The Pilot's Lounge #17:
A Homebuilt Taste of Summer
As Old Man Winter settles in on the Lounge's residents, thoughts turn to warmer climes and times. One resident, though, is not letting the cold weather keep him from aviation. Instead, he's working steadily away on a homebuilt amphibian, a SeaRey, by Progressive Aerodyne. AVweb's Rick Durden has poked around the project and even made the pilgrimage to the company's factory.
Winter is finally getting a grip here at the virtual airport. Airplane owners are sniffing the air and have set up engine heaters. Lots of hangars have airplanes plugged into wall sockets, as owners hope their steeds will start on the cold mornings without damaging the engine. The regulars here at the Lounge are starting to look forward to our annual skiplane weekend in January when we get together and fly a J-3 and Super Cub on skis. We always hope for very cold weather so the lakes will be frozen solid and we can land on them, stop, get out and stand around acting macho before chickening out and rushing in out of the cold.
While many of us have made the mental transition to the colder months, one of our regulars, Dr. Chuck, is hoping the water stays in the liquid stage for a little while longer. He is very nearly finished building a two-place amphibian and he wants to fly it before the lakes freeze over.
A Homebuilt? A Homebuilt Amphibian!?
Most of us here in the Pilot's Lounge have had little if any experience with the homebuilder portion of sport aviation so we have been following Chuck's progress intently. We have trooped over to his house with some frequency and gotten in the way as he worked. We've been both impressed by the kit he is building and by the EAA's technical advisor program as Chuck has had experienced homebuilders available to him by telephone and in-person to help him over the rough spots of building his own airplane.
Not For The Faint Of Heart...
I've known Dr. Chuck for some time and became very interested in his project. I admit to a certain level of uncertainty about homebuilt airplanes. I spent a fair portion of my life working for a general aviation manufacturer and I am aware of the tremendous amount of labor involved in building an airplane. Little of that labor is of the unskilled variety. There are a staggering number of small parts to be made to exacting tolerances and then attached to other parts in a fashion that doesn't brook much in the way of error. The resulting collection of amateur-assembled parts must then withstand the awesome loads of flight. Over the months, I paid quite a bit of attention as to how well Dr. Chuck's kit went together.
What I observed was that the parts came made to the correct size, when holes had been drilled they seemed to be in the correct spot and that the airframe assembly went amazingly fast. The instructions seemed well written and Dr. Chuck commented that there were only three or four times he felt that the instructions were out of order, that is, he had to remove something he had installed to put in something that should have been installed earlier. He commented that his calls to the factory with suggested manual changes were well received. Time will tell if the manual is revised.
...Or The Mechanically-Challenged
I am the first to admit that whatever mechanical genes I ever possessed were removed violently during the process of building go-karts as a youth. Consequently, I am impressed by those who have the skill to build an airplane but some skepticism as well because I have seen some pretty horrible looking homebuilts on tiedowns at airports. My impression of Dr. Chuck's kit was that it was first rate and that if built according to the instructions would make a most satisfactory airplane.
The airplane Dr. Chuck is building is called a SeaRey. A kit manufacturer known as Progressive Aerodyne, Inc. of Orlando, Florida, produces it. Power is provided by a Rotax engine, a mechanical contrivance I've heard about for years, but never seen other than from a distance.
Splash And Dash?
The SeaRey is a true flying boat, with a hull and pusher engine mounted above the wing. I've flown various types of seaplanes, and freely admit to a bias in favor of flying boats over floatplanes (except when having to contend with a dock), maybe because I learned to fly from the water in an old Seabee that has superb manners in the water and is a pain in the whatsis on land. I also know that the process of crossing a boat with an airplane can result in a machine which does neither required task well, is terribly heavy because of the demands of a high-speed hull and can have the in-flight handling qualities of a bowl of oatmeal. As a result, I was very interested in the SeaRey and was, frankly, skeptical of the potential that a small homebuilt amphibian could be worth the powder to blow it up.
Dr. Chuck is getting pretty close to finishing his kit. He has a healthy attitude toward safety in little airplanes and has read more than a few accident reports in which the pilot/builder crashed on one of the initial test flights due to lack of knowledge about the type or failure to obtain a good checkout. As a result, in October, Dr. Chuck arranged to travel to Orlando, Florida to receive an extensive checkout from the designer of the marque, Kerry Richter. In a moment of weakness, Dr. Chuck asked me to attend, take a look at the factory and fly a SeaRey so I can be in a position to fly his when it's done.
A Visit To The Factory
I went. I flew. I had a ball. Look, as a lawyer I have to evaluate aircraft that are involved in lawsuits as objectively as I can. When I write about airplanes I have an ethical obligation to be as accurate as possible. With that as background, I'll simply say that the SeaRey impressed me favorably and I had more fun flying it than I've had in virtually any other non-aerobatic airplane I've ever flown. It was not the easiest flying airplane I've experienced; that honor is still split evenly between the Cirrus SR20, Cessna 208 and Cessna T303. But from a standpoint of just having fun in a little airplane, the SeaRey is right up there with the best.
