Be prepared to have fun,” Frances Brown told me. That was one of those phrases I had heard before with little payoff. I was making arrangements to go to Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Fla., for its famed seaplane training, and Frances was kind enough to brief me on everything I’d need for the course. Her admonition sounded sincere, especially when delivered in her honey-smooth Florida drawl. Days later, the phrase made me smile as I sat in the cockpit of a Piper Cub with water spraying my face, wind battering my T-shirt and the sweet feel of floats leaving the lake water below. I was having the most fun I had ever had flying.
Jon Brown—Jack’s son—runs the seaplane base and has been at the helm since his father died in an unrelated aircraft accident in 1975. Jack Brown was an aviation folk hero in these parts. He started the seaplane base in 1962 to take advantage of the hundreds of lakes in this part of Central Florida. The base’s popularity for seaplane training became obvious, so Jack focused exclusively on that aspect. To date, Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base has trained more than 14,000 seaplane pilots and is one of the busiest seaplane training facilities in the world.
Jack Brown’s is known the world over, and while I was there, a never-ending line of pilots came through the door from every country imaginable. Whether it was Maldivians stopping in to say “hello,” or Brazilians signing up for the course, it became a game to “guess the accent.” It’s all part of the charm here. “This is a little like being at Grandma’s,” laughs Frances, Jon Brown’s wife. “Everybody has their favorite chair, and they feel connected to the place because nothing here changes much.” A love of floatplanes (the correct term is either “floatplane” or “seaplane”) brings everyone together.
Marc Lee (right) takes a break with his instructor, Nick Veltre (left), and Jon Brown (middle).
Students coming to Jack’s start their day early with a ground-school session that lasts a couple of hours. If you’re lucky, you’ll get an instructor like Jerry Caudill, who hails from Kentucky and whose Southern accent is like a rum and molasses concoction: thick and easy. If central casting could provide the perfect seaplane ground instructor, it would be Jerry. Using a plastic model and a whiteboard, he teaches you all the basics of seaplane flying. You learn, for example, that the FAA requires floats to be divided into at least four compartments, with each float required to support 90% of the seaplane’s weight. And that “sister keelsons” are strips alongside the keel that help guide water on the underside of the float for better control.
You’ll learn about the right-of-way rules for seaplanes as spelled out in FAR 91.115 and how just about anything on the water has the right-of-way over a seaplane. You’ll be taught about “the step,” one of the most ubiquitous terms in the floatplane world. It refers to the “sweet spot” on the float where physics provides the best acceleration for the least drag. Getting “on the step” means transitioning the seaplane from sitting in the water like an overfed duck to making it rise out of the water and onto this more efficient part of the floats.
The FAA doesn’t require a written test for the seaplane rating, but there’s a thorough oral exam, and Jon Brown—who’s one of two designated FAA examiners at the base—doesn’t pull any punches. Safety is his main concern, and he makes sure you’ve learned everything you need to know. You’ll be given course materials that are based heavily on renowned seaplane instructor John M. Rennie’s book, Step Up To Floats, which focuses on the J-3 Cubs used at the base.
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.
Why bother? Because seaplane training is more fun than any pilot should be allowed to have, and the training counts as a biennial flight review. With a very affordable price tag (Jack’s offers its course for about $1,200), it’s a fantastic way to spend a weekend and become a better pilot while having the time of your life.
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!”
You’ll learn different types of takeoff and landing techniques, all dictated by water conditions. You’ll be taught how to taxi, sail (using the ailerons and rudder as wind devices), turn (the big danger here is wind getting under the wing) and make confined-area takeoffs, where you lift off in a spiral on one float—it’s a total blast!
Nick is forever patient and knows every one of the 50-some lakes in the area, which we pick at random for different kinds of practice. I learn a little about the “pirate mentality” that Frances told me about back at the base. It’s an attitude that sets floatplane pilots apart: a love for the combination of water and flying, and a bit of an independent streak that focuses on the fun of flying first. Like sailors, seaplane pilots share a certain joy in living that becomes obvious as you spend time with them.
Now, with 4.9 hours of float flying in my logbook, Nick deems me ready for the checkride. Jon Brown is physically intimidating but really is a gentle, soft-spoken man who cares about each student. He carefully guides me through an hour of oral questions, and I learn volumes just listening to him. The checkride itself is nothing scary and covers everything I’ve learned. “Let’s try that rough-water landing again, please,” Brown says, as my nerves get the best of me. Jack Brown’s isn’t a “ratings mill” where examiners pencil-whip logbooks. Jon demands excellence from each student. The base’s 48 years of success have taught him a thing or two about seaplane training.
Bringing It Home
Writing about maneuvers and checkrides doesn’t tell you why flying a seaplane is so much fun. That’s something you’ll have to experience yourself, but it has something to do with freedom. For me, the moment came as I was jumping from lake to lake with Nick. I used my freshly learned skills to land in a narrow canal on a deserted lake. I flew at treetop level, weaving in and out of mossy cypress trees and over alligators that looked like telephone poles in the water. I brought the J-3 in on the deserted lake as the morning sun warmed my face through the Cub’s open door.
With my floats churning the root-beer water, I tugged the stick and pulled the throttle, and my obedient Cub reared up and stopped gently. We “sailed” to the lake’s edge and beached the Cub on a pristine shore where we talked about flying and listened to the thunk of water against the floats. The wind, the spray, the sun and the heady feeling of flight all combined to form a powerful elixir. “Does flying get any better than this?” asked Nick. There was no answer, just the sound of another Cub off in the distance, its pilot reading the wind and looking for paradise. We had already found it.
To learn more about Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base, visit www.gate.net/~seaplane, or call (863) 956-2243.