What I did on my summer vacation (hint: seaplanes)

How many times have you been hangar flying with fellow pilots and the subject of a seaplane rating comes up? Have you ever heard a pilot say, “I don’t want a seaplane rating?” Probably not. A seaplane rating is like a DC-3 type rating: you either have it or you want it.

I am very blessed to be a pilot for a major US airline with 29 years of seniority. When people ask where I like to fly, my standard answer is “Hawaii in the winter and Alaska in the summer.” I got my first taste of Alaska about 12 years ago flying to Anchorage. That was about the time the TV reality show, “The Deadliest Catch,” began airing. My fascination and intrigue grew with every trip to Anchorage and every episode of “The Deadliest Catch.”

In the summer of 2015, I continued my tradition of flying Alaska trips in the summer, and my destination of choice began to be Fairbanks. With a layover of approximately 24 hours, I would land in FAI about 8:00 pm and fly the red-eye out the next night. This allowed an opportunity to enjoy some of the sights and still get good rest for the next night’s flight.

I did a little research and found Fairbanks Floatplane. I called and spoke to Craig Kenmonth, who is the owner. I explained my time constraints and that I was interested in getting my seaplane rating. I told him that I owned a C-172 and was current and very comfortable in the airplane. With that in mind, Craig said we would use their C-172 for my training.

Cessna 172 on floats Alaska
A Cessna 172 on floats is a great training airplane.

We scheduled my first flight for the next week. N9815G would be the airplane for my training. “15G” is a C-172L with a 160 hp engine with power flow exhaust and electronic ignition. The airplane is well-equipped with a Garmin 430W and Garmin 496 and sits on Edo 2000 floats.

Thankfully there was reference material available for download on the website. I had some homework to do before my first flight. Craig also suggested I purchase a copy of “How to Fly Floats” by J.J. Frey. This is a great reference. While only 67 pages, this books cuts straight to the “need to know” information.

The next week, my flight from Chicago to Fairbanks was uneventful. Our entire crew went out for dinner at the Pump House, which sits on the Chena River in Fairbanks. Little did I know that in about 16 hours, I would be doing touch-and-gos on that very river.

The next morning, I hopped in a cab for the airport. When I arrived at the airport, I walked in to Fairbanks Floatplane and was greeted by Anita and Kathy. I had spoken to Kathy on the phone to schedule everything, and felt that I already knew her. Pretty soon, Craig walked in and introduced himself. It took all of about 30 seconds to realize we were going to get along just fine. Craig would be my initial instructor and eventually my examiner. We spent about 30 minutes getting to know each other and going over what I should expect. Finally, Craig said those magic words: “Let’s go fly.”

I needed to be outfitted with boots and a life jacket, which I got in short order. We then hopped into Craig’s truck and drove to the airplane. I quickly learned that doing a pre-flight on a floatplane is much different than on a land plane. Obviously, the airplane is sitting in the water, so walking around the airplane is not possible. One of the first things Craig showed me was how to pump out the floats. Each float has several compartments and each compartment had to be pumped out. In addition, there are extra exterior checks that must be made because of the floats.

After a very thorough preflight, we got in the airplane. We started it, and we were ready to taxi. I’m thinking, “Add power, get the airplane off the beach, water rudders down, easy enough, here we go.” I added power, and off the beach we went. I fumbled with the water rudder controls, but got them down and were heading right at some other airplanes! I did what instinct told me and pulled the power back so as not to hit the other planes. Guess what– WRONG! No power equals no water rudder authority.

Craig added power and turned us away from the other airplanes. We both got a little chuckle out of it. We taxied around allowing me to get the feel of the airplane. Once you’re out on the water, there is no stopping the airplane, so doing a run up takes some planning and coordination. We finally received takeoff clearance from Fairbanks Tower. Here we go, my first take off in a floatplane. I guess you could almost explain it as an extreme soft field takeoff. I can still hear Craig saying, “Stick back, stick back.” One thing you definitely don’t want is for the front of the floats to dig in to the water. Remember, while you’re on the water, you’re driving a boat.

Airplane on river
Not an unusual sight in Fairbanks.

We finally got airborne and headed out west to Minto Lakes. The airplane performed very well in the climb. It’s when we leveled off it was very apparent that we had a lot more drag hanging off this airplane than a “land 172.” I think our cruise speed was about 90 knots. During climb, Craig said to me, “Captain, are you going to fly this coordinated or not?” He liked to call me “Captain” in the airplane when noting my deficiencies. I applied right rudder and explained to him we didn’t have a turn coordinator in the 737 I fly. I really appreciated his humor, but also the fact that he was not letting me get away with anything. I know when I was a young flight instructor there were times that I was intimidated by an airline pilot coming in and getting checked out in one of our planes. Not Craig. I knew I had better bring my A-game or I was going to hear about it.

