Floats gently tickling glassy water on my first solo float plane landing… the very definition of accomplishment and satisfaction!
We’ve all read articles with titles like “10 things to do with your pilot’s license.” Last summer, I decided it was high time to start working my way down the “bucket list” these inspirational authors provided. One of the oft-repeated suggestions was obtaining a float plane rating. Since my home province of Manitoba claims to be home to 100,000 lakes, the challenges and rewards of unrestricted access to all these lakes and the rivers connecting them was a powerful incentive.
Initial primary training was on the Red River at Selkirk, Manitoba. This meandering prairie waterway provided issues like currents, bridges, confined areas, floating debris, and limited takeoff and landing areas that all needed to be recognized and handled appropriately to ensure safe operation in this environment. A 10 minute flight to the north gets us to Lake Winnipeg—at nearly 10,000 square miles, it’s size provides a great environment for rough water training. 20 minutes to the east, the granite of the Canadian Shield contains a multitude of small lakes providing an environment suitable for reading water depth, looking for hazardous rocky shoals, and utilizing airborne clues to wind direction and safe approach and departure paths.
The CKC5 dock is across the road from the runway at CKL2, so a 50 minute, 125 mile flight from my grass strip is the most convenient way to get to the lesson. The added benefit of flying through the Winnipeg Class “C” airspace gives this rural pilot a much needed refresher on dealing with air traffic control.
Preflight checks included unfamiliar items like pumping out all the float compartments (they do have hundreds of rivet holes, after all, and seepage is inevitable), checking all the rudder attachments and controls…all while clambering around on floats, turning the aircraft around so that the far side of the aircraft can be examined, or even shinnying through the cockpit to access the side away from the dock. Float plane operation definitely requires more agility, mobility, and balance than land planes! Like tail wheel pilots and ground loops the “not if, but when” expression apparently applies to float plane pilots dropping cell phones in the water :)
Now it’s time to go flying…er…not yet! Float plane water operations require more planning and forethought than land operation on wheels. Before untying the lines, you have to consider where the wind and the current will move you – into obstacles like another aircraft at the dock or the shore. What if the motor doesn’t start immediately? Do you have a backup plan? Don’t put on seat belts or headsets, and leave the seat all the way back to facilitate an unrestricted, quick exit until you have the motor started and are underway and under control! Once the motor starts, you are moving! Are your water rudders down? Where are you going? How do you do a run up without brakes? Appropriate taxiing inputs are vital, as a float can be pushed underwater by the wind, and going inverted so that only the floats are visible is definitely going to ruin your day. Displacement, plow, and step taxi methods all require much more than a simple verbal explanation to comprehend and use appropriately. All in all, water handling is one of the most challenging and critical aspects of seaplane operation.
Finally…time to take off! Line up, pull up the water rudders, pull the yoke back, and put in the throttle. Wow…this sure needs a LOT of rudder to keep it straight! Having tail wheel experience is definitely helpful. As the floats start to climb out of the water, the yoke is eased forward, but not too much!! or you start to porpoise, and you have to start all over. Once you are up on plane, the yoke is finessed to get the floats to the “optimum planing angle” or angle of attack to reduce the water resistance. If you pull back too far, the friction increases and the airplane slows down, and you start all over again. When it’s done correctly, the airspeed eventually comes up to takeoff speed, and then increases quickly once free of the water’s resistance. The thrill lifting off the water is pretty much equal to my first solo when I got my license! Incidentally, the abysmal takeoff performance of many float planes is the underlying reason for right of way rules changing when going from land to water operations. On land, the aircraft coming in to land has the right of way. On water, it’s the other way around, because a float plane pitches up so much for so long when takeoff is started that the pilot’s forward visibility is very limited.
Once in the air, things are pretty much normal for an under powered airplane. I found I could either raise the takeoff flaps, turn, or climb, but not more than one item at a time. Monitoring airspeed was VERY important for safe operation. Here’s where I notice another contrast between float plane pilots and “normal pilots” who always say that higher is better, but float planes rarely need to use “thousands’ when measuring their AGL, even though their glide performance is roughly equivalent to Wile E. Coyote’s anvil.
There are some significant differences between landing on floats vs. wheels. First, since the floats are further below the fuselage than wheels, knowing when to flare and when to anticipate contact is a bit of a challenge. The other, and much more important one, is that upon contact it is ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE that the yoke is smoothly pulled all the way back to prevent nosing the plane over due to water friction on the floats.
Glassy water is considered to be one of the most dangerous surface conditions for float planes. The concept of not being able to tell where the surface is that you are landing on is completely foreign to the majority of pilots. We find it difficult to comprehend that something that you can touch, feel, and see while standing on the dock can be invisible from the air. Well, as a newbie float plane pilot, I can tell you that it is absolutely true. Students are instructed to do a normal approach to 200 ft above the water, and then switch to instruments for what could be considered a zero visibility instrument approach. During my first glassy water landing, I cheated by dividing my attention between looking out the window and watching my instruments, and the floats hit the water surface well before anticipated. The resulting bounce was just as embarrassing as any I had off the runway as a beginner. Lesson learned, from that point on I focused on the instruments and experienced the exhilaration of a gentle touchdown the next time. For this VFR pilot maintaining a slow, steady descent on the VSI instead of visual references for what seemed an interminable time is a real challenge, but one that has a huge payback when floats softly kiss the water.
Getting the floats to break free of glassy water was another interesting experience. Rolling one float free of the water with the ailerons just before reaching liftoff speed reduced the “suction” and friction of smooth water. The concept of not leaving the ground with wings horizontal and having rough surfaces as your friend on takeoff and landing as opposed to the perfectly smooth conditions coveted when on wheels is example of how thought processes and procedures diverge.
Flying home after completing my seaplane rating, the feeling of accomplishment was very real. The ten hours I spent in the float plane stretched me as a pilot and opened an entirely new dimension of aviation. Being a part of this branch of aviation with it’s rich history and larger than life characters is something to I am very proud of.
In addition to opening up innumerable destinations and adventures, float flying is probably the most scenic type of flying a person can do. If you like unspoiled wilderness, fishing, photography, or camping this is for you. If you like seat of the pants stick and rudder VFR flying, this is for you. If your idea of an ideal outing is away from controlled airspace, following your whims, and landing where your fancy dictates, this is for you.
A video of my float plane training is available here: https://youtu.be/IVKdzxaaXA8
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