The Pilot's Lounge #47:
Learning to Fly Floats — The View from the Back Seat
Spring has sprung at the virtual airport and the loons are calling from remote lakes accessible only by seaplane. AVweb's Rick Durden sat down with two of the best seaplane instructors in the business to discuss how they separate the boys from the buoys. If you're thinking about ever setting down on water, intentionally, you won't want to miss this month's edition of the
Spring showed up last week, taking a lot of us by surprise. Everybody at the virtual airport adjusted pretty quickly except old Hack — he knows this first warm spell is just a teaser so he sat around in his heavy coat and muttered at the rest of us. As usual, the good weather brought quite a few folks out of hibernation — to the airport and eventually into the pilot's lounge.
On of our resident Brits, Chris, walked in bearing a very good single malt, opened it, poured a dram for those who partake and proposed a toast to the late Queen Mother. Those who had had the good fortune to watch a bit of the television coverage of the funeral of the Queen Mother told the rest of us, rightly, that England somehow does ceremonies with more dignity than any other country. They mentioned the dramatic passes made by the Lancaster and two of the Spitfires from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight over the funeral cortege as it traveled down the Mall, approaching Buckingham Palace. The airplanes performed a perfect farewell salute to a stalwart and courageous individual. We then toasted the RAF, every member of the Memorial Flight and the effort they put into keeping the Lanc, Hurricanes and Spitfires airworthy while silently wishing our government had the class to keep some of our historic airplanes on active duty. Dignified displays such as the one for the Queen Mother make every pound spent on the Memorial Flight eminently worthwhile. If anyone from the RAF happens to read this, let it be known that several Yanks and a couple expatriate Brits said some very nice things about you.
So You Want To Fly Seaplanes?
Because it was warm, I wasn't at all surprised to hear the conversation move to seaplane flying. One of our regulars, Dave, said he had decided that this was the year he was going to get his seaplane rating. He allowed as how he had read a number of the seaplane training books, but what he really wanted to know was what seaplane instructors thought was important. Beyond the material a seaplane pilot has to know, Dave said he wanted to get into the heads of the instructors and find out what they underlined for themselves, what they wanted to make sure they imparted to a student and, for lack of a better phrase, what they kept in the front of their minds to try and avoid getting killed by a student. Dave was very frank. He's had a little time in seaplanes and loved it, wants to get rated to fly them, but knows the accident rate is higher than for landplanes. He wanted to know those things the seaplane instructors talked about when they got together over beers.
Well, the good Scotch was out, there were three of us present who give seaplane dual and we started talking. Yes, I took notes; sometimes this column almost writes itself.
With me were Don DeRuiter and Walter Atkinson. Don is one of the most experienced seaplane pilots and instructors in the lower 48. He runs Northwoods Aviation in Cadillac, Michigan (231/775-6641), where thousands of pilots have obtained seaplane ratings, mostly in a Super Cub, although he operates a Cessna 180 on floats and has been known to have a J-3 Cub or some airplane such as a Super Cruiser available for training. Don is one of those pilots who somehow just seem naturally able to teach in exactly the right way for each individual. He's also pretty well-known in the seaplane world; two years ago I happened to be talking to a pilot in the country of Belize and was told by my new acquaintance that he had gone to Cadillac, Michigan to get his seaplane rating. Doc Walt is a dentist full-time but one of the most thoughtful and pragmatic instructors I know. I've always valued his insights into most all subjects, including seaplane flight instruction, and I've passed along his thoughts in this column before.
As the conversation developed, I was interested that the first thing all three of us suggested to the prospective seaplane pilot was to go to the excellent website of the Seaplane Pilots Association. We recommended that Dave join the organization as the benefits exceed the cost of membership. Even if not a member, anyone can go into the library section of the site where Chapter 15 (Seaplane Operations) of the FAA's Flight Training Handbook can be found. No matter what one's opinion is of the FAA, that chapter of the Handbook is one of the most concise and accurate collections of information on how to operate seaplanes that is available anywhere. To make matters better, it's free; just print it out.
Once the three of us got beyond the training manual and into actually articulating what we watched and worried about when teaching students, I got pretty fascinated. I also learned a number of things that I'm going to apply when the airplanes grow floats in the next few weeks.
