Editor’s note: This article was the winning entry in the third annual Richard Collins Writing Prize for Young Pilots. After reading dozens of entries, our distinguished panel of judges (including Richard’s son) selected Michael Brown as the winner of the $2,500 award. We hope you’ll agree that this article is a fine tribute to a great writer and pilot.
There are an infinite number of reasons why one becomes a pilot: freedom, family upbringing, love of travel, career prospects, etc. However, for a teenage boy like myself, I wanted to become a pilot to be one thing… “cool.”
Growing up I had watched Top Gun, been to airshows, read The Right Stuff, and all I ever wanted was to become one of those men full of bravado and confidence. As a scrawny high school kid, who even got cut from his high school’s bowling team, I saw flying as a way to be something. To have an identity.
It certainly helped that my father and grandfather were involved in aviation. My dad has been a pilot for almost thirty years, ten of which he has spent flying our yellow Legend Cub on twin amphibious floats. It’s a dream, exactly how you want a Cub to look: butterfly cowling, black lightning bolt, and my father and I maintain it to a Smithsonian level of quality. I once met a Blue Angel at an airshow and as he signed my logbook he saw I flew a Cub on floats and pointed to his F-18 and asked “wanna trade?”
When I got my license at 18 it was a forgone conclusion I would go down to Florida and get my seaplane rating. When I returned, after taking family on their obligatory rides, my mind turned to who I could take up to really impress. Immediately I thought of my neighbor. She was a witty, tall, intelligent girl with a smile to light up half of Times Square. She had just returned from her first semester in college, where she had made the cheerleading team. I was very smitten.
I decided the Independence Day holiday weekend would be the perfect time to impress my first non-familial passenger in the seaplane. Not only was the weather clear VFR, but the lake would be full of interesting boats and characters who love to see a little yellow seaplane fly by. When I mustered enough courage to ask the question, “have you ever been up in a small plane?” and the all-important follow up, “would you like to?” she gladly accepted.
As we pulled the airplane out, I began explaining what I was doing in my preflight. Some things stuck, but other descriptions, of what the pitot tube does or fuel straining, washed over her. When we took off, I could hear the muffled “wow” which comes from people who have never been in a small plane before, feeling the earth give way below them. The feeling is only enhanced by the fact the airplane can be flown doors and windows open. It is flight in its truest form.
Three miles later we were at the Chickamauga Lake and my initial assessment of the day was correct: it was perfect. The water was packed with boaters. We flew by her house and did a “wing wave” to her friends on their boat enjoying a holiday outing. Then came the enviable question when flying a seaplane near water:
“Can we land?”
“Uh, one second.” Immediately I went through my mental “go/no-go” checklist. The water depth is deep enough throughout the lake. The wave height is high today, but manageable. The real problem would be the boaters. However, I began to hedge with myself. I knew if I went upstream a mile or so, I could probably find a lane with fewer boaters, but I didn’t know for sure. Any other person in the backseat I would have politely shot the request down, but this was my version of “the little red-haired girl” and I didn’t want her to think I didn’t have the confidence or “the right stuff” to do what the plane was designed to do: land on the water.
“Sure!” I replied.
I then went a mile upstream to a place that was more suitable for a landing. After a proper GUMPS and WLNOT checklist, the yellow banana Baumann floats glided onto the water. A perfect water landing. Then our troubles really began.
My dad used to tell me, “everyone loves a little yellow seaplane. That’s great if you’re in the hangar, bad if you’re in the water.” As soon as we had landed and powered down, fishing boats, jet skis, and huge yachts began to approach the plane.
At first, I made the mistake of chatting with the boaters:“Hi, how y’all doing?!”
I began proudly talking about the airplane in my aviators and Hawaiian shirt. The people were fascinated. Some, probably inspired by Sully, asked if I was in an emergency. As more and more boats came closer and closer, I realized things were beginning to get unsafe. I knew if one of those boats made contact with a float and pinned it the wrong way, we could have a serious sinking problem on our hands. I turned to look at my neighbor and realized at least twelve watercraft had surrounded the seaplane.
To make matters worse, we were drifting closer to the rocky shore. I knew we had to start up and leave, and do it now, but there were too many boaters. If I fired the 100 hp Continental engine I would surely decapitate a jet skier. The shoreline was coming up quicker and my gentle requests to move were not shying away the boaters—in fact more were coming. Between people blasting music, the distance, and the sound of the mighty water, nobody could hear me or they just plain weren’t listening. The calm, collected young aviator soon turned into a screaming little man filled with panic.
