Chief on floats
2 min read

During the Summer of 1966 I was working at the Philadelphia Seaplane Base and accumulating hours towards my Commercial certificate. I worked at the seaplane base while attending college and in 1964 I had acquired a 1939 Aeronca Chief seaplane project. I finally had it completed and flying by the summer of 1966. She hadn’t flown since 1947.

I planned to do the required long cross-country flight by taking a week at the end of the summer and heading north. My ultimate destination was Greenville, Maine, on Moosehead Lake.

The pre-war Chief was a good little floatplane. She didn’t get off the water as soon as the J-3 I had been flying, but was 10 to 15 mph faster. Also, having a door on both sides was a plus for docking.

Chief on floats

Ready to make the grand arrival…

Labor Day weekend found me heading to Highgate Springs, Vermont, the first overnight on my multi-day trip. My fuel stops were the seaplane base at Peekskill, NY, Garnseys Airport on the Hudson River north of Albany, and Westport, NY, on the southwest side of Lake Champlain.

The first two stops went fine. The stop at Westport would be at a marina where I would be able to get some white marine gas. Although not by the rules, this was somewhat common back then with floatplanes if avgas wasn’t available.

It was a beautiful day and as I taxied in I noted a nice open dock with no obstructions. Not being a seaplane base, you were own your own for docking. Not a big deal—I had ideal conditions. I just needed to taxi up, cut the switch at the appropriate time, drift alongside the dock, and step off. A piece of cake.

Well, I stepped down onto the float and slipped right off into the lake while grazing my head on the dock on the way down. Of course, being a holiday weekend, there was a nice size crowd watching this fiasco.

As I came up for air I saw my Chief drifting away, so I swam over and doggy paddled it back to the dock. The feeling of humiliation was overwhelming.

The manager helped me out of the water and was initially concerned about my bleeding forehead. When it was obvious that it was just a little cut he started to laugh and said this was one of the best and funniest things they had seen in years. He joked that he would pay somebody to stage such an event.

They really treated me well and loaned me a pair of goggles so I could dive down and retrieve my glasses, which were in about eight feet of water. Darned if I didn’t find them.

David Dickson
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8 replies
  1. Steve Green
    Steve Green says:

    Wonderful story…you managed to draw a straight line right through my life! My early years were spent in Crugers, NY, and I can still remember my father taking me to the Verplanck Seaplane Base in the early 60’s. My first flying job was in Greenville, and my current base is Franklin County Airport, Vermont…just a few yards south of Highgate.

    I distinctly remember being instructed to never step off the float while the other guy was crossing over the wire…this bit of training may or may not have occurred after I had ejected my colleague into Moosehead Lake…

  2. Steven Toby
    Steven Toby says:

    I was looking for a”Like” button that would be on a Facebook post because I don’t have any actual comments. But what a great air/sea story! And finding those glasses was a miracle. Wasn’t the water terribly cold? Champlain is close to the Canadian border.

  3. John J
    John J says:

    Some terrific tales-and great reminders to think things through when playing PIC. We have ALL done stupid things in flying contraptions and mercifully mostly gone unpunished by humiliation or injury.

  4. Dave
    Dave says:

    Letting the floatplane drift! Been there done that. I was working at a charter floatplane base and stepped off the the float of the C185. Bunny me did not grasp the tied down as I stumbled. The ‘185 started to drift away – with a load of pax on board! There I was all togged looking like an airline captain and for all the world about to take a dip in the cold water to get my machine back!
    From behind me the maintenance guys could see what was happening and took in the big picture.
    They yelled ‘Stop’. They could see that the water current was about to bring the ‘185 back to the dock which it did! I paid them off with a beer later that day. The price of a beer was easier than a wet and soggy me having to take a dunk.
    In retrospect I figure that a lot of float guys have done the same as me and learnt a lesson out it it. Grasp that tie down rope and hang onto it for dear life!

  5. Kim Hunter
    Kim Hunter says:


    Thanks for an engaging story. Was Bob Mills running the seaplane base when you were there?

    In the mid-70s he was the chief pilot for Downtown Airlines flying the Philly-NYC shuttle in a twin Otter on floats. I was a kid working in a ship-breaking yard on the Camden side of the Delaware. Five times a day that Otter would fly over the ship close enough to reach up and touch (it seemed) on approach to the river – occasionally compelling us to literally hit the deck. We had some terribly harsh words for the pilot!

    It wasn’t until many years after that I found out who he was and learned about his remarkable career in military and civil aviation.

    • David DICKSON
      David DICKSON says:

      Yes, Bob Mills was running the Seaplane Base when I started there in 1962.
      Working for Bob as a mechanics helper and trading work hours for flight training was a priceless education.
      I flew for Downtown Airlines when it started up with Aztec Nomad Floatplanes. I left to work for Ransome Airlines right before they got the Twin Otter.


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