My floatplane rating – not easy, but worth it

Flying: Day One

I arrived at the seaplane base bright and early to find that I was to be the only student. You wouldn’t guess it from the Orlando traffic, but it was something of an off-season, at least with regard to people looking for floatplane ratings.

Cub on floats
A fun way to learn new flying skills.

I filled out some simple paperwork and copies of my credentials were made for placement in my permanent records, then met my instructor, Todd. He would be doing both the ground school and flight training.

Despite my forays into unrelated anecdotes and questions that may have bordered on the arcane now and then, we managed to get through the entire 28 pages of material in a little less than three hours. Not surprisingly, the majority of the material is focused on ground (well… water) operations. Once you’re in the air, a float plane flies pretty much (but not exactly) like any other airplane with the notable difference of gliding like a cinder block with an anvil tied to it.

As far as the abysmal glide performance, the floats themselves are probably the primary cause of that, but no small portion is also attributable to the bird’s nest of cables and struts that perform any number of functions. The Piper Cub itself has never been the dictionary example of aerodynamic streamlining to start with, and adding 250 pounds of aluminum and rigging certainly doesn’t do anything to improve that situation.

There was quite a bit of content crammed into those 28 pages. It might seem that there isn’t that much to know; it’s just an airplane that floats, so what’s the big deal? Well, just as an example, consider that there are no brakes. Once you start the engine, you had darn well better have a plan as to what to do next because the airplane is going to start moving whether you’re ready or not. It doesn’t move particularly fast, but it does move inexorably.

Seaplane base classroom
Plowing through 28 pages of ground school content.

There’s also the wind to contend with. Yes, that is true of all flying, but the wind takes on a special meaning when your airplane doesn’t have tires and pavement tied together in an intimate bond of friction that will provide relatively solid control whilst on the ground. It can easily be the case that the wind is too strong to even get the airplane turned around on the water due to the weathervaning effect of the wind on the tail.

There are other weather situations that have specific techniques to deal with. Believe it or not, one of the most dangerous conditions for floatplane takeoffs and landings is when there’s no wind at all! The lack of wind on a lake can cause the water to be dead calm, or “glassy” in the parlance of seaplane operations.

Flat, calm, glassy water certainly looks inviting and may give the pilot a false sense of safety. By its nature, glassy water indicates no wind, so there are no concerns about which direction to land, no crosswind to consider, no weathervaning, and obviously no rough water. Unfortunately, both the visual and the physical characteristics of glassy water hold potential hazards for complacent pilots. Consequently, this surface condition is frequently more dangerous than it appears for a landing seaplane.

One of the most interesting topics was the discussion around how to look at a body of water and read the wind direction and strength. It became very clear once in the air, but seeing it drawn on a whiteboard didn’t fully convey the utility and subtlety of it. I was fortunate to have fairly high winds the first day which made the indicators very easy to see, although I did manage to get it completely backwards on one occasion. That could be dangerous; landing downwind in a floatplane is risky because a great deal of drag on the floats can cause the plane to flip completely over if the floats dig in.

That’s considered bad form.

Jack Brown's
Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base has trained countless pilots over the decades.

As with “normal” flying, there are also different types of takeoffs and landings, each being suited to various conditions. There are normal takeoffs, rough water takeoffs, crosswind takeoffs, confined area takeoffs, and glassy water takeoffs. There are also symmetrical landing techniques to most of those.

As the floatplane is primarily a boat when it’s on the water, we also talked about how to anchor it, how to moor it, how to dock it, how to beach it (deliberately), and how to get it off the water and onto a ramp. We also talked about other boat-like things, such as right-of-way with other airplanes (opposite from normal flying, the airplane taking off has right-of-way over an airplane landing), right of way with boats (the airplane has none), and how to determine which bodies of water are legal to land on and which aren’t.

It was a long morning, but we were finally ready to fly.

So, naturally, it started to rain.

After the rain tapered off, we went out to do the preflight. It’s not a great deal different than preflighting any other plane – there are just a lot more nuts and bolts to look at. There is one unique aspect though: the various compartments of the floats have to be pumped out. It seems that they leak a little bit. There are a total of fourteen compartments to be pumped out – it’s not hard to do, but it does take a little time.

I imagine you get used to it.

When we finally climbed aboard, I went into the back seat. A Piper Cub is flown solo from the rear seat, so that was appropriate. I did notice while I was climbing in that the control stick was quite tall – I am used to the much shorter stick in the RV-12. I estimate that the Piper Cub measures in at “Very High” on the Stimpmeter scale of awkwardness.

Cub panel
Climbing in, it’s clear the Cub doesn’t overwhelm you with instruments.

