Tuesday, June 8, 2010
Water, Wind & Floats
At Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base, getting wet is part of the fun
Jack Brown’s operates four J-3 Cubs—all with engines modified to put out 100 hp. You’re assigned the same Cub for the duration of your training, since each has its own quirks and personality. The single-engine course entails about five hours of flight training over two days, plus an hour or so for the checkride. The training starts with basic air work and familiarization with the J-3 Cub. Students are expected to have studied the material prior to arriving for the course because once the flying begins, things move quickly.
It’s probably best to warn you now that seaplane flying is an addiction, pure and simple. From grizzled veterans to squeaky private pilots, everyone at Jack Brown’s had the look of a kid who just stole a fistful of those big, round rainbow lollipops they sell at the county fair. I was here to find out what all that grinning was about. My instructor would be Nick Veltre, who came to Florida by way of New Jersey, and is an ex-Marine with a calm, relaxed manner that I immediately liked.
The basic rub of seaplanes is that they have no brakes. Though seaplanes fly the same as conventional aircraft, once on the water, they keep moving whether you want them to or not. The seaplane rating will teach you the basics of water flying: learning to read the wind on a body of water, gaining the skills necessary to make a seaplane do what you want it to on water, and transitioning the seaplane safely from air to water and vice versa in differing conditions. Getting the rating isn’t hard but requires different skills from conventional aviating.
It’s All About Attitude
Forget instruments. Floatplane flying is all about pitch, power and sight pictures. The entire time I was training, the only thing I looked at was the tachometer and airspeed indicator, and even that I did sparingly. It’s all done by feel. The seaplane game is stick-and-rudder, door-open, low-level flying. In this part of Florida, airspace is wide open and, flying at 500 feet AGL in a Cub, traffic is rare. Your vigilant eyes take the place of radios.
You’ll start by learning to get the airplane “on the step,” and recognizing when that happens. Then there’s the “step taxi,” which means cruising the surface of the lake in a speedy, Jet Ski–like manner. Getting on the step is part of the takeoff run, which involves letting the seaplane weathervane into the wind (on water, takeoffs are always done into the wind), giving it full power onto the step, and then letting it fly itself off the water. Rough-water takeoffs are like soft-field takeoffs; pull the seaplane off the water early, then ride ground effect (over water) to build up speed.
The thing that throws curve balls to seaplane pilots is glassy water. Windless days present a huge challenge for seaplane pilots because water without ripples creates a disorienting optical illusion. Glassy water eliminates depth perception and prevents a pilot from knowing how high he or she is above the water. It’s the number-one killer of seaplane pilots, who either stall the airplane from too high or slam onto the water with excessive speed. Glassy-water landings are the most challenging part of the seaplane curriculum, but are fun to perfect. By using an LVR (last visual reference)—an area of land where you can judge your altitude by reference to the ground—you set a nose attitude and power setting and let the water come to you. “See?” says Nick, “it really works!”
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