Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Flying Floats

Blending water with fire, air and earth

I love the fact that advancements in aerodynamics and airplane design have come from some pretty radical experimental prototypes, racing and show planes. The Be-10 had flat tubular water radiators faired into the wings and then into the pontoons, among other radical features; the Macchi M.C. 72 had a double counter-rotating fixed-pitch prop powering a flat V24 FIAT supercharged engine that they kept pumping up to more and more hp. The Macchi 7.2 and the Curtis R3C-2 carried fuel in the floats.

Fuel in the floats? The first time I crawled onto a set of EDO floats on our Cessna 185 to help preflight, I was instructed how critical it was to take off the rubber stoppers and use a hand pump to siphon any water that might have seeped into the many compartments so as not to disturb the weight and balance on takeoff. Of course, floatplanes today aren't necessarily experimental, and are more likely to be carrying a canoe or a freshly harvested moose on the floats than fuel in them.

Some of the most exotic adventures I have had in aviation were flying on floats in Alaska. In the Northern winter, rivers and lakes become highways for snow machines and dog teams, but in the summer, they belong to floatplanes and boats.

Floats give you such access! There are untold numbers of beautiful lakes to land on in Alaska and Canada. For years, my ex-husband and I would load up the 185 and fly out to Lake Clark, Western Alaska and the Arctic to camp and explore. Tied down to the bank of the Kobuk River, we watched the midnight sun move in a circle 20 degrees above the horizon.

We camped on islands in Arctic lakes to avoid bears, only to have a huge blonde grizzly wake us in our tent one morning. As soon as he realized we were people, he jumped in the water and swam back to shore. Floats gave us the ability to go places few people have ever been.

Weather changes fast in Alaska, and you have to be ready for every condition—rough water, glassy water, winds and currents. Flying a seaplane is all about technique, which is part of its appeal. Confidence comes with experience, and you need it to land on a fast-moving river with floating logs, using wind and currents to tie up at a dock. I got my seaplane rating in a Cessna 180. I didn't do a lot of the float flying in those days because of inexperience, but since then, I've learned a lot about finesse and technique.

Floatplane pilots have a different vocabulary—floatplanes and seaplanes, straight floats and amphibs; step turns, step taxi, water taxiing; water rudders, dockside, splash in, bumpers and floating docks and glassy water landings.

Glassy water landings are one of the most important techniques a seaplane pilot learns. Picture a lake with no waves or ripples. With no wind or disturbance, it's like a mirror, and landing on a mirror gives the pilot no cues about descent rate or depth perception. Many pilots have misjudged their height above the glassy water, but the technique for landing is simple and tricky at the same time—establish a 200 to 300 fpm rate of descent, look ahead, and the water will come to you. The same technique is used by ski pilots who have no definition between gray sky and white snow. I've learned a lot from flying floats: technique, skill and the patience of a 200 fpm descent.

I asked Steve McCaughey, the executive director of the Seaplane Pilot's Association ( for his thoughts about flying floats. He said, "There are many parallels between flying a seaplane and a taildragger. A tailwheel-current pilot will always make the transition to flying floatplanes faster than a non-tailwheel pilot. A glassy water landing is very similar to a wheel landing, and a rough water landing is very similar to a soft field landing. The same holds true for rough water takeoffs, they are very similar to a soft field takeoff."


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