A memorable seaplane flight on San Francisco Bay

Only the topmost parts of the red-orange towers forming the suspension for the huge cables of the Golden Gate Bridge were visible above the rolling white sea fog as three-lane traffic weaved its way out of San Francisco north on Highway 101. Bright sun had the city sparkling this morning and prospects were therefore good that my seaplane flight around the Bay would be possible.

Taking the Sausalito exit, I wove through back streets and ahead, a sign proclaimed, “Seaplane Flights.” I pulled over in the shade of an old wind-bent fir tree.

I walked out over a bright green lawn dotted with orange and yellow flowers and shade trees, out into the bright sun. There before me on the sun-speckled water of Sausalito Bay floated a familiar Cessna 172, white with yellow trim, perched atop two bright aluminum pontoons. The Cessna was tied to a boat cleat on the dock by a stout rope. The dock bounded with my steps as I walked up to the Cessna.

The floating dock began to sway, and I looked back to see Charlie, my instructor for the day, walking out to me. I stepped from the bobbing dock onto the scuffed aluminum pontoon. The pontoon had four black rectangles of non-skid steps. The rear of the pontoons were a cat’s cradle of stainless steel cables angling upward across pulleys and rearward toward the Cessna’s flight rudder, connected to springs about the size of a kitchen screen door on both sides of aluminum D-shaped water rudders. The rudders were rotated to the “up” position, out of the water. They are rotated back and down, controlled by a pull handle rotating on the floorboard in the cockpit, a cable pulling both rudders.

Golden Gate Bridge
Not a bad place to learn about seaplanes.

“The water rudders are only down for taxi,” Charlie warned. “If you leave them down during takeoff or landing, they’ll be slammed up against the stops by the water and be damaged.”

I clambered into the left front seat, a long step up from the pontoon onto an intermediate step, and then an awkward maneuver around the door and into the left front pilot seat. Once there, I was right at home, just like any old Cessna. Charlie reminded me to lower my water rudders. My right hand dropped to the floor. I grasped a screwdriver-size metal handle, pulled it forward, unlatching a silver hook, then springs pulled my hand and the handle rearward about eight inches. The water rudders had now rotated down into the water behind each pontoon. I cycled them left, then right; the resistance in the water felt like moving small paddles in a canoe.

Charlie tightened our mooring line and I started the engine. He was standing on the dock holding the right door open with one hand on our wing strut. I throttled back as soon as I had a good start and Charlie bent down to untie us. He then vaulted to the pontoon as the Cessna, still at idle RPM, slowly and inexorably moved away from the dock.

I held full back pressure on the yoke to hold the bow of the pontoons up out of the chop we were now encountering as we idled out slowly into Strawberry Sound. The wind on San Francisco Bay was from the southeast, and we were at the far northwest end of the Bay.

“We’ll taxi back to the 101 bridge and then turn into the wind for takeoff. When you make your left turn I want full aileron to the right to hold the upwind wing down, and as you turn downwind remember to get full forward elevator,” Charlie instructed.

Clear of the dock, back pressure pulling the control yoke to the stops in my lap, I slowly brought the throttle up to 1,700. As I did, the engine reared us back, but even as I stabilized my RPMs at 1,700 on the tachometer dial, the nose began on its own to drop down. This was “the step.” It is the same as in your ski boat when you cease to dig ahead, bow high, and she levels out beginning to plane.

“Now ease off some of that back pressure,” Charlie said, interrupting my thoughts. “That’s too much, feel the wave slap, ease back more… now that’s perfect. Now get your pre-flight done.”

The graceful arc of the concrete Highway 101 bridge loomed ahead of our nose, 100 feet above us, beginning to fill my windshield. I maneuvered away from a big gray Sportfisherman pulling its white wake outbound from the inner harbor, and I nervously glanced over to my right at the red and white Sausalito-San Francisco Ferry coming now around Raccoon Point. Still not a factor, but I knew it pushed a giant bow wave and I wanted the Cessna in none of that.

I got equal mag drop left and right with some roughness. I interpreted this simply as carbon fouling on the sparkplugs that would burn off when I came up to full throttle. We were now about a football field’s distance away, headed under the towering bridge. I was nervous with no brakes and a following wind pressing us toward the bridge pilings. Two or three fishing boats were darting back and forth, apparently oblivious to me racing toward them on the step at about 30 mph.

San Francisco airplane
You never know what you’ll see flying over the San Francisco Bay area.

I had a runway six miles wide and about 15 miles long. I accepted Charlie’s opinion. “Plenty of space to have 20 or 30 forced landings,” I thought. The end of my water airport is San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, eight miles away.

Carb heat pulled quickly, RPM drop noted, I then cut the power, as we were virtually in the shadow of the 101 bridge. Preflight done, ready to go.

“Water rudders down,” I called, even as I moved to unlatch them, then I held back yoke, right aileron and brought up my RPMs to begin a nice easy turn around to face the open bay.

“Well done.”

Mic in hand, Charlie announced on Unicom: “Strawberry traffic, Cessna 8978 Echo on a southeast takeoff.”