I soon learned why the stick has such an incongruous length: the control forces in flight are surprisingly heavy for such a light plane. You need the extra leverage to fly it. I’m not kidding. My right arm was soon sore from the exertion. The thing had the flight qualities of a concrete mixer.

The normal takeoff sounds fairly straightforward when described as a series of steps, but there are aspects of it that are very subtle and will take a number of repetitions to get the appropriate feel for. In order, you yank the stick all the way back into your lap, you advance the throttle to full, and the nose immediately climbs up in front of you and renders you blind to where you’re headed. This, by the way, is why a float plane taking off has right of way over one landing – the guy taking off can’t see a darn thing.

Here’s where the subtlety comes in. While the nose is pointing up so far that you feel like you must be dragging the tail, you’re waiting for it to go up even more! But it’s not going to go up dramatically more, it’s only going to go up a tiny bit more. Blink and you’ll miss it. If you’re sharp enough to detect it, it’s your signal to ease the stick forward to let the nose come back down. If you time it correctly, the floats will be “on the step,” which is another similarity with boats. Once on the step, only a small portion of the float is actually in contact with the water, so drag is substantially reduced and the airplane can begin to accelerate to flying speed.

But… you can’t let all of the stick force off. If you do, the floats will experience increased drag, which will pitch the nose down. That will cause the nose to start moving up and down in what is called “porpoising.”

It sounds cute, but it’s a bad thing.

So, once on the step, you ease the stick back again, but only enough to keep the nose from digging in. Naturally, there’s all kinds of cacophonous mayhem going on, especially if the water is rough, so it takes a bit of self-discipline to not try to yank the plane off of the water. You just have to give it time to do its thing – eventually it just flies off the water of its own accord.

Gamble in Cub
The author gets to know the Cub – from the back seat of course.

We went through two hours of this. We didn’t have to simulate the rough water takeoffs and landings because for the second hour, rough water was all there was. We went to at least five or six other lakes and practiced. I completely lost count of how many times we were up and down. It was tiring!

During this first flight, we went through all of the different permutations of takeoffs and landings.

We finally had to stop because we were at our fuel limits, and I was just fine with that. We were going to have lunch and go fly again, but the weather really went bad and we had to postpone. I was actually okay with that – I was starting to feel diminishing returns. In other words, I had reached my capacity to learn any more. I thought a night to think it all over and internalize some of what I had learned would be beneficial, so we agreed to take up where we left off early the next morning.

Flying: Day Two

I was scheduled to do three flights on the second day, the first being the hour and a half we weren’t able to do on day one, and the second being another hour and a half of more advanced instruction. These were to be followed by a half hour oral exam and a half hour check ride.

It was pretty grueling.

There’s a lot of difference between this kind of flying and the flying I’ve been doing for 30-some years, and it is a lot to try to learn in such a brief period. Combined with that, the Piper Cub is actually quite a bit of physical work to fly.

And on top of all that, flying at only 500 ft. AGL is definitely not in my comfort zone. I typically pass through 500 ft. before I’m even at the end of the runway after takeoff, and see it again moments before landing. I consider it to be a ridiculously low cruising altitude.

The two instructional flights went well – I was finally able to translate the book learning into actual airplane operations without having to think so much about it. This was no small thing as the way of doings things in a floatplane is in many cases the diametrical opposite of how things are done in the “normal” plane.

Cub in flight
The view from 500 ft. is great, even if it is “a ridiculously low cruising altitude.”

One of the things that takes a great deal of getting used to is that in addition to the low altitude they fly, they have abysmal glide performance.

This propensity to drop like a lead fruitcake means that landing patterns are typically flown very tight in to the landing surface, as opposed to the half mile or so that I typically keep from the runway. It also means that if the engine quits, you have to make a very quick decision as to where you’re going to land.

We had practiced that once during the first flight of the morning and it ended up being a simple matter of just landing on the lake conveniently located right next to us. Had there not been a lake there, well, I guess I would say that you really want to have a reliable engine on a float plane.

The fundamental point the instructor made was to not dally around – point the nose down to keep the airspeed up and find water. As we will see, this should not be conflated with “jump on the first thing that pops into your head.”

After the second flight, it was time to shake hands and say goodbye to Todd. It was time for Eric, the examiner, to take over. We started with the oral exam, during which he asked precisely three of the questions I had reviewed with Todd. The remainder were questions that attempted to determine whether I could figure things out based on the principles learned through the rote phase. It was pretty interesting, although in the cases where I had to guess, I ended up being wrong each and every time.

I passed; apparently the three correct rote answers were enough. To be honest, I would have nailed the rote questions anyway, so the deeper-thought questions ended up being more like advanced ground training. It was actually kind of fun, and any extra learning was well worth it.

