Flying a Seaplane

By Robert Mark on September 29th, 2014
@jetwhine discovers seaplane flying

The classroom was a 150 hp PA-12 Super Cruiser on floats

How many times during an airline pre-takeoff briefing have you heard the flight attendant say, “In the event of a water landing …”

Trust me, there ain’t no such thing as a water landing in an airplane with traditional landing gear.

 

An airplane touching down on the water is a crash plain and simple … EXCEPT, when you’re learning to fly a seaplane like I did last week. My instructor, Tom Brady at Traverse Air near KTVC, probably thought there were a few times when my efforts were a bit crash like, but luckily I improved enough to pass the checkride a few days after we started. Not bad for an old guy.

@jetwhine discovers seaplane flying

Not much need to look at the panel very often

I first became fascinated with the idea of these aircraft after visiting a seaplane mecca a few years ago in Vancouver where I spent the afternoon watching floatplanes of all sizes come and go. Then a local Jetwhine reader here in Chicago, Dave Montgomery, offered up some encouraging nudges until I knew I needed to make room for this in my schedule. Last week I did with my friend Matt Desch. We arrived in TVC for five hours of training in this PA-12 Super Cruiser. For a guy who’s become pretty comfortable with a glass cockpit, this was a pretty simple airplane to work with. A stick, a throttle and a couple of basic instruments. We never did turn on the radio.

Before the first lesson, CFI Tom Brady mentioned that Matt and I would never again look at water the same way. That turned out to be true. The preflight alone was different … especially for a guy like me who can’t swim.

We learned there’s a difference between glassy water and the surface when there’s even just a minor wind. Who would have thought taking off and landing on glassy water was actually more challenging than when there’s a breeze? Plow taxiing now makes sense, as does realizing when the airplane’s on the step. We learned how to take off from a confined space … seaplane talk for a short field. Water rudders? I thought those were a bit like water wings at first, but I learned when to use them and when to make sure I retracted them. Finally, there came the realization that when the engine quits on a seaplane, those floats add more drag than even I was prepared for at first. This is all the book learning part of course.

@jetwhine discovers seaplane flying

Glassy water techniques are actually more challenging than when there’s a wind

What I really loved most was the precision flying skills Matt and I both gained in just a few days.

Having spent quite a few years flying an old taildragger Champ with a stick, I found some elements of a seaplane rating similar to checking out in a taildragger, except for one. Those of you who understand wheel landings remember that touchdown is followed by easing the stick forward to keep the tail up and the rudders effective. That is the LAST thing you want to do in a seaplane and Tom Brady’s emphatic pleas early on to “don’t push forward …” didn’t take too long for me to understand. Those of you who fly seaplanes also know you can’t simply chop the power and haul back on the stick as soon as you touch the water either or you’ll skip like a flat stone on a lagoon, while pushing forward might catch a float and flip you on your back before you even realize what’s happening.

@jetwhine discovers seaplane flying

The number of maneuvers for the checkride are few. in number Most of the last couple of hours in N3071M were spent honing my skills to make great arrivals and departures under a variety of water conditions. Most gratifying of all, next to passing the checkride of course, was the hour or so before the ride when I started feeling I was becoming one with the airplane. I didn’t need to look out the window to know when the airplane was on the step … I could feel it, as well as how just the barest amount of forward or back pressure on the stick drastically altered the drag on the floats. Ha … can you feel this when you’re flying your glass-cockpit airplane?

If you’re up for a challenge to your flying skills, I highly recommend a seaplane rating … along with a tailwheel checkout of course. When it begins making sense, you’ll be amazed at the kind of pilot you can become. I found the $895 price reasonable for the training. Add another $300 for the checkride.

Be sure and tell Tom Brady in Traverse City I sent you. He’s a hoot as an instructor. He’s also a guy who really enjoys watching people walk away rated to arrive and depart on the water.

Rob Mark, publisher

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13 Responses to “Flying a Seaplane”

  1. John Mahany Says:

    Hey Rob,

    What a great story about earning your Sea Plane Rating!! Congrats!!

    Guess what? Back in ’91, I went to the same place, as I recall, Traverse City, MI, and trained with Dale DeRuiter. He owned the business. I spent 2 or 3 days flying a PA-12 on floats and earned my Sea Plane Rating, and had a blast in the process! Unlike many, I actually got to use it, when I later went to Alaska and had the opportunity to fly several different float planes.

    It is a different, but really fun kind of flying! You learn to watch out for boats!