“Water rudders up,” I called, cycling my yoke and controls, pressing again on the carb heat, the knobby red mixture pushed to full rich and jiggling the floor-mounted fuel selector in its “Both” detent.

In our taxi out, I noted the one- to two-inch high wavelets verifying a steady southeast wind. As a sailor, I noted patterns of cats’ paws on the bay ahead and I now pulled full back pressure with my left hand on the control yoke, reached over to select 10 degrees of takeoff flaps, and with my right hand began to ease in the black knob on the end of the throttle, full power.

Water was now moving back off my pontoons and up on the step she came. I relaxed a bit of the back pressure and the nose eased down.

Bang… Bang… Bang… Bang.

“Your nose is too low, Bill, ease some of the back pressure back in.”

Now we were smooth again and it was exactly like a powerful ski boat as spray sizzled out on either side. My automatic back pressure grip on the yoke now relaxed and with fingertips I began to search out the sweet spot for the “step” as we surfed out into the bay.

Suddenly I was aware that my pontoons were only hitting tops of waves now and then. I looked back and down and saw water and spray dripping out from the pontoons. I eased off my back pressure to accelerate in ground (water?) effect, our parallel “V” wakes, then spreading apart behind.

We were flying! The ailerons were as responsive in roll as a land plane, but the nose felt heavy as I set up my 65 mph climbing turn to the left, rolling up trim. The engine seemed to groan and labor compared to a landplane.

Ahead, San Francisco sparkled white in the clear sunshine, sailboats off to the left, Alcatraz ahead. Below, the bay angled away and I could see green islands with brown tops, most with homes. The homes clung to the edge of steep hills, cantilevered out with their green and blue swimming pools, awash in all sorts of red, purple, pink, and green flowering shrubs and fir-like trees. Obviously the daily doses of fog morning and afternoon, together with the 50-60 degree sunny days, were as invigorating to the plants as to me this fine morning.

Approaching 1,600 feet I continued my left turn around. Charlie said we would fly west then left over the fog covering the ocean, coming back to the bay over the Golden Gate. “As we come over the Golden Gate we have to be down to 1,400 to be below the ARSA,” Charlie advised. “Just pull the power back to 2,000 and use a cruise-descent.”

San Francisco view
It never gets old.

I noted that small pitch changes resulted in greater pitch excursions because of the pressure of the airflow around the bulky pontoons. Sometimes for no reason with the aircraft; in hands-off trim, the nose would hunt upward or down and I would have to pressure it back and re-trim. For a motorboat, this was still some grand ride. I was amazed that we are allowed to overfly San Francisco because everywhere helicopters were buzzing and huge jumbo jets were straining overhead, obviously in a laborious, fat-with-fuel climb as they headed westward on a route over the Pacific.

I noted a Nippon 747 and Cathay Pacific L-1011 – all sharing their airspace with my very tiny 172. A white Princess ocean liner was at one dock, a gray canted-deck aircraft carrier was in port over in Alameda. Yellow and black ferries and red and white tour boats bustled about all over the bay, pulling their brilliant white “V” wakes. Several sailboats were out. Alcatraz brooded sullenly off by itself, a monument to the dark side of life. Part of the pain and punishment of this prison was to be so near, yet so far from the beautiful jewel of a city with its luxurious hotels, magnificent cuisine and beautiful scenery.

We shot many water landings, the interesting and delightful details of which await another story, and as all good things must end, Charlie directed me to fly through the saddle peaks on Tiburon peninsula and instructed me to turn from base to final “10 feet above the bridge.”

“Did you say ten?”

“Yes.”

 Hot dog, a legalized buzz job, I thought.

I selected carburetor heat ON and 10 degrees of flap as I came up on Highway 101, barely skimming a house cantilevered out on a small mountain and as my airspeed hit 70, I selected 20 degrees of flap, a couple of rolls of down trim and I was racing a silver and blue Greyhound Scenicruiser for an open spot on the bridge railing. The adrenaline pumped and, in a flash, I won the race, and began to settle below the bridge.

Hold it off, power back, sea level on the altimeter, 65, stall horn, hold it off, back pressure.

Shoooosh, we touched the water softly, powered to idle, water rudders down, wheel full back and we were bobbing now on the water. I allowed the wind and the idling prop to angle us ever closer to our dock, slowly, slowly, until Charlie opened his door, stepped to the dock and held the strut.

“Cut,” he called, and I pulled the mixture to idle cutoff and we were back.

1 Comment

  • Oh what memories! I briefly owned a 1/10 share of this very C172 on floats along with 9 other float plane lovers in Sausalito. Got my SES rating in her in 2015 I believe, and then poof! She was gone. Retired to pasture due to some internal structural damage we discovered, perhaps from a previous hard landing(s). Very sad. During that brief few-months-long experience there was joy in air-touring the SF bay, plus splashing into Half Moon Bay and Folsom Lake in Sacramento. There can’t be many more beautiful places to base an aircraft than in Sausalito, CA. Thanks for the memories of my all-too-brief float plane career! Someday I hope to do it all again! Long live Seaplane Adventures Inc. and Pickleweed Flying Club of Sausalito.

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