Charles Welden grew up in Alabama watching a seaplane come and go off of Lake Martin and thinking it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. He learned to fly and eventually bought a Cessna 150/150 so he could figure out flying seaplanes himself. In one of those moments that occasionally happens in aviation, he got to talking to the previous owner of his airplane and discovered that it happened to be the exact same one he’d watched so avidly as a child.
When Welden went looking for someone to teach him to fly his new plane, he picked a popular seaplane operation. He had what he describes as a very rushed and unpleasant experience—not exactly what he had been hoping for. Being a flight instructor himself and believing that there was a market for real-world seaplane instruction done right, he opened WaterWings Seaplane School in 2001.
Aircraft and Ratings
WaterWings didn’t just stick to seaplanes. In 2002, Welden began offering multi-engine training in his 1965 Piper Twin Comanche. By 2005, he had added a 1939 Piper J3 Cub to the school fleet for tailwheel instruction. Eventually, WaterWings acquired an Aviat Husky on amphib floats and moved its operation to Shelby County Airport (KEET).
“Flying the Cub made me realize how cool low and slow flying could be, seeing the sights up close and smelling the countryside,” said Welden. “This was the genesis of the idea of adding helicopter and glider to my ratings. I could go even slower in the helicopter and I could enjoy the peace of soaring.”
Not one to keep his knowledge to himself, Welden added a Robinson R44 Instrument Trainer to the WaterWings fleet in 2009 and the school began offering ATP, instrument, commercial, and basic rotorcraft training. In 2012, a Super Decathlon came along for upset and spin training. The latest addition to WaterWings, which arrived in February 2018, is a 1946 Grumman Widgeon for use as a multi-engine sea trainer.
All told, WaterWings currently offers rotorcraft, single-engine sea, multi-engine sea, multi-engine land, tailwheel, upset and spin training. The school doesn’t do primary training, but Welden says he works to have a symbiotic relationship with other local flight schools, sending primary students to them and having their students come to WaterWings for specialty training.
Welden’s day typically starts with a weather check, and then it’s off to the airport to get the aircraft ready. He will then meet the first student of the day and the lessons will begin. With the focus on specialty instruction, his students typically come for a few days to a week at a time.
Weldon signed off on a total of 40 checkrides last year. In the last two months alone, WaterWings has had students come from as far as Sri Lanka and Japan to take advantage of the specialty training the school offers. “I really enjoy getting to know these students from all over the world while I introduce them to new frontiers in aviation,” