Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Flying Floats

Blending water with fire, air and earth

I use this technique all the time flying taildraggers. Close to the ground, when I can't see over the nose of my airplane and I'm using peripheral vision, I slow my descent rate until I can squeak it on. When you have enough runway, you can do it in any airplane. It's sort of like cheating because you're guaranteed a grease-job landing! Good seaplane pilots have to develop finesse, and it pays off in any other flying they do.

A pair of friends of mine in Alaska, experienced bush pilots who owned an air taxi and operated a Grumman Widgeon, got into a white-out flying a Super Cub through Lake Clark pass one winter. They lost all visibility, and with mountains on either side of them, they knew they were eventually going to hit something hard. But instead of giving up, they set up a 100 to 200 fpm descent until they miraculously flew into soft snow. It was getting dark, so they spent the night in the airplane, and when they woke up the next morning, they realized they were halfway up the side of a mountain. They were extremely lucky to hit the side of the mountain at just the right angle, but they used an old seaplane technique to save their lives. Getting down the mountain was another story, but the airplane is still there.

Thinking about all of this has made me want to get floatplane current again. I miss the smell of the water mixed with the sound of a propeller turning. I particularly enjoy seaplanes like the Lake Amphibian and Widgeon, and recently had the chance to fly one of my dream airplanes—a turbine Mallard off a lake in Idaho. These airplanes are all about performance and, even cooler, about access. And, if you don't have a lake to fly off of, you can fly amphibs, or amphibious floats. You might go a little slower and sit a little higher, but you can go anywhere and find fuel along the way.

If you haven't thought about it before, or maybe you've thought about it your whole life, it might just be time for you to get your seaplane rating. It's not prohibitively expensive. If you have a private license, the ASES will be private only, and if you're commercial rated, your ASES will also be commercial. Or, you can get an AMES. Sheble Aviation (www. in Bullhead City, Ariz., gives ratings in a twin-engine Beech 18 on floats. The seaplane rating usually takes about two days and six or seven hours of flying, and there are a number of reputable schools around the country that offer them.

I've heard the argument and have used it myself, "Why get the rating? I'll never use it. I can't afford a floatplane!" If you have the opportunity, then don't worry about where it will lead. Let's face it, anytime we push ourselves a little further out of our comfort zone, get a new rating and head in a new direction, the feeling of accomplishment and excitement inspires us and extends to every other area of our lives.

I recently spoke with Mark Baker, the president of AOPA, and asked him about his view on float flying. He said, "My sense about water flying is simple—mixing water, wind and adventure flying, and it's a great day for me."

Flying is all about the elements. Blending fire and air, terra firma and gravity. When we fly a float or a seaplane, we're mixing it up with a fourth element—water. Close your eyes, picture taxiing in to your dock on floats, opening the door and smelling the water. Seaplane flying is this wonderful fusion of all of the elements—fire, air, earth and water.

Happy centennial to the Schneider Cup Trophy!


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