Progressive Aerodyne is located in modest surroundings in Orlando. The factory is small, but the right size for the process of building and shipping kits to homebuilders. The only downside is that it is about a 40-minute drive from the delightful little grass field where checkout flights are done.
On the way to the airport there was time to talk with Kerry Richter who described his background designing ultralights before moving to the heavier, faster aircraft that must be certified under the experimental category with the FAA. The first version of the SeaRey was a single-place, but, the desire to take a passenger triumphed and a two-place version was created.
Up Close And Personal...
The airplane consists of a very rigid fiberglass hull beneath an aluminum tube framework that forms and supports a fuselage with tubular spar, aluminum ribbed, fabric covered wing and empennage. A range of choices of engines is available to mount as a pusher on the pylon above the center section of the high wing. The two most popular seem to be the 80 hp Rotax 912 and the 95 hp, turbosupercharged Rotax 914. Yes, there is a Porsche connection to Rotax. The two occupants sit side by side with both being able to easily reach the centrally-located throttle. A stick is directly in front of each seat. The landing gear retracts vertically via the Armstrong method; however, electric power is an option.
An 80 hp SeaRey was the aircraft of choice for the factory to check out prospective SeaRey pilots. Preflight was easy as everything seems exposed. Reduction of drag did not seem to be a major consideration in the design. I learned that even with all sorts of pieces and parts and cables in the breeze, the airplane scoots along quite reasonably. Ninety to 95 mph on 80 horsepower while shoving a boat hull through the air certainly impressed me.
I had no previous experience with Rotax engines and was interested to learn that they turn substantially faster than the Lycomings, Continentals and Franklins I have followed through the skies for many years. A reduction arrangement allows the propeller to turn at a much slower speed for greater efficiency and lower noise. It also means that when the power is pulled back to idle, there is noticeably more drag as the prop turns the engine than with direct drive engines. That effect makes for a very fine speed brake and allows regulating an approach to landing quite precisely.
...Systems, And Land Operation...
The SeaRey comes with a conventional electrical system, so startup and taxi are nothing out of the ordinary, other than there is no mixture control. When operating on land, the tailwheel is steerable; however, there is no setup for differential braking. Interestingly enough, even though a handle applies the brakes evenly, it is still possible to break the tailwheel loose and pivot on one wheel. Taxiing in a crosswind is not difficult. Being a tailwheel airplane, use of the ailerons does help with the process of taxiing in a crosswind. Takeoff is almost as easy as in a nosewheel airplane. With the propeller blowing straight on the rudder, directional control is positive. Acceleration is so rapid that the ground run is quite short, less than 500 feet.
Our demonstration airplane required a substantial amount of aft stick to rotate and maintain speed on climb out. With the occupants in front of the center of gravity, full nose-up trim (the trim is electric and has an indicator to display the position of the pitch trim) and backpressure were needed. I assumed the trim was improperly rigged, as I never did see any nose down trim on the indicator at any time during the flight.
In flight, the airplane behaves as do most other relatively slow, low-wing-loading airplanes. Rudder is absolutely necessary in turns, but is easy to coordinate. The ailerons are effective but figuring out the amount of pressure on the stick and rudder to get them to work together takes a few minutes. The overall control harmony is adequate with nice responsiveness to inputs. The left hand control stick does take a little adjustment for those accustomed to using a stick with the right hand. For those transitioning from a control yoke, there is little to sort out.
Cruise speed is roughly 90 to 95 mph on something less than 5 gph. The fact that the seats are comfortable makes the SeaRey worth taking on a trip of some distance. With pleasant controls, even bouncing around in a headwind won't turn the pilot into the seething mass of frustration, one step away from axe murder, that some slow airplanes can create.
Because seaplanes come off the water at speeds just above the stall, good handling is essential to their longevity. It is worth taking some time flying the SeaRey around just above the stall to learn what to expect in those moments when the airplane is staggering off the water on a hot day and it's gusty. I found that I liked the way the airplane flew slowly. The cuffed wing leading edges in front of the ailerons kept the ailerons very effective down to the stall. At the stall, the demonstrator airplane did roll off to the left with some vigor. That may be due to an improperly-rigged cuff, but, whatever the reason, it should be investigated and Dr. Chuck and I noted it for his airplane. Cuffed leading edges in front of the ailerons substantially improve low speed handling. Despite that benefit, there just aren't any free lunches in aerodynamics: the tradeoff is that those cuffs also adversely affect spin recovery. That is a regime I did not explore in the SeaRey, but any wing drop at the stall should be cured if possible.
Water handling is very simply the best that I've experienced in any seaplane. The old Republic Seabee has historically been considered about the best-behaved airplane in the water. The SeaRey is better. Flying final short at about 70 mph to flare to a level attitude produces a pleasant touchdown. No matter how many times you have done it, that moment when the tip of the keel just starts to ripple across the tops of the waves is one that is among the most enjoyable in any form of aviation. Because of the small size of the airplane and the pilot's seating position, the level of the pilot's eyes at touchdown on the water does take some adjustment. One feels as if the water were only inches away before the keel finally touches. The feeling is accurate.