Once in the air, we made a few landings. Then came the glassy water landing. The toughest of the bunch.

I aced it.

What a relief!

It would soon get worse, though.

Cub engine
Those old engines are awfully reliable, which is good because the Cub glides like an anvil.

While moving on to another lake (they don’t like to stay too long at any one lake lest the neighbors complain) we had just passed over a large lake separated from a smaller lake by a narrow spit of land. This is when the examiner decided to pull the throttle back for a simulated engine failure. I immediately pushed the nose down and headed for the lake in front of us.

Bad choice.

The examiner said the lake was too small and we would never be able to get back out of it, if we were even able to land and get stopped before beaching the plane on the far end. He explained that I should have done a 180 degree back to the much larger lake behind us.

Doing so would have gone against every grain of my decades of experience of being told never to try to make a 180 turn back to the runway if your engine quits on takeoff, so I never even considered it. And to tell the truth, even after he demonstrated it, I still wouldn’t try it – the trees were mighty dissuasive. My view is that in an actual situation, I would take my chances with beaching the plane over turning around into a stand of mature trees.

It’s not a debate that I had any hope of winning.

We eventually headed back to the home lake and I was setting us up to land by overflying the lake to look for any possible obstructions and to choose my ground references for another glassy water landing. We were between half and two-thirds of the way down the lake when he pulled the throttle again.

He was giving me a second chance at a power off landing!

I’ll bet you can guess what I did.

I immediately racked the plane into a 180 degree turn back towards the longer side of the lake behind us. I strongly suspect that’s exactly what he thought I would do.  With the first failure being so front-of-mind, turning back was the first thing that popped into my mind.

Cub in cruise
Sometimes the best place for a forced landing is behind you… sometimes not.

It was, again, exactly the wrong thing to do. Once turned, there wasn’t enough lake behind us – I should have simply made a base leg to a landing.

I had no one to blame for that one but myself. In fact, my failure at this still bothers me – these are the types of bad decisions that get people killed.

It was a valuable lesson.

So, I nailed the glassy water landing, but failed the check ride.

I have to confess: this hit me pretty hard. I could count on one hand the number of tests I’ve ever failed in my life (scored a 98 on the instrument written, fer cryin’ out loud) and I’ve never even come close to busting a check ride. I took a pretty bad mood back to the hotel, and it was only exacerbated by the miserable traffic.

I didn’t sleep well.

Flying: The Mulligan Checkride

It didn’t start out well – the weather conditions when I arrived at the seaplane base were awful. The humidity and calm air conspired to complicate matters with a thick fog.

The examiner (Eric again) arrived a few minutes later. We talked a little bit about what had happened the day before, and I told him that I’m still not sure that I would have done anything differently than that first attempt had it been an actual emergency landing, but that I also understand the difference between real world and training.

We took off, he pulled the power at the edge of the first lake we passed, I turned left toward it, and made an easy power-off crosswind landing.

Graduation certificate
Check ride, take two. This time – success.

We took off again and headed back to the base. He said we would just set up for and perform a normal landing. I told him that I didn’t believe that for a second!  Sure enough, he pulled the throttle just short of the lake, so the only real difference was that we didn’t fly a pattern around the lake. Basically we just ended up being on final, so the ensuing straight-in landing was trivial.

If he had given me these two scenarios yesterday, we wouldn’t have had to go through this, but other than the additional expense incurred, I’m glad we did. I learned a ton from it.

After that, it was all over but the paperwork.

I can’t say enough good things about the entire experience. Jack Brown’s has been doing this for a very long time, and this is evidenced on a daily basis by the efficiency with which the operation is run. From my very first interactions with Pat, who helped me get scheduled, to all of the employees who went about their jobs efficiently while still being very hospitable, to the well-maintained planes, and the deep expertise on display from each of the instructors that I flew with, this is a top-notch business.

If you ever find yourself looking for a very challenging and extremely fun way to spend a few days in Florida, this is it!

2 Comments

  • Good story. It’s been thirty years since I underwent the same rite of passage at Jack Brown’s seaplane base. While I have flown a seaplane only twice since then, the ASES training and check ride remain one of my favorite aeronautical experiences.

  • It was on July 27, 1987, when I stopped by at Jack Brown’s seaplane base to pick up my Commercial ASES rating. I already had about 2,000 seaplane hours in Alaska where my floatplane flying was attendant to my profession as a big game guide. I was flying a turbocharged C-206 amphibian.

    Jack and his staff were especially kind and helpful, but were quite serious about their work. I was very pleased to have picked up my Commercial ASES at Brown’s, a very competent and experienced seaplane school.

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