What do pilots talk about at dinner? You guessed it. I was having dinner with a friend the other night and, of course, we started comparing the types of airplanes we loved and favored. Mine were predictably all about performance—the Extra, P51, the Texan II; he, on the other hand, was all about floatplanes, seaplanes, Beavers on amphibs, and thought the Beech 18 on floats was the ultimate cool machine.
I thought to myself, this isn’t too exciting. These beautiful, but slow, lumbering bears, shaking the water off their coats as they jump out of the water using sheer power to overcoming gravity. Seaplanes—nah! Not my thing. I like performance.
But later that night, I started thinking about the way my friend’s eyes lit up talking about flying floats, and I realized I had perhaps become a victim of my own mentality. After all, some of the best flights I’ve ever had have been in a floatplane. You might say I had a seaplane epiphany! After all, what’s performance, if nothing but relative?
Not long ago while visiting the Smithsonian’s Paul E. Garber restoration facility in Silver Hill, Md., I ran my hands over the low-drag corrugated brass wing radiators that covered most of the surface of the wings of what was, in 1925, the world’s fastest airplane—the only surviving Curtis R3C-2 floatplane. It wasn’t just the fastest floatplane, it was the world’s fastest airplane, period. The National Air & Space Museum owns the only surviving R3C-2 that was flown to victory by Jimmy Doolittle in the Schneider Trophy Race.
While doing some research, I discovered that 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the Schneider Trophy Races. Held 11 times between 1913 and 1931, they were conceived purposefully to encourage technological development in aviation. These races were watched by hundreds of thousands of spectators.
I quote Wikipedia: “The race was significant in advancing aeroplane design, particularly in the fields of aerodynamics and engine design, and would show its results in the best fighters of WW2. The streamlined shape and the low-drag liquid-cooled engine pioneered by Schneider Trophy designs are obvious in the British Supermarine Spitfire, the American P-51 Mustang, and the Italian Macchi C.202 Folgore.”
So the wave of technological advancement continued well after the end of the races in 1931. And astonishingly, in 1933 and 1934, the Italian Macchi M.C. 72 set the world’s record speed for piston-engine propeller-driven seaplanes at over 440 mph, and today still holds the record! On the jet side, in 1961, the Russian Beriev Be-10, a twin-engine swept-wing jet-powered flying boat, set 12 FAI world records and still holds the official world record for speed in its class, achieving 567 mph. Reno Racers, watch out!
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 (www.seaplanes.org/spa) 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.”
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. shebleaviation.com) 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!