Why Seaplanes Are So Boring

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By normal aviation standards, seaplanes are boring as hell. They’re slow, tend to be fuel hogs, often don’t carry much because they’re hauling around a boat or two and, like boats, they have to be pumped out and they rust. Who would want one?

Yet, in the dedicated community of pilots who fly these things, floatplanes and flying boats are just crazy fun. I think I know why. It has less to do with flying to some remote lake to fish or to dock at the summer cottage than it does what the intersection of wind, water and airplane does to the usual operating constraints imposed on aircraft. That’s a roundabout way of saying the fun that happens in seaplanes happens at altitudes that make some nellies nervous. I get it. I’m just not one of them.

This occurred to me last week when I spent a couple of days in Tavares, Florida splashing, around in a Searey Elite with Rob Galloway, owner of Jones Brothers Air and Seaplane Adventures, one of a handful of companies that specialize in seaplane ratings. I added sport pilot seaplane privileges to my certificate. If I weren’t such a cheap bastard, I could have added SES, too, but the checkride costs more and I don’t need the vanity plate. But I did need a flight review and adding to the certificate is a good way to do that.

Nearly six hours of stick-and-rudder time in two days reset my attitude toward the argument au courant ignited by Icon’s promotion that its seaplanes are like jet skis with wings, or at least the interpretation by the aviation illuminati that this is what they’re doing. So when you’re out in the middle of the lake doing step taxi turns at 45 mph, it’s a hell of a lot like being on a jet ski. It takes more skill, for sure, and the consequences of screwing it up are more expensive, but the similarities are undeniable.

And those to whom flying low causes sweaty palms, you’ll either have to get over that to fly a seaplane or maybe pursue your fun elsewhere. What I find most thrilling about small amphibs like the Searey is that the flare for landing happens just a second or two after you think you’re going to plow the thing under the surface. But then you round out and it looks just right. It’s like landing on what you imagine is a too-short runway, only to have 500 feet to spare once you stop. Even at 65 mph, the water rushes the eyes like that sweaty nightmare moment you wake up before you hit the bridge abutment.

I don’t have trouble judging that flare height, but nonetheless, we spent a glorious 10 minutes skimming along a river trying to get the sight picture locked in. I was supposed to be a foot above the water, but was probably five. Naturally, the fear is that you’ll touch down inadvertently and ball the thing up. “Go ahead and skip it,” Galloway suggested. A little pitch down and skip it does, benignly. Spine stiffened, I nibbled it down to six inches for the rest of the exercise.

If landplane training reiterates ad nauseam stalls and emergency landings, the seaplane equivalent is the glassy water landing. It’s meant to provide serviceable touchdowns in conditions where the water is so flat and featureless as to make judging the flare height improbable. It’s difficult to train because true glass is not common. The slightest breeze, or a boat or a plop of bird dung, raises just enough ripple to aid in depth perception. Kerry Richter, who developed the Searey design, told me some Florida pilots carry a bag of oranges to heave over the side to stir up the water.

The glassy water landing is supposed to be a long, drawn-out run in which the hull touches down at a barely discernible descent rate. It requires supreme patience and microscopic throttle movement. I lack the former, which challenges the latter. 

The area around Tavares isn’t called the Lake District for nothing. There are dozens of them. Some are lined with trees, which are perfect for my favorite seaplane maneuver: the confined water landing. The idea is to swish over the top of the trees, chop the power and pitch the nose over to land in the shortest distance closest to the tree line. I discovered that the Searey is just stupid great at forward slips. With a wing down and pointed at the desired target, it flies as if on rails. I like to crank in max rudder, slip almost to the top of the trees, roll out and chop the power, then dive for the water for a smooth power-off splashdown. I’d do that all day. Indescribable fun.

And also, some risk, of course. There’s always the chance that you can misjudge the descent and crash into the trees or misjudge the flare and tank into the water. That’s why we practice these things. And anyway, you know what they say about Migs and Mig Alley.

Procedure wise, seaplane flying tends to be less, ummm, constipated than landplane flying at airports. There are no pattern Nazis whining about being cut off, no one getting into a snit because you flew a right base at 250 feet over the boat ramp and even the boat traffic seems down with the flying jet skis. That may be the great shining attraction of seaplane flying: almost undiluted freedom to fool around in that intersection between wind, water and airplane.

Anybody interested in halfsies in a Searey?    

About That Roadster

In Wednesday’s blog, I mentioned the SpaceX launch of a cherry-red Tesla Roadster into a Mars intersecting orbit. As of Sunday, the car is 970,369 miles from Earth, moving at 6947 mph. What hath Elon wrought? Follow it here.

Comments (24)

"And those to whom flying low causes sweaty palms, you'll either have to get over that to fly a seaplane or maybe pursue your fun elsewhere."

And also, you never know what may be just below the surface of the water, waiting to scratch open a float or two. Plus trying to dock a plane in the wind can make things interesting. Seaplane flying is definitely a riskier form of aviation, since it combines all of the risk of aviation with all of the risk of boating. But it sure is fun!

I got my ASES at Jack Brown's in the cub, and even did an hour in the Maule. But even a cub feels big compared to a Searey, and now that I know there's another seaplane school in FL, I might just have to make another trip down there and try them out.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 12, 2018 7:47 AM    Report this comment

Catchy headline!

Posted by: Jason Baker | February 12, 2018 9:56 AM    Report this comment


Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 12, 2018 1:02 PM    Report this comment

How's that JaBA?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 12, 2018 1:19 PM    Report this comment

Very shortlived "Friday Foibles" I reckon.
Excellent clickbait headline. But why would one buy half a Searey?