...On And Off The Step...
The hull is clean enough that the technique of pulling the nose up radically after touchdown to rapidly decelerate does not work. The airplane will skip back into the air. It is necessary to hold everything still for a few moments while the airplane decelerates on the step and sinks a little lower into the water before pulling the nose up to decelerate off the step.
Idle taxiing showed that the airplane was fully controllable in moderate winds, even though the one we flew did not have a water rudder. The airplane also tended to sit level in the water, rather than resting slightly cocked, with one sponson in the water. Both sponsons tended to stay out of the drink all of the time.
Kerry demonstrated step taxiing. I'm pretty skeptical of the stuff a demo pilot does as he usually knows precisely what the airplane will do and operates at the very limit of the performance envelope to make the airplane look impressive. Kerry proceeded to take us through a water ski slalom course. He 'S' turned around the buoys down the center of the course that the ski boat goes between when pulling a skier. He had the airplane sliding slightly sideways on the keel in the turns to run the course; a technique that initially got my undivided attention as such behavior in most seaplanes immediately precedes capsizing. After he had me try step taxiing, I found that what he had done wasn't any sort of magic. The SeaRey is remarkably maneuverable on the step, more so than any seaplane or amphibian I've experienced. It can be effectively controlled while sliding noticeably sideways by using power to assist in controlling the radius of turn. Slight power changes also allow the airplane to be a little higher or lower on the step, affecting the way it behaves. Within an hour I was comfortable maneuvering on the step in the SeaRey in ways I would never try in other seaplanes. For example, in most seaplanes a step turn from downwind into the wind is to be avoided like the plague. It was not a problem in the SeaRey.
It must be kept in mind that the SeaRey is a little airplane, so it is never going to be able to wrestle with waves more than about five or six inches high. One won't be going out to make rescues in foul weather in it.
...And Back To Terra Firma
Takeoff from idle taxi happens quickly. As the throttle is pushed forward, the stick is held full aft. The airplane pitches up once, pauses, then pitches up a bit more. At that point it is on the step and it's time to lower the nose to a nearly level attitude. Then something happens that is very rare in any seaplane: one feels the airplane accelerate. In most seaplanes one gets the airplane on the step and waits until reaching the speed at which it can be coaxed off the water. "Accelerate" is generally not a word used to describe the process. The SeaRey accelerates quickly for a seaplane. The manufacturer claims a 300-foot takeoff run. I think that is the usual puffing manufacturers are heir to. At nearly gross weight on a well-above-standard-temperature day, we used about 600 feet to get off the water. For any seaplane, that's impressive. I've run over a mile to get a Seabee airborne on a warm day and it comes off at 40 mph while the SeaRey leaves the water at 50 mph.
Returning to land on land, the gear is extended and checked visually. The SeaRey proved to be quite docile on the approach and landing. Full stall and wheel landings came off without any special effort other than the normal attention a person must pay to keep a tailwheel airplane tracking straight ahead. The lack of individual wheel brakes never became an issue in the rollout, although I did notice some brief directional uncertainty at about 20 mph. I did not try a landing on a hard surface runway. With the propeller just in front of the rudder, I suspect that any directional excursion could be rectified with a bit of rudder and throttle.
From a safety standpoint, the SeaRey is about average for homebuilts. I'm not at all crazy about having fuel in the fuselage of an airplane; however, here it is behind the occupants, not in front, where a crash almost inevitably means a fire. In most amphibians, landing on the water with the gear down is usually a fatal error. Most pilots know this and have a little mantra for the landing gear: "This is a land, landing, the landing gear is down, the left main is down (look and see), the right main is down (look and see) and the tailwheel is down." Or, they say, "This is a water landing, the landing gear is up, the left main is up (look and see), the right main is up (look and see) and the tailwheel is up." To help the pilot SeaRey does provide panel lights for gear position in the electro-hydraulic gear, although not on the manual gear version. Dr. Chuck is modifying his airplane to include the lights even though he has the manual gear retraction system, a wise idea, in my opinion.
Gear down landings in the water have happened in SeaReys and so far, all involved have survived. I looked at the remains of one airplane and noted that the occupant space was intact enough to allow egress and the airplane itself was rebuildable. While the forward portion of the hull is very strong, there is not a lot of structure in front of the occupants to absorb energy in a crash. I simply don't know how occupants would fare if impact is against an object while traveling at any significant speed.
The SeaRey, as with many ultralights and some homebuilts, uses swaged cables in a number of locations on the airframe. I have never been able to get a satisfactory answer regarding useful life of those cables. I have had them break on sailboats. The resulting loss of the mast in a boat is usually only embarrassing. The effect in flight could well be more distressing. I, for one, would pay special attention to those cables on inspections.
Is There A SeaRey In Your Future?
If I could find a way to afford it, I'd get myself a SeaRey. I've not run across an airplane that is more fun to fly and more versatile that I can conveniently recall. I'm excited for Dr. Chuck and his SeaRey. I just hope I get a chance to fly it.
See you next month.