Minto Lakes is about 25 miles west of Fairbanks and is an area of endless lakes and sloughs. This makes it a perfect place for water landings. We probably did seven or eight landings that day including rough water, glassy water, and confined area landings. We spent time taxiing using different taxi techniques and different turning techniques. We logged 2.2 hours on that first flight. When we got back, we had a debrief and Craig said, “Good job, Captain. We’ll see you next week.” I got back to the hotel and immediately went online to see how much it would cost to outfit my 172 with a set of amphibious floats. I was hooked on the idea of floatplane flying.

My trip to Fairbanks the following week was also uneventful. I took a cab out to the airport the next day, where I would be flying with another instructor. Since Craig would be my examiner, I needed another instructor to recommend me for the checkride. Tom Trainor was going to be my instructor from that point on. Tom is a part-time instructor whose day job is a chemistry professor at University of Alaska-Fairbanks. Just like with Craig, Tom and I hit it off right from the beginning. Tom’s favorite phrase on takeoff was “tips up, tips up” referring to the tips of the floats.

With Tom, I did more of the same flying. We flew out to Minto Lakes and started with some normal landings. After a couple of those, we found a nice slough and did a few confined area takeoffs and landings. The wind was fairly calm on this day so we talked a lot about glassy water landings. Glassy water landings are probably the most difficult landing in a floatplane. The problem is a lack of depth perception. Although the water was not glassy that day, we practiced the technique behind a glassy water landing and takeoff. We also spent quite a bit of time maneuvering on the water and different taxi techniques. Back to Fairbanks with another successful flight and another 2.5 hours in the logbook.

The forecast for the next week was not looking favorable, but I was going anyway. I got to the airport to fly with Tom with hopes of taking my checkride that afternoon. Mother Nature was not in a good mood that day and was giving us 400-foot ceilings. We took this opportunity to spend some time in the classroom, which is always a good thing. The forecast was for better weather in the afternoon. The ceiling did come up after lunch and we did get to fly, but a checkride was not going to happen.

Because of the low ceiling, we stayed in the Fairbanks traffic pattern for some more touch-and-gos. After the flight, I was asked, “When are you going to be back?” I said, “I don’t have any more scheduled trips this year.” I asked Craig when he normally took the airplane out of the water and he said mid-September. I told him I had the weekend of September 18-19 off and could come back if he could wait until after then to take the airplane out of the water. His response was, “Come on back, we’ll make it happen.”

This was great to hear! I knew I would come back without the time constraint of having to operate a flight. When I got home I looked at flight schedules and determined I could arrive about 3:00 pm on Friday and really did not have to leave until 6:00 pm on Sunday. Since I had so much time I asked if we could just do a lot more flying on my return trip. Of course I wanted to leave with a new temporary certificate in my pocket, but I also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to learn as much as possible.

Mulhearn by floatplane
Falling in love with a new type of flying.

My trip to Fairbanks went off without a hitch and I went right over to Fairbanks Floatplane, where Tom was waiting for me. Since it was late in the day, we stayed in the traffic pattern at Fairbanks. Tom gave me another good workout.

The next day was checkride day with Craig. Once again, we headed west out of Fairbanks to Minto Lakes. The check ride was uneventful and after the ride we flew out to Manley Hot Springs, which is about 70 miles west of Fairbanks right on the Tanana River. We landed in a slough and beached the airplane, walked to the Manley Hot Springs Road House, and had a cup of coffee. This is Alaska flying at its best. After coffee, we then took off and flew along the Tanana River back to Fairbanks. I saw several fish wheels in the river and a few boats camps along the river.

This was my first Part 61 checkride since 1986 and I can easily say it was the most fun. Flying a floatplane is very much a seat-of-the-pants flying experience. I had one Fairbanks trip in the summer of 2016 and was able to fly with Craig again. I am very blessed to have a job that takes me to Alaska, which helped keep the cost down. There are several seaplane schools through Alaska that would allow you to get your rating in a few days. If you have a passion for Alaska and flying like me, this is definitely a bucket list item. Just remember, “Stick back, tips up” and you’ll be fine!

3 Comments

  • Your story takes me back. Three years ago, I obtained my SES at Seattle Seaplanes, flying a 172E on straight floats, with the same engine/prop conversion that my P172D has, so it was a lot like flying my airplane but on floats. SS was similarly accommodating to my vacation schedule, with some of my training before and some after the week that we had chartered a 36′ trawler to tour the islands, capped with a very thorough checkride.

    I can say without hesitation that flying a seaplane is the most fun I’ve had in an airplane in my 44+ years of flying. I hesitate to say that the checkride was fun–I hadn’t taken any checkrides since my last 135 ride in the mid 80s, other than various insurance checkrides to rent airplanes, and I found myself with a severe case of checkitis. But in the end, the whole experience was wonderful. I hope to get some more SES time in, the next time we go to the PNW on vacation.

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