“WE ARE STARTING! CLEAR PROP! GET BACK! GET BACK!”
I commanded my passenger to get back in the plane and buckle up. This was certainly not the relaxing fishing date I had imagined.
Finally, they cleared the front enough to start the engine. We had maybe 15 feet to spare before we drifted into the shore. When the prop started, it acted like a dog whistle. All boat traffic in front of me cleared to my sides. I had a good lane for takeoff and was mentally exhausted. I asked my passenger, who at this point was dazed and confused by all the commotion, “are you ready to roll?” I didn’t even wait for her to finish the word. As soon as I heard the beginning of the word yes, I was stick back and full throttle. Things finally started to seem normal. As we transitioned onto the step, I actually exhaled, relieved.
Just then a blur of purple and red blitzed past us, going at least 50 mph compared to our 30 mph. I knew what it was not from the sight of it, but the sound of its roaring engine sucking air. It was a speed boat, who thought it would be fun to race our Cub. He meant no malice, but his wake crossed our floats parallel before we had reached enough speed to become airborne. At that point we began what every seaplane pilot fears: porpoising. The seaplane began to oscillate back and forth. Slowly at first, but soon violently. My neighbor gasped from behind me. Thankfully, training took over: abort takeoff, stick back, power back. We came to a merciful stop, nothing damaged.
I looked back and my poor passenger, who was shaking. The worst sight a pilot can see. I tried to put some of the fault on the daredevil boater, but I knew the truth full well. We should have never been in that water in the first place.
That’s when I learned some things are much more important than looking cool, namely safety. We eventually got a clear and smooth enough lane to take off. We landed back at the airport without incident, and I dropped her off at home in one of the quietest car rides of my life. As I debriefed later that afternoon, I could almost hear Richard Collins sitting in that Cessna 210 on one of the Air Fact segments in my Learn To Fly DVDs saying, “superior pilots use superior judgment to avoid having to use their superior skills.” I knew full well from experiences growing up as a seaplane pilot’s son that a crowded lake presents more challenges than just steeper waves. My ego had bested my judgment and that was never going to happen again.
Going forward, I leave the bravado at the FBO. I’m not afraid to say no to passengers’ requests, no matter the level of our relationship. I now assess the purpose behind each decision I make in the cockpit, knowing that a small decision could lead to big problems if made for the wrong reason. A bad experience has made a better pilot.
And for those wondering, I did ask my neighbor on a second date. She agreed, on one condition: we go to the movies.
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Stupendous!! Besides an exciting story, what a valuable lesson learned about yourself.
Thank you Frank!! Glad you enjoyed!!
This is a great story. I was going to enter this scholarship myself but my story wouldn’t have been up to this caliber. I just turned 18 but my girlfriend and I have a similar frightening story but just with turbulence. This was a great read and she enjoyed it as well. I also really related with you about pursuing your license in high school, since I did that as well. Maybe we can connect sometime! Thanks
Aaron! Thanks so much for this comment on my story. Always down to meet a fellow young aviator. My email is [email protected] love to be a pen pal!
Well done! The writing created vivid mental images as only a well crafted piece can conjure up. Congratulations
A story most excellent! (And lesson well-learned). My very limited experience flying a yellow Cub from lakes leads me to conclude that boating is boring. The resultant rock star experience can be fun, up to the point that the rocking may well wreck the plane.
Good job, young Jedi!
Hahaha! Thank you so much obi-Wan!! Appreciate the positive feedback!
Hey Michael, that was a great story! Who doesn’t like a great story with an even greater life lesson!
Now about your writing…You developed your characters (real as you guys are, you’re still characters in a story), you developed a wonderfully colorful setting (yellow cub, pretty water scene, boats, people), your sequence of events pulled the story along, your dialogue was honestly authentic and then you wrapped it up with a strong story ending. Checked off all the writing boxes… Professor Henley gives you an A+.
Professor! Thank you for the Analysis and compliments! Wish my profs in college were as generous as you lol!
Your story almost gave your old mom a heart attack. But I’m so proud of your writing and sharing this great life lesson with others.
I love you! Please stay safe.
You gotta’ keep mama happy… things go better that way! :-)
Great story and a great lesson for even this old and crusty CFI.
If momma aint happy, aint no body happy! lol Thanks Jules!
Now that was awesome. Thanks for sharing and so much more than what I expected. I fly the yellow Carbon Cub around here and would love to trade rides with you one day. Keep up the good work and best wishes as your pursue your education.
