One of the nice things about growing up in Alaska was the opportunity to fly a variety of airplanes. The Civil Air Patrol squadron in Anchorage was one of the largest in the USAF auxiliary. Senior members owned and operated a little of everything, and CAP Cadets were allowed to fly as observers in a dozen different types, including seaplanes in the summer.
We had Super Cubs, Cessna 180s, Beavers and Maules, many of which swapped landing gear between wheels and floats every spring and fall. There was also a very tired Seabee, and a new, four-seat, 180 hp, Lake LA-4 hulled amphibian.
I quickly became one of the Lake owner’s favorite observers, not because of any special talent other than washing his airplane in cold weather. We flew several dozen search-and-rescue missions—all search and no rescue. Still, we had fun, and I had a chance to learn a little about water airplanes. I flew in several of the floatplanes, as well, but vowed if I ever got a rating, I’d do it in a Lake.
At the time, the Lake was the only certified, single-engine, hulled seaplane in the world. Seaplanes sacrifice climb, cruise speed, payload and range in exchange for the ability to land on standard runways or water, but most owners feel the trade-off is worth it. In the 40 years since earning my water rating in a Lake Buccaneer, I’ve come to agree. The Buccaneer is an improved version of the LA-4 with 200 hp out front.
The Buccaneer was/is barrels of fun on the water, analogous to a speedboat with wings. Unlike a typical floatplane that carries its occupants five feet up on twin floats, the Lake’s fuselage rips along down in the water, so the impression of speed is far more graphic. When you’re slow-speed taxiing with the left gull wing door open, you can reach over the side and easily trail your fingers in the water.
I learned later that feature had both positive and negative characteristics. I was visiting the Lake factory in Tomball, Texas, in 1982, and then-company president Al Alson and I watched a near-new Buccaneer taxi by on its way to the “ditch,” a 2,800- foot-long water runway dug directly in front of the manufacturing facility. Al told me the owner was a trophy salesman and made frequent flights with heavy loads of trophies for various sport teams around Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana. Sure enough, we could see boxes stacked up inside the airplane as he taxied down the ramp into the water, retracted the gear and back taxied for takeoff.
I heard Al mutter, “Uh oh,” as the airplane reached the turnaround loop at the far end of the runway. The pilot abruptly pushed power full up, and came plough taxiing back toward us and the ramp. The gear swung back down, and the airplane was barely able to stagger back up the ramp, as we watched a dozen streamers of water gush from the bottom of the boat hull.
Like most amphibians, the Lake’s hull has numerous drain plugs that need to be drained after each day of water flying. The pilot had apparently removed the plugs to drain residual water from the hull and forgotten to replace them.
That beefy boat hull makes the fuselage of standard landplanes look like tinfoil in contrast. In one instance, near Sitka, Alaska, I was riding right seat in a Buccaneer with the owner in the left. We were almost at liftoff when we both saw a log floating ahead at the same time. We hit it at probably 40 knots, there was a loud bang, and the owner immediately turned back toward the dock. When we were secure back at the dock, we scrambled out to check the damage. There was a recognizable dent, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as we had guessed and the hull’s integrity wasn’t compromised.
Sadly, California has very few bodies of water approved for seaplane operation, so I’ve had few opportunities near home to enjoy water flying in any water bird, but on trips to Alaska and the Deep South where seaplanes are welcome, I’ve been able to maintain my love for aviation water flying, generically, and in the Lake amphibian, specifically.
I enjoyed it so much that I nearly bought a Buccaneer back in the late ’80s, but again, liberal California didn’t like water birds, so I stuck to a series of Bellancas and Mooneys, none of which are capable of more than one water landing.
The last-model Lake Renegade features 250 hp out front in turbo or normal configuration, and though the type is currently out of production, there’s an ample supply of used models on the market and a fairly active Lake Amphibian Flyers Club.
The Lake was an attractive airplane, and some folks without any foreknowledge of the sponsons under the wings and the semi-boat hull fuselage design didn’t know it was an amphibian, capable of landing on wet or dry runways.
In 1986, I was hired to deliver a new Lake Renegade (basically the same airplane as the Buccaneer, but with six seats and 250 hp) to Vancouver, British Columbia, for static display at the 1986 World’s Fair. At the time, I was in a long-distance relationship with a girlfriend in Dallas, and she agreed to jet up to SeaTac Airport and meet me for the short flight on to Vancouver and three days at the World’s Fair.
Sharon was pretty, intelligent, and we had great fun together, but she knew nothing at all about private aircraft, a two-edged sword. She had flown with me in a variety of types, but never in a seaplane.
We met at SeaTac at the appointed time, walked out to the airplane, and she stopped 50 yards away and asked, “What are those strange things sticking down beneath the wings?”
Immediately, the seeds of a diabolical plan were planted, and I replied, “Oh, those are fuel tanks.” In fact, they ARE small, aux fuel tanks, but their primary function is as sponsons for stability and control on the water. Sharon accepted that explanation, but commented that they “certainly do look strange.”
We departed SeaTac and headed north over Seattle and the Space Needle toward Lake Washington. It was one of those chamber-of-commerce days with 100-mile visibility, little wind and smooth conditions, and there was lots of boating activity on Lake Washington. As we passed overhead, I suggested perhaps we’d drop down and take a closer look at the sailboats below. Sharon thought that was a great idea.
We descended to 1,000 feet, and I said, “Let’s drop down and get a closer look.” She agreed with a note of caution. I lined up into the wind, mumbled the rote checklist, “This is a water landing—the gear is up,” under my breath and aimed for a touchdown point not far from Kenmore Air Harbor. At about 50 feet, Sharon shouted, “Bill, what are you doing?” A few seconds later, I planted the Renegade in the water, Sharon let out a stifled scream and then began to laugh as it became apparent we weren’t sinking.
“This is one of those amphibious airplanes, isn’t it?” she said. “Gee, I hope so,” I replied as I brought the power back up and we played speedboat for a few minutes before continuing our short trip to Vancouver.
If you live in a part of the country where water flying is allowed, see if there’s a seaplane flight school nearby. If the weather is good and you have a good instructor, you may be able to earn the rating in one or two weekends.
Even if you never fly a seaplane again, you won’t regret the investment.