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.