The most fun I have ever had in an airplane

Editor’s note: This article is the latest in our “My Adventure” series, where everyday pilots share their memorable flights. Send your story: editor@airfactsjournal.com

Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base

First, in the interest of full disclosure, let’s get a couple of things out of the way: 1. At no time will you be flying solo. You will start out with an instructor in the front seat, and end up with an FAA examiner in the front seat. 2. The price of the two-day course includes five hours of dual, after which you may or may not be ready for your checkride. Additional instruction is available for $185/hr. Don’t ask me how I know this! 3. You will not get a lot of use out of this rating, as there is virtually no place you can rent a seaplane.

Cub on floats with pilot
A Cub on floats is real stick and rudder flying.

Now on to the positives. This is the most fun I have ever had in an airplane! A Piper Cub is the essence of seat of the pants flying, with a stick, a throttle, and practically nothing else (OK, there is a tach, altimeter, magnetic compass, and airspeed indicator if you can see them through your instructor). It’s as close to being a 1920s barnstormer as I’ll ever get! Virtually all of my time was spent looking out of the cockpit. Previous graduates from all over the world seem to come back year after year to brush up on their seaplane skills. (During my visit, an ATP pilot from Holland stopped in.) Combine this with my love of water, and it’s everything I love about boating and flying put together.

On to the flying. Flying a seaplane is harder than it looks. In particular, landings are very unforgiving. There is nothing to take up the shock of a bad landing, so you will get a visceral reminder every time you don’t get it right. Worse than that, there are a couple of ways you could really get it wrong. The first involves landing in a nose down attitude, which will result in the floats catching the water and slamming you down face first. This is called “stuffing it,” and is to be avoided at all costs. The second involves flaring too high and stalling well above the water, known as “dropping in.” This too is to be avoided at all costs. On smooth water, there is no depth perception (it’s like landing on a mirror), which makes it easier than you can imagine to make either one of these mistakes (see #2 above).

During the summer, the Cubbies are flown with the door open, which gives a fantastic view of the Florida Lakes Region. Patterns are flown at a mere 500 feet and 60 mph (yes, mph, not knots). Although this isn’t fast, a lot needs to happen in the last 100 feet for everything to come together, which is a challenge for those of used to 1/2 mile finals and 1000 foot descents.

Finally, there are a couple of maneuvers not common to land-based aircraft. The most interesting is called the “confined area takeoff.” Imagine taking off in a Cessna in a light wind on a circular paved runway, about 500 feet around (as in not enough runway). If you start crosswind with the wind off your left wing, accelerate to 40 mph, use torque and P-factor to help you turn left, you will face into the wind with enough momentum to get airborne before using up the next 500 feet. Then if you stay in ground effect, continue the left turn, and get up to Vx, you can climb above treetop level before using up the next 500 feet. Repeat this procedure until clear of all obstacles. Now imagine doing this in an aircraft with a 200 fpm rate of climb. It’s guaranteed to be the longest two minutes of your life!

My instructor was excellent, the ground staff was terrific, and my examiner was more than fair. With a little extra seat time, I was able to come away with my seaplane rating. I will definitely be back, and would recommend this to any pilot wishing to try something that’s fun and completely different!

9 Comments

    • Lindsay – same experience here! All around the most fun I’ve ever had flying, from the people to the airplanes to the location. A must for any pilot.

      • When we lived in Little Rock I had a Lake Amphibian to fly and was it ever fun. I flew our three kids onto the Arkansas River a couple of times and they were amazed — especially when I opened the door, got the paddle, and started paddling. Maybe not quite as much fun as the Cub on floats I flew at Hot Springs, but still a neat way to spend an afternoon.

  • Dick, I too am from LR but recently moved to Dallas. How I do miss the lakes and rivers of AR! First ever flight was over White River outside of Mountain Home. Unfortunately haven’t experience landing in water…yet! Go Hogs!

  • Talk about FUN! I got my float plane rating in 1949 or ’50 in Tacoma, WA. I acquired many hours of pleasure flying from Dameron’s seaplane base down on the Tacoma city waterway, and on several lakes including up in the Cascade Mountains. Short takeoffs up there were mandatory, and flying Taylor Craft, and/or an Aeronca Sedan from a lake at five to seven thousand feet is a gas! I was taught single flost takeoffs cut the water run a bit if you do it right. The stall warning horn in the Aeronca was a thrill when surrounded by tall trees on the hills all around. [Flying like a bee in a derby hat.] Just don’t get behind the power curve. I acquired my CAA rating up at Renton on Lake Washington, where they now build the B-737s. I agree. splash flying is FUN!

  • Great piece, thank you for sharing. I got my SES at Jack’s in 2012 then returned in 2014 for a “refresher.” I even had the same instructor both times…purely chance but it was a great experience. While most of us will never use the SES rating in any practical form, it is a wonderful opportunity to stretch your skills, learn something new about flying that you otherwise would not likely ever know, and have a blast on the water in the process. I’d fly seaplanes any day for sure and one day, in the not too distant future, I’ll do a few laps around the pond in a Beaver on floats. Heaven on earth!

  • In 1986, I stopped in at Browns just for the heck of it. I was flying a turbocharged Cessna 206 on Wipline 3750 amphibious floats. I already had many hours of float flying in the Alaska bush and didn’t rally need a floatplane checkout. Still, I’ve always been glad that I visited the best SES instructors at the country’s most respected SES flight instruction operation. Truly a high point in my 21,000-hours of mostly wilderness flying. I most highly recommend it.

  • I obtained my Commercial SES add-on at Seattle Seaplanes just this past July, flying out of Lake Union. That has to be one of the most crowded seaplane spots anywhere, but both Seattle Seaplanes and Kenmore Air operate out of there all day long, nearly every day, without difficulty (other than a few delays here and there due to errant boat traffic).

    I agree, it was the most fun I’ve had flying in more than 4 decades. The trainer at Seattle Seaplanes, a 1964 172E, is a virtual clone of my own airplane, a 63 P172D, with the same 180hp/CS prop conversion, so I felt at home in the airplane. The only real difference is floats vs. wheels.

    I had two fabulously talented instructors, and I learned a lot. Similarly, the independent DPE had much to say which taught me a lot, also. My most difficult issue was finding the “sweet spot” pitch for take-offs, but once I found that, the whole process was just plain (or plane) fun. Lots of work, yes–there’s lots to learn in a very short time. But combining my flying and boating experience, both of which I love, it was a real blast.

    Although I have taken regular BFRs and IPCs, I hadn’t taken a checkride of any kind in many years, not since my last SE charter ATCO ride in the 80s. So I was nervous with a good case of checkitis by the time I took the checkride. It was by no means a perfect checkride–I described it as rough–but acceptable and safe. And now I too have SES on my green card!

  • The most fun 5 hours of Solo that I have ever logged was with a J-3 Cub on floats, in Peoria, IL. I got my Seaplane Rating after 4 hours of dual, and then the Check-Ride. The next five hours was flying solo on and around the Illinois River. With no wind, I had to get it up on the Step, and then I could only get it up to 38 mph, and I needed 40 mph to get off the water and climb, so I would have to pop it up into ground effect and then my airspeed jumped up quickly. While practicing cruising the river, up on the Step, boats would try to race me and some could keep up. I would get it up off the water into ground effect and that would make me shoot past the boats, and up and away I went.

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