Posted by: Jason Baker | February 12, 2018 2:56 PM    Report this comment

The other half is an A5.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 12, 2018 4:15 PM    Report this comment

Cuz I can't afford a whole one?

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 12, 2018 4:17 PM    Report this comment

Excellent ! Another life ruined by exposure to seaplane flying. Once you have experienced it you are going to want more.......

Posted by: DAVID GAGLIARDI | February 12, 2018 9:15 PM    Report this comment

LOWALT guidelines please.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 13, 2018 12:59 AM    Report this comment

How many denizens will it take to buy a "club" Vision jet?

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | February 13, 2018 7:48 AM    Report this comment

"How many denizens will it take to buy a "club" Vision jet?"

A single 1%er who then lets all of us in this forum fly it for the cost of fuel? One can dream, anyway...

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 13, 2018 9:33 AM    Report this comment

I did a SES add-on / BFR 18 years ago at Gore lake. I agree ... GREAT fun. Everyone should do it.

Up in Iola, WI, the 104 year old airport's honorary namesake made 221 crossings of the Pacific in PBY's and Boeing 314 Clippers during WWII and he's still around. You should hear his stories! See: centralcountyflyers.org/people/johns.html

Here's a funny. During my training, we're doing the circuits and on one we come around in the Cub and make a pretty hard flat landing. The CFI says, "You didn't do so well that time." I reply, "I thought YOU were flying!" He says, "I thought YOU were flying." Who's on first ... what's on second ... "I have control" :-))

Anyone who goes to Airventure and hasn't taken the bus over to the seaplane base should do it. One of the most idyllic places around. Only costs $3.

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 13, 2018 10:10 AM    Report this comment

"Anyone who goes to Airventure and hasn't taken the bus over to the seaplane base should do it. One of the most idyllic places around. Only costs $3."

That is a great location. Almost a hidden part of Airventure. But the bus is tricky: it's a free ride from OSH to the seaplane base, but they charge you money to get back. I thought they were joking. Thankfully I had exactly enough cash to get back...

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 13, 2018 11:36 AM    Report this comment

Gary, when at AirVenting you got to carry at least a thousand cash man.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 13, 2018 12:56 PM    Report this comment

Well to be fair, that was my first year there... I learned the lesson for future visits.

Posted by: Gary Baluha | February 13, 2018 1:51 PM    Report this comment

I've been an EAA'er for 41 years; this'll be my 36th year there. Every year, ya learn new 'secrets' and ways of dealing with it. Problem is, just about the time you get something figured out, they change it. But, it's usually for the better ... kinda like honing a knife to absolute sharpness.

Last summer, I spent 4 nights in an RV...great way to go if you can. It's like a gigantic party in there. One night, that guy with the Flintstones ornithopter contraption was going through the RV area and all the drunks were following him and having one helluva party singing and dancing. It was like a New Orleans parade. Another guy built a motorized couch. They have similar parties over at the sea base, too. After about five years, everyone gets their own system worked out.

Geez ... I'm lathering myself up. Is it July yet?

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 13, 2018 2:24 PM    Report this comment

Gary, if Larry S. (Air Force party animal) is INVOF then carry two grand for suds and stuff. Jus'sayin'

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 13, 2018 8:09 PM    Report this comment

Can one of you rich people send some MULA to Paul, so he can buy a whole and real airplane for his boring water flying retirement endeavors?

Posted by: Jason Baker | February 14, 2018 1:04 AM    Report this comment

Not so boring. Float plane takes on water? "However, it appears that the news blew the incident completely out of proportion. Icon Aircraft said the A5 in question "sustained some hull damage while on the water near Sanibel Island in Florida last week." Flying Mag.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 14, 2018 7:11 AM    Report this comment

Raf, there's really only one true aviation, seaplane, flying boat, spaceship and aerospace expert out there who could speak with any credible authority on the ICON A5 incident. When he didn't pay any attention to it, I just pretended it didn't happen and looked the other way. The media coverage is what it is, our own experts brought it onto us by speculating and second guessing and finally reaching out to the tabloids to damage ICON.

Much more important question: What "real" airplane will "ya'll" buy for Paul? I have a feeling the ICON A5 is kind of out. How about a nice low priced Lake or a new CubCrafters Flagship? Caravan? Kodiak? Waco? How come its all crickets when we try to get real important stuff done?

BTW: There are rumors that the Tesla images being sent from space are fake. Takers?

Posted by: Jason Baker | February 14, 2018 8:47 AM    Report this comment

On the A5. I noticed that the Chinese had invested in Icon. Therefore, Icon has kegs. For a while anyway.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 14, 2018 9:13 AM    Report this comment

With all that Chinese money they've got, Icon ought to buy the rights to, "Another One Bites the Dust" by Queen. They could distribute it whenever another one -- well -- bites the dust ... or water. Perfect catchy tune to go along with the media coverage.

If I struck the PowerBall lotto, I'd buy him a UC-1.
Check the specs ... pretty impressive:
My friend just sold one of the last nine (of 24 made) two weeks ago.
And it's in PB's neighborhood now.
You could hit a log with the hull and the log would lose.

RAF ... you've discovered my raison d'etre

Posted by: Larry Stencel | February 14, 2018 10:49 AM    Report this comment

" Therefore, Icon has kegs"

Raf, kegs, what for? Are kegs part of the plane or is it a Chinese beer thing or what? Why didn't Elon Musk think of putting a keg in space?

Posted by: Richard Montague | February 15, 2018 7:04 AM    Report this comment

It's a Larry Stencel thang!

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 15, 2018 9:21 AM    Report this comment

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