Seaplane Rating. Flying off water opens up an entirely new world to pilots. Jack Brown's Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Fla., offers seaplane training in Piper J-3 Cubs and Maule M-7s on floats.
I was a typical airport kid with dreams of someday making a living in the sky, and I was lucky to be brought up in Alaska. I lived in Anchorage and learned to play pilot with the local Civil Air Patrol squadron, flying in several conventional singles, a floatplane, a ski plane and even a helicopter before I turned 14.
Perhaps that's one reason I was determined to go beyond the private license from the beginning. I got married, moved to Southern California and waited 10 years before I could afford to start pilot training.
After that, I was able to step up every two or three years to a higher rating. I've missed out on a wide variety of aircraft—blimps, hot-air balloons, gyrocopters and klieg birds continue to elude me—but I've somehow managed to earn several other ratings as money has become available.
Trouble is, it's next to impossible to maintain currency in everything unless you're Kermit Weeks. (Weeks owns the lavish Fantasy of Flight museum south of Orlando, Fla.). I've flown a handful of helicopters, and I have a good excuse to fly new ones now and then in reports for this magazine, but I'll sometimes have dry spells between rotary-wing flights. My glider and water ratings are similarly rusty. I can usually keep instruments and twins current, but lots of the really fun stuff rarely gets updated.
I can almost see the emails now. "Aw gee, Bill, that's too bad. You already have one of the best aviation jobs in the world, and yet, you complain about not flying all types often enough. We really feel sorry for you." Okay, I admit I've been lucky. I'm certainly happy with what I have, but I still have designs on adding a gyrocopter rating to my limited credentials, just for grins. Realistically, hot-air balloons and blimps will probably remain out of my reach.
So, what's the point of writing this? Primarily to remind so many pilots of the joys of thinking outside the conventional, VFR, single-engine, land box. There's another world of flying machines out there just waiting to be discovered, and they offer experiences you'll never have with a standard SEL airplane.
Certainly, the major disincentive is cost. I'm well aware of the price of flight instruction these days. By the time you read this, my wife, Peggy, will have earned her Private license, and most of her dual hours in a Cessna 152 cost $150/hr. Quite a contrast to 1966 when I paid $9/hr for dual in a Piper Colt or Aeronca Champ. I don't knock her flight school, as her rate is probably competitive with other schools training in a 152. My $9/hr rate in 1966 would translate to only about $64/hr in 2011 if you escalated the price using the increase in CPI.
Still, additional ratings can be a blast, and they're not always that expensive. Many advanced ratings don't demand more than 10-15 hours of flight training. My first add-on was a garden-variety multi-engine rating in an old Apache, and I got through that in 12 hours, a typical time.
My second was a glider ticket at El Mirage Dry Lake in California's Mojave Desert, again only a 12-15 hour effort. It was strictly a lark, with no connection to the real world, but I knew it would be fun, and that was the whole idea. On the first day of flying without an engine, my weathered, sun-baked instructor put a quarter on the ground in the middle of the runway and growled at me, "When you're finished with your Private glider license, you'll be able to land from 3,000 feet without power and stop on that quarter." As I look back on it, that seems incredible, but as it turned out, he was right.
I trained in a Czechoslovakian Blanik L-13, one of the world's most popular gliders, equivalent to an unpowered Skyhawk in difficulty. Soaring was great fun, but the airplane was predictably slow on the controls, especially in roll. Most gliders aren't all that maneuverable because of their long wing spans, though pitch is still normally sensitive.
The Blanik sported a 28-to-one glide ratio, so approaches took some adjustment after flying standard powered aircraft with a typical 10 to one L/D. Speed brakes were/are a revelation. They provided more glide control than you can imagine, and it didn't take long before I was hitting my spot on the runway within a few feet. Eventually, exactly as my instructor predicted, I was able to stop within a few inches of my target, even if my spot was larger than a quarter. Anyone could do it. Another change that's immediately obvious in gliders is the noise level, or more accurately, the lack of it. Once you've cut loose from the towplane at normal glide speeds, the only sound is the gentle hiss of wind sweeping over the canopy.
I dabbled in marine cabin cruisers back in the day, and learned that soaring is to powered flight what sailing is to power boating, more of an art than a science. Unless conditions were optimum at El Mirage, we were confined to the airport environment. We'd find lift over the local chicken ranch or a nearby asphalt parking lot, circle upward until the variometer bled down to zero, look for more local lift, then, head back to the airport if there were no more updrafts. If I ever win a big enough lotto, one of the dozen or so airplanes I buy will be a powered glider with a stowable engine.
The water rating was next. I'd been fortunate to fly floats in a Super Cub in Alaska, but I learned water flying in a hulled amphibian out of Houston, bouncing around the wet in a Lake Buccaneer. The principles of operating a hulled seaplane rather than a floatplane are the same, but flying off water is a different experience in a Lake that rides in the liquid element rather than on top of it.
The engine is mounted high above the fuselage facing backward on a pylon, and the propeller is therefore a pusher rather than a tractor. This helps keep the prop up out of the spray and minimizes the risk of water erosion during takeoffs and landings. It also imparts a slight nose-down moment if you hit the throttle hard on takeoff from the water or during a missed approach.
The Lake fuselage rides very low in the water. With a normal load, you can taxi with the doors up and trail your fingers in the water over the sidewall without leaning out. Coming up onto the step is a different experience, again because you're riding/floating so low. The impression of speed is far more graphic when your butt is only a foot above water level.
All waterbirds must break the water's suction to lift off. Water is a heavier medium than air to overcome, so takeoff run on water is about double that on land. In the little Lake Buccaneer, water run at sea-level gross was listed at 1,100 feet, whereas land run was only 600 feet.
Landings are more personal, as well. You fly the Lake down to a height AWL (above water level) that you'd never imagine in any other airplane. Once again, the bottom of the hull is only about a foot below your seat cushion. In a typical floatplane, water takeoffs and landings place pilot and passengers five feet or more above the wet, a very different experience.
Helicopters introduced a whole new world of aircraft. It's a totally divergent way of flying, with training costs three to five times that of fixed wings, and rotary wings are so different from conventional airplanes, they deserve their own column.