Steve! LOL absolutely.I love the carbon cub design! The avionics suite on some of the CC make it look like you’re flying a 777. I’m sure yours is beautiful. Thank you for your comment!!
Thank you, Antonio.
All said. The adage “license to learn” applies to every rating sought and acquired. It BBC also applies to your pursuit of a journalistic career. Congrats on your great start!
Thank you Davis!! I appreciate it. License to learn for sure!
Live and Learn. Great story!
Tom, I appreciate it! Very true!
Great story and well written! I see why you earned the award!
You are in my neck of the woods near New Orleans. I keep my RV-7A in Picayune Miss even though my wife and I live in Belle Chasse by the Naval Air Station. Since we are retired it’s cheaper hangar rent and better hurricane protection . Good Luck with your future endeavors! I have a feeling you will do well.
Randy that’s awesome! I just moved down here for law school this fall. Still trying to get involved in the aviation culture down here. Never would have thought of hurricane protection being from Tennessee. Thank you for your comment. Enjoy the RV-7A great plane!
What great story, Michael…and thankfully, it had a happy ending. As previous a poster mentioned, pilots have the “license to learn” which never expires.
Could you share the “WLNOT ” checklist? I haven’t heard of that one. I’m guessing it might be for float planes.
And congratulations on your Richard Collins Award. I hope your Little Red-Haired Girl was impressed as well.
Chris! Thank you! You are 100% correct, it is a seaplane checklist to prep a landing area. W- Wave/Wind (height and direction)
L- Lane (how long a body of water is for takeoff/landing)
N- Noise (any communities, fisheries, or restrictions)
O- Obstacles (both terrain and in the water)
T- Traffic (air and water traffic)
Hope this helps! Thank you for your praise!
A word of advice one of your very-elders keep a flying diary, either separately from your logbook, or in an electronic logbook that allows you to write a paragraph about a flight. I prefer a separate diary, because in it you can document other aviation-related experiences. I guarantee that such a diary will someday provide the grist for many great stories told as well as the one that earned the Collins award. Keep writing!
Hunter! Great idea. Those little lines on the logbook certainly can’t contain half the great adventures I’ve had with friends and family in the air. Thank you so much for your praise. Blue skies and tailwinds!
I have been blessed to have had the opportunity to fly many type aircraft around this hemisphere for over 35 years, but Michael’s story brought me right back to the exciting memories I recall of my own thrill of flying in my early years. We all remember those first hours of flight when it was new and fresh. Michael’s candidness brought the story alive. Michael, you have a flare for writing. I can easily see why the judges selected your story. You have also shared a valuable lesson to your fellow pilots on using good aeronautical decision making skills to keep all safe. Best wishes in your legal and flying endeavors.
This is one of the highest compliments I have ever received on a piece of my writing. I’m so glad it took you back. 35 years! Wow. What a career and love of the sky. I’m sure you have some hangar stories that would put this one to shame. Thank you so much for comment.
Well written. Nicely done, Michael!
Thank you so much Sam!!!
You carried with you one of the most important parts of any checklist…….humility.
I have no doubt it will serve you well in life, in your career and most importantly, in an aeroplane.Great article.
Steve, thank you very much! Humility is a virtue I am rarely successful at, but work to be better in every day. Means a lot to me for you to say that. Thank you!
Well written and thanks for sharing. Keep it up and congratulations !!
Yes! Thanks Andy!
Nicely done. Once again proves the value of good head-work in any flying operation!
Very true! It’s a thinking-man’s occupation! Thanks so much!!
Great story, great lessons, and great writing ability. Amazing all the way around! You have a long runway (lane) ahead of you! Look forward to seeing you writing for a major aviation publication in the not-too-distant future!
Don! You’ve got my dream to a tee! I’d love to write about flying for a living. This piece is actually going to be in sea plane pilot’s association’s magazine “Water Flying.” So here’s hoping it’s not the last piece of mine you see. Thank you so much for your kind comment!
Michael, I enjoyed your story — congratulations on a fine piece of writing and for winning the award. Although it might be hard for others to fathom, your humility and honesty will serve you well in all your future endeavors. Wishing you well with law school and your many flying adventures to come — all the best from Downeast Maine!
Andrew! Thank you very much. Your praise means a lot. Maine is such a wonderful place, had a friend from the Old Orchard Beach area. Have a great day.
Congrats! Excellent, well written story and lesson learned! Be safe and carry on.
Thanks Mel! Will do!