a half to complete their check ride. We offer a flat rate for five hours of instruction and the exam. Most folks don’t have any trouble at all. It’s fairly simple; all you do is take off, land, taxi and sail. There isn’t that much that is different.”
A seaplane rating is a simple add-on to your current pilot certificate. The FAA doesn’t require a written test, and the oral is usually limited to the seaplane differences. For example, did you know the rotating beacon for a seaplane base is yellow and white? Besides learning a new skill, you also can pass the biennial flight review requirement by getting the new rating. If you live near the water, there’s probably a floatplane checkout program near you. Washington state, Michigan and Florida host more than their fair share, probably because they have more water than the rest of the Lower 48 states. You can put together a multitude of reasons to justify a seaplane rating, but the bottom line is that it’s fun. Just imagine flying in and landing on a deserted lake, fishing for a while or just hanging out.
Some interesting floatplane facts. The floats themselves are rated by their displacement. EDO 2000 floats will support 2,000 pounds, and the FAA requires that floats support 180% of the aircraft gross weight. So, for a Piper Super Cub grossing 1,800 pounds, you’ll need two floats, which is good because the even number makes it easier to land and taxi on the water. Everywhere you go in a floatplane, all you need to do is hold the stick back, just like in a taildragger. Keep the nose up and the prop out of the water as much as possible. You also need to put the aileron into the wind during a turn—remember that from groundschool? It’s also a good idea to wear boat shoes; floats always seem narrow and slippery during the preflight.
Knowing the lexicon in flying is one of the most important things we do, if for no other reason than to separate those who know from those who don’t. Flying floatplanes is no different.
First of all, you have to know how to idle taxi. One thing you should never forget about flying off the water is that unless you’re tied up, you’re going somewhere. The “where” part depends on the wind. If the engine is running, even at idle, there’s enough thrust to get you going, so you had better have a plan on where you want to go. Don’t forget to put your water rudders down; the air rudder is marginally effective at slow speeds. If you forget to keep that aileron into the wind, you might get flipped over. If the engine isn’t running, you’ll sail with the wind, the airplane will point into the wind and off you go—backward. It’s possible to steer using the ailerons and the rudder, but it’s hard to see where you’re going.
If you need to turn, an idle-taxi turn is the safest, usually because it happens slowly. If you have an American engine, a turn to the left is easier because of the propeller. Just don’t forget to cross over the aileron about the 90-degree point in a 180-degree turn. This is done to avoid getting flipped over, of course.
For those who are in a bit more of a hurry, or if the winds are high enough that you can’t turn downwind with idle power, a plow-taxi turn is the next choice. For this, you push the power up until the nose rises and then pull it back to a low-cruise RPM. Start the turn with rudder and opposite aileron—you have to hold that wing down. At the 90-degree point, neutralize the aileron and reduce the power quickly to keep the water from splashing onto the prop.
It’s possible to step-taxi the airplane, but this should be reserved for light- or no-wind days. Try one and see the wisdom of this advice. Full power to get on the step and reduce it enough to just keep it there. Don’t forget to bring the water rudders up and turn with the air rudder. A step-taxi turn is like racing your car on ice, anything more than a gradual turn will get you wet. And keep the aileron into the turn this time to offset the centrifugal force.
Takeoffs come in several flavors as well. It’s easy to see where the wind is coming from, push the power up and get on the step. From that point, rough water and glassy water takeoffs are the challenging skills. Rough water is bad; it pounds you and the airplane. Remember that there are no shock absorbers or oleo struts on a floatplane. Avoid boat wakes and the boaters, too, if you can. Keep the stick slightly aft and fly off the water at minimum speed, accelerate in ground effect and fly away. A glassy water takeoff is a little harder. The water has this physics thing called surface tension that makes the water want to stick together. You can see this by watching your kitchen faucet the next time it leaks. The bad thing about surface tension is that it makes breaking a float free from calm water difficult to accomplish. Once you’re on the step, throw an aileron over and pull a float out of the water to reduce the drag. Keep it a few inches above the water and then get the other one out. Voilà, you’re flying.
Normal landings are accomplished with a slight descent rate, power on or off. Just don’t forget to kill any sideways drift to avoid getting wet. Rough-water landings are similar but made with a high-idle power setting, with the aircraft pitched in a full-stall attitude. The slower you touch down, the better. Glassy water landings are the hardest to do. The biggest problem stems from the fact that smooth water makes it nearly impossible to judge your height above it. Depending on your airplane, configure for a power-on, constant-speed descent at 100 fpm and just fly the airplane onto the water. Don’t forget to reduce the power quickly and keep the stick aft to keep the prop out of the water.
So, there you have it, just a few simple rules to avoid getting wet. It’s a piece of cake, and the rewards are immediate. Everyone likes a smooth landing, and as long as it’s not choppy, it really is easier to grease the landing on water. Try it; you’ll like it. No kidding.
Adventure Air Inc.
[email protected], www.adventureairinc.com
Adventure Seaplanes Inc.
[email protected], www.adventureseaplanes.com
Bigfoot Air of California
[email protected], www.bigfootair.com
Chesapeake Seaplanes Inc.
[email protected], www.chesapeakeseaplanes.com
La Placa Flying Service
(928) 855-6139, [email protected]
Northwoods Aviation Inc.
Traverse Air Inc.
(231) 943-4128, www.traverseair.com
Watch and Learn
Get insiders’ tips on how to fly floatplanes with Sporty’s latest DVD So You Want to Fly Seaplanes. You’ll travel to Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Fla., for a thorough look at what flying seaplanes is all about. Climb into the backseat of a Piper J-3 Cub on floats for a pilot’s-eye view of all the maneuvers required for the FAA check ride. You’ll also learn different taxi techniques, how to read the wind and water, and how to master water takeoffs and landings. The DVD will also show you step-by-step advice from seaplane instructors Jon Brown and John Rennie on how to better your floatplane skills, as well as interactive extras, including a float diagram, a wind and water chart and several Website links for additional seaplane information. To order it, contact Sporty’s at (800) SPORTYS or log on to www.sportys.com.