Don spoke out in favor of tandem-seating airplanes. While we instruct from the rear seat in most of them, and visibility tends to be lousy, we like having a complete set of controls, including a throttle. There are certain operations where there is very little time to react if a student makes a serious mistake, so we are going to be hovering a fraction of an inch from the controls. Fortunately, the student can't see us doing it, thus we don't adversely affect his or her confidence. Believe it or not, that is extremely important (if a student sees the instructor poised to grab the controls, the student's performance and rate of learning drops faster than necklines at the Oscars). Plus, if we have to get on the controls, we don't have to knock the student's hand off the throttle. That savings of time has been important to every one of us.
Some behaviors become very important to instructors who fly out of the same lakes all season, yet they may not occur to students who are only in the area for a few days. We don't want the student sumping the tanks and dumping the fuel into the lakes. It doesn't take much gasoline to do a lot of damage. We want to keep the lakes clean and fish alive, and we know the owners of those high-dollar lakeshore houses certainly don't want the seaplanes putting fuel in the lakes. It's tough to be inconspicuous in a seaplane; the homeowners are watching and will complain. Fast. We are also extremely sensitive to noise and do our best to instill noise awareness in every pilot. For a number of reasons, seaplanes are often noisier than landplanes. The sound reflects off the water on the takeoff run, right at those living on the shore. It's especially noticeable on those quiet mornings when the homeowners are sitting on their decks eating breakfast. When we are making takeoffs and landings, we try to move them around the lake and go to adjacent lakes so that we do not do two landings and takeoffs in the same spot. We do our best to cross shorelines at a 90º angle to minimize the noise footprint on the houses on the shore. We get as much altitude as we can over the lake before turning over land and try to reduce power as much as we can when over shorelines. After all, the FAA has left the question of whether seaplanes can land on lakes to local and state governments, so it's those homeowners who may be voting to ban seaplanes from the lake. Frankly, we don't want to piss off the neighbors. We are not exactly a potent political force.
Beware of Boaters
Boaters can be a tremendous problem to seaplane operations. The hard fact of life is that drunken boaters are tolerated, and sometimes encouraged, on most waterways, yet sober individuals who have passed fairly stringent federal tests to operate seaplanes may be banned from those same waters. Go figure.
All of us have seen boaters do incredibly stupid things in the presence of seaplanes, with jet skiers being magnitudes worse. We don not try to analyze why a boater is doing something idiotic; we just stay clear if at all possible. The rule of thumb we want to pass on to students is that, if they see a boater doing something dumb, assume that the boater will continue the practice.
We all teach that a seaplane pilot should never insist, nor even count on, boaters adhering to maritime right-of-way rules. While we teach those rules and explain that the moment the airplane touches the water, it must comply with nautical rules, we point out that a lot of the boaters don't know them. If there is a question of right of way, back down. A boat can withstand a collision much better than a seaplane.
We've discovered that if boaters come up to the airplane while we are taxiing on the water, and want to race or otherwise play, that the best approach is to smile and be friendly, but do nothing else. We've found that few of the sorts of boaters that generate problems have much patience, so if we just sit there for 90 seconds or so, the boater will lose interest and go away. We've learned to never race a boat on takeoff as we'll usually lose, and upon discovering that they are winning the race, a surprisingly large percentage of boat drivers will then turn so that they are directly in front of the airplane and slow down.
We've found that if there is any doubt about what a boater is going to do when near the airplane, the best thing to do is to simply shut down; get the prop stopped and be ready to get out onto a float quickly.
Finally, we're aware of the bad things that can happen when a seaplane hits a boat wake while moving fast, so we treat every wake with caution.
The FARs require the use of seatbelts and shoulder harnesses. We are all for that, as each of us has seen the nasty things that happen to the people inside when their airplanes go crunch. The downside is that, while taxiing to get into position for takeoff or back to the dock or shore after landing, the risk is not one of impact, but of getting into a situation where it is imperative to get out of the cabin fast. It could be the need to deal with an approaching boat or swimmer, capsizing due to the action of wind or waves, or just messing up the approach to a dock. It is the only time that comes to mind in aviation where the seatbelt is an impediment to safe operation. As a result, we have had some disagreements with the FAA over the use of seatbelts during those specific, relatively brief, segments of the seaplane operation. We insist on seatbelt/shoulder harness systems that can be released with one motion. If we are in a jurisdiction where there is an anal-retentive FAA type who gets his jollies through intimidating pilots by trying to enforce arcane paragraphs of the regs (regardless of the fact that this one reduces the level of safety in application), and is going to check on the use of seatbelts, we teach to fasten them loosely before engine start, and only tighten them before starting the takeoff run.
