Make It Different; Make It Social

You like new and different flying experiences. You like to hang out with pilots. Why not combine the two?


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Every pilot I know has a sense of adventure. That’s the starting point for why she or he learned to fly. Pilot certificate in hand, the quest for adventure continues in many ways—some go for advanced ratings; others seek different aircraft to fly; others explore aerobatics or remote airstrips.

A byproduct of the process of expanding one’s aviation horizons is meeting people with similar interests in those horizons—and it’s not unusual for long-lasting friendships to form. And when those friends decide to get together to do some flying that is a little out of the ordinary, the result can be some of the most fun you can have in aviation at a reasonable cost.

The middle of this month marked the start of the 19th year that a group of friends have been getting together to fly airplanes on skis and floats—the same airplanes, on the same lakes, just in different seasons. I’ll tell you a little about it—because it might be a template to create some fun flying for you and your friends with an aviating habit.

By 1997 I had become active on the first of the aviation Internet forums, Avsig. Living in Michigan, I enjoyed exchanges regarding the weather with an Avsig member in Louisiana, Dr. Walter Atkinson (who went on to become an AVweb contributor). He expressed the opinion that people who lived where snow fell and stuck during the winter were close to certifiably nuts, nevertheless, he was an avid downhill skier and my descriptions of flying airplanes on skis intrigued him.

An Invitation

90 miles north of my home there was an FBO, Northwoods Aviation, which had a J-3 and a Super Cub for rent. In the winter the airplanes were on skis, in the summer they grew floats. I had been approved to instruct in the airplanes on wheels, skis and floats, so I thought it might be fun to get a group of people together for the weekend to fly the airplanes. I invited Doc Walt to come to Cadillac, Michigan and fly skis. Once he had agreed to fly his Bonanza northwards, I invited my brother and a few others to join us.

The weather cooperated and we had a ball. Everyone got to do some flying of the sort they’d not done before. Between flights they took advantage of the warmth provided by the wood stove in Northwoods Aviation’s 1930s-era WPA-built hangar and pilots’ lounge where they got to know each other and shared improbable flying stories.

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Doc Walt said he’d be willing to return in the summer to learn to fly floats—and he’d bring his wife because he was sure she’d like it and want to get her seaplane rating. I checked with Northwoods to see if I could reserve both of their floatplanes for the weekend immediately prior to EAA Oshkosh and started making plans. A resort on Lake Cadillac would let us use their dock and beach for the seaplanes if I reserved a block of rooms—and they’d give me a discount on the rooms. I put out a general invitation on Avsig for a weekend of seaplane flying with the possibility of getting a seaplane rating. I lined up two designated examiners to give checkrides.

The response proved to be great. That first summer four pilots, including Doc Walt and his wife, got seaplane ratings and everyone who wanted to at least get an introduction to floatplane operations got it. It was a family affair—the non-pilot spouses and kids hung out on the beach, swam, went water skiing and zipped around on personal watercraft. People got to know each other. Hikes were organized on the trail around the lake and the nearby nature center trails.

Shopping missions to Traverse City were organized and successfully carried out.

As things wound down, the general consensus was that we should go forward with plans for another skiplane and seaplane weekend the next year. Oh, and Doc Walt’s wife bought a J-3 as soon as she got home.

I’ve organized skiplane and seaplane flying through Northwoods Aviation every year since then. I’ve made mistakes and, inadvertently, done some things right. One of the things that helped a great deal was having a small group of instructors that would donate their time—pilots who were coming some distance and paying for a motel for the weekend would only have to pay for the airplane rental.

It Can Get Too Big

After a few years I had to stop trying to get people through seaplane ratings during the weekend as it meant others might not get enough flying time to warrant them making the effort to come. (It was also exhausting for the instructors.) I found that flights should be about a half hour long to assure that everyone who wanted to fly could do so. In the summer we sometimes go a little more than a half hour per flight, in the winter the back seat of the J-3 is so cold that I sometimes decide that a half hour is too long—on Saturday this year, the high temperature was six-degrees F.

After a few years I stopped issuing blanket invitations on social media as things got out of hand. People I didn’t know were showing up and demanding a seaplane rating for just the price of the airplane rental. It became an invitation-only event with invitations sent out in consultation with the folks who attend regularly. I ask those who have attended to find pilots who they think would enjoy the weekend and would come with their families.

For skiplane weekend, we moved to a motel that had a heated swimming pool, cross-country ski trails and other winter sports available—a hit with the kids and non-pilot spouses.

The weekend immediately prior to EAA Oshkosh has proven to be the best for the most people for seaplane weekend, especially as many who attend then make the roughly one-hour flight to Oshkosh on Sunday afternoon. I moved skiplane weekend from January to February because—deny global warming all you want—the lakes are freezing later every winter. We had some January skiplane weekends where the ice was not thick enough to land on.

Michigan weather can be lousy. It’s immediately downwind of Lake Michigan, which means lake effect snows in winter and plenty of low ceilings in summer. Those who attend skiplane and seaplane weekends do so knowing that weather may curtail flying—it has. It has also prevented some who wanted to fly in from doing so and caused others to decide that they should depart on Saturday instead of Sunday to avoid being stuck for a few days. On the good side of the page about Michigan weather, it also means the folks in Cadillac are prepared—there are good approaches to the airport and, in winter, there is usually plenty of hangar space for those who fly in and electrical outlets for plugging in engine heaters.

Funky Flying and Good Friends

The combination of a chance to fly some funky airplanes in fun and different conditions and socialize with pilots who have the same inclination—and their families, has proven successful. Saturday afternoon on the beach usually includes libations for those who are done flying for the day and we look back on the years when one couple brought a chainsaw-powered blender with much fondness.

Our regulars consist of, as might be assumed, people from the Great Lakes area, but also from across the country. We have two or three that fly in from California, three from the New England states and even though my wife and I moved to Colorado seven years ago, we still make the pilgrimage. This year we had a first-timer come from Texas and discover he’d gone to school with one of our regulars and had friends in common in the space program with another.

Cost is a factor for everyone, so some have to skip a year or two, but when they are back it’s immediately as if they never left. Strong friendships have formed: three of the regulars went in together on an airplane a few years back, another few formed a small business, and the Michigan contingent regularly gets together for dinner during the year.

What we do is not unlike what other groups of pilots have done successfully. There are formal and informal groups that have fly-outs for breakfast at least once a month; I think of the Cessna 150-152 Club and its amazing gathering in Clinton, Iowa each summer and the distance its members traverse to get together; my skydiving friends routinely make pilgrimages to different drop zones for weekends of parachuting over different landscapes and socializing.

With social networking, numerous aviation forums and SocialFlight, it’s easier than ever to organize something a little different. Want to spend a weekend getting a little time in helicopters, seaplanes, skiplanes or gliders? Make an effort to put it together with an operator that gives instruction in the aircraft, reach out to other pilots and make it happen.

Be careful—you may make some of the closest friends you’ve ever had.

Rick Durden travels more than 2000 miles twice each year to fly skiplanes and seaplanes with good friends and is the author of Volumes 1 and 2 of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It.