    Best,

    John

  2. Gramps Says:

    It just occurred to me that I have been flying single and multi-engine seaplanes for over 40 years. It has been fun but it is a demanding type of flying that has little forgiveness when things go wrong. In deed, glassy water landings are a major challenge and should always be exercised when needed or when you suspect there is a need. Sooner or later you arrive at a narrow body of water with higher ground at the far end, just a few minutes before sunset. It is black as a hole and there is no way of knowing what’s going on down there. Do the glassy water! Here are some other things to keep in mind:
    1. All seaplane landings (or most) are off airport landings. Give up the concept that things are ready for your arrival and everybody expects you.
    2. The surface of the water is just that. There is no guarantee what is an inch below the surface.
    3. Wires are seldom marked and can spoil your approach for sure, if you live to tell the tale.
    4. Carefully calculate the size of your landing area and note any obstructions. You can get it on the water without much trouble but it is very embarrassing to find the area is too small for a take-off or that you won’t be able to clear nearby obstacles.

    Have fun!

  3. Pat Karbon Says:

    Hi Rob,
    The 155 passengers and crew aboard Chesley “Sully” Sullengerger’s US Airways flight 1549 would probably take issue with the opinion that there ‘ain’t no such thing as a water landing… traditional landing gear’. Fortunately for that group of folks, there are professional pilots capable of successfully landing a big bird without the aid of floats!
    Like you, I would prefer to land on water in a plane properly equipped. And having the experience in a seaplane probably wouldn’t hurt for all the reasons you list and then some (like that distant chance that someday you might need to land on water in an aircraft with ‘traditional’ landing gear)!
    Thanks for the encouragement and the comments on Traverse City – you’re the second one I’ve had recommend them to me for a seaplane rating over a long weekend.
    Pat

  4. Robert Mark Says:

    You are soooooo right Pat.

    This is the kind of moment I appreciate readers like you for being able to point out that big oops of mine.

    Hats off to Sulley and Jeff too for successfully ditching that Airbus the way few others could.

    And let me know if you go after that seaplane rating.

  5. David Vandenbroeck Says:

    I just earned my seaplane rating on July 31 at Romeo Aviation in Cumberland WI. It was a blast! Sandi Randall, my CFI & the owner of the operation, was a pleasure to fly with. I earned my ASES in a Citabria and cannot wait to do more seaplane flying in different aircraft. I also plan on returning to visit Sandy this winter for some ski plane flying. It is certainly a way to sharpen your skills.

  6. Patty Coppola-Golden Says:

    Now I have another goal added to my “flying list”.
    Thank you!

    Patty

  7. Trevor Nelson Says:

    Great article. I’ve been wanting to get my seaplane rating ever since I moved here to Anchorage, AK. Lake Hood is a huge seaplane base. Anybody have recommendations on who to train with up here? I haven’t seen any places offering the training, but there’s got to be one someplace.

  8. Dave Montgomery Says:

    Trevor
    If you go to http://www.seaplanes.org, there is state-by-state list of seaplane training schools. I see one in Anchorage, and others around the State. A couple are located in Talkeetna, which seems like an interesting place to fly.

  9. Dave Montgomery Says:

    Rob, I’m curious if you were able to land out in Traverse Bay, or if your training was only on the inland lakes. Were the waves to big to land in the Bay ?

  10. Bob Dennay Says:

    I totally endorse the sentiment of your article Robert; I’m in the midst of recurrent training on a corporate aircraft but one of my most enjoyable aviation experiences was a floatplane rating. I was on the way to a new job with the UK Royal Air Force at Goose Bay Canada and I treated myself to a few days at Jack Brown’s in Florida. A thoroughly professional operation and bobbing around in a yellow Cub on floats with no electric start was delicious. I also learned new skills and tricks, such as the glassy water in the lee of land being as good as a windsock, which are useful in other piloting areas. I later treated myself to a helicopter rating when I left the military and that was another great experience. Happy memories.

  11. Rob Mark Says:

    Actually Dave, we didn’t land on Traverse Bay but I do remember asking Tom about the option. We had so many lakes beneath us all the time, I just don’t think we thought much about flying way over to the bay from Silver Lake. That could have taken at least 10 minutes.

    Do you know how many landings I could get in during that time … especially on those long lakes where we’d take off, climb to 200 feet and land again, only to takeoff and land etc. etc.

  12. Robert Mark Says:

    Tom Brady replied to Dave’s earlier question about landing on Traverse Bay … “The problem with a large body of water is when it gets windy. The waves turn into swells and the swells can become extremely large.”

    And to Gramps and Dave V … like you, I found the water challenging as a runway. Not hard, but just not the kind of place that will easily tolerate lousy landing preparation or touchdowns.

  13. Greg Says:

    did my seaplane rating with Tom….very nice and thorough instructor.
    I highly recommend for those who desire the SES rating.

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