We continue to recommend that seatbelts be unbuckled after the landing run has been completed and the aircraft is moving at idle taxi speed. With a new student we may get out of the seat and onto a float during the approach to a dock. We want to be able to reduce the level of impact if the student errs. Even though we have a throttle in the back seat, in most tandem-seat airplanes we can't reach the mixture control or the mags, but we know right where they are. We can easily reach the mags while standing on the float. We've had students suffer brain fade and fail to cut the engine as a dock looms nearer so each of us has made a few lunges for the mag switch.
I listened as both Don and Walt put wind awareness on their high-priority list. I fully agreed. We each do our best to make sure it becomes a part of the student's thought processes all the time that they are in the airplane. The aileron positioning that pilots learned for ground ops of landplanes tends to be forgotten before taxiing in from the private pilot checkride simply because a pilot usually can get away with ignoring it in nosewheel airplanes. However, in a seaplane, deflecting the ailerons and elevators in the correct direction for the wind can mean the difference between routinely taxiing out for takeoff and capsizing the airplane. The combination of wave action raising the upwind wing and an aileron mispositioned so as to exacerbate the effect can flip a seaplane in seconds.
When we are in airplanes with only one door we make all our taxi turns so that the door side will be up should the airplane get blown over during the turn. Yes, it has happened.
Depending on the type of seaplane, a tailwind on takeoff or landing can be a serious problem. Knowing the wind direction and speed can mean being able to safely land in a sheltered area of a lake on a windy day as opposed to damaging the floats or the hull in the attempt. We spend time teaching students how to read wind signatures on the water and we expect them to learn the subject well.
Don, Walt and I try to make sure our students are always aware where the airplane is going to be in the next 30 seconds or so because landplane pilots sometimes forget that, unless a seaplane is moored, it is going to move — all the time. We have also learned patience. Getting where one wants to go while taxiing a seaplane means accepting the fact that the best way to taxi is also the slowest. There are three types of seaplane taxiing: idle, plow and step. Idle is just that, power at about 1,100 rpm or less. The airplane meanders toward the destination in its most stable configuration while the student keeps the stick full aft and applies the needed aileron deflection.
We almost completely avoid plow taxiing. That involves carrying about 1,500-1,700 rpm with the stick fully aft. The airplane is pitched up significantly. The problems are two-fold: first, the instructor can't see straight ahead because the nose is too high and, second, for tractor airplanes, plow taxiing puts a lot of water through the propeller. That causes rapid blade erosion, making it too expensive to do for any length of time. We all know what can happen if prop blade erosion is not treated.
Step taxiing means that the airplane is planning on top of the water — the same configuration the airplane is in for best acceleration on takeoff. While it allows the airplane to cover long distances on the water in a relatively short time, the airplane is least stable when taxiing on the step. When making a turn on the step, students often tell us it feels as if they are trying to balance on a beach ball. It's a pretty good analogy. Step taxiing is one of those times when we instructors are hovering over our set of controls. Due to the dynamics of step turns, none of us will make them from downwind to upwind.
A lot of seaplane flying requires that the pilot be very attuned to the pitch attitude of the airplane. Most of the time it is a part of getting the best performance from low-powered, high-drag airplanes. However, on some high-performance or large seaplanes an error of as little as a degree or two in pitch during takeoff or landing can mean the airplane will become uncontrollable or will set up a vicious porpoising. From the front seat there isn't a lot of airplane in front of the pilot to provide pitch reference, but we expect a pilot to make use of any reference available. You are going to hear a lot from that voice in the rear seat about pitch attitudes during the takeoff run, liftoff, climbout, approach, flare, the landing run, and even while taxiing. Be ready for it and be prepared to learn to hold a selected pitch attitude precisely and trim the airplane appropriately. There is little that will upset us instructors more than a student who lets the nose wander up and down as there are times when such sloppiness can be fatal.
We are particularly alert to pitch attitude on touchdown and the landing run out. The nose of the floats has to be pitched up slightly and held in that attitude for the first portion of the run out. At the moment of touchdown the rapid increase in drag way down at the bottom of the floats imparts a significant nose-down moment on the airplane. Back behind the student, we instructors will be hovering around that rear stick. We will be especially careful if we know the student is a nosewheel pilot because they have a tendency to relax on touchdown. Unless you gradually feed in more aft stick to keep the pitch attitude constant, there is the chance the nose will drop far enough for the floats to effectively stub their toes and pitch pole the seaplane. Flipping a seaplane tail over nose while going fast is a nasty event as the windshield has a tendency to collapse getting the interior and occupants wet somewhat violently. If that isn't enough, trying to release the seatbelt and find one's way out of an inverted airplane is the stuff of which dunking survival courses are made.
We'll also watch your pitch attitude on the step to keep you from stubbing a toe or dragging the aft end of the floats and slowing or stopping acceleration. In lower-powered seaplanes or on shorter bodies of water, acceleration is critical, so pitch attitude on the step is important.
Unless the wind is nearly dead calm, it's tough to find true glassy water during training. Without actually experiencing the phenomena, it's also tough to convince a pilot that there are circumstances in which it is absolutely, totally and completely impossible to tell how high you are above the water. It's an emotional thing and we do everything we can to try to get the teaching about glassy water to sink in deeply.
When we are teaching glassy water landings we expect the student to memorize the pitch attitude and power required and to be aware that the descent rate is so slow that the airplane may run out of landing area before actually touching the water. We watch extra closely to see that students are paying attention to the big picture and don't get so fascinated with the process of finding the water that they wait too long to make a successful go around.
Glassy water takeoffs get our attention as well. They involve prying one float out of the water, running briefly on the other, and than popping the airplane into the air. The first few times it feels odd to the student, and most do it by rote manipulation of the controls. We're watching to make sure you don't stick a wingtip into the water or stall the airplane as you yank it off the water.
Because a lot of seaplane training is not around airports, there is a tendency to let down one's guard and not watch for other airplanes. A lot of the airplanes we use have crummy visibility, so we have to remind ourselves to keep looking around.
Anywhere a waterway is narrow, such as on a river, the neck of a lake or if there is an island relatively close to a shoreline, our internal power line alarm triggers. Power lines in rural areas have a disturbing tendency to be extraordinarily difficult to see. People tend to build vacation homes on islands and demand electrical service. Power companies naturally look for the easiest and shortest ways to string lines across water. Our rule of thumb is not to land on any relatively narrow body of water until we have had a chance to check it for power lines either from the ground or via boat. We may survive catching a power line on the propeller but we doubt we'd make it if we snagged it on the struts that connect the floats to the airplane.
We make sure we have a canoe paddle aboard and can get to it quickly.
In amphibious airplanes a gear-down landing on water has a fatality rate that is shockingly close to unity. We teach students in amphibs to say their landing checklist out loud, repeating and confirming that the gear is in the proper position for the surface on which we desire to alight.
Seaplane flying remains very much a part of aviation where pilots have to learn to "feel" the airplane. While pitch attitudes are sharp-edged and precise, the health of the airplane and success of the operation is much a matter of feel. The airplane is going to tell you a great deal by how it behaves on the water and in the air; we want you to understand what it is saying. We want you to feel how the airplane sits in the water normally so you can tell if one of the compartments in the floats has flooded. We want you to be able to feel if the rate of acceleration on takeoff is appropriate, especially because some seaplanes accelerate very slowly and take a long, long time to get off the water. A Seabee can run for more than two miles on a hot day. We want you to be able to tell what's normal or whether there's something wrong and get you to develop and then trust that nagging feeling that something is wrong, so you can abort a takeoff with time to stop.
Don spoke of the difficulty some pilots have in visualizing the path an airplane must follow to get to a given spot. We all agreed that we want you to be able to visualize the movement of the airplane on the water and through the air. Because you don't have a runway, we will work with you to make sure you can select a desired touchdown spot on the water, know the wind direction and then visualize a complete traffic pattern so that you can set up for a landing from almost any position in or near that traffic pattern.
Ending the Evening
As the evening started to deepen Dave said he felt as if he'd just had a graduate seminar on seaplane flying. We wished him an enjoyable time in getting the rating. He looked at us, laughed and said, "Enjoyable? After all the possible horrible things you just described?"
Don, grinned at him and responded, "Yeah, we tell the bad parts to keep the riffraff from learning to fly floats so that they don't show up at the remote lakes we like. But, when we tie up to the dock at one of those lakes, and hear the loons calling, it's sure worth the effort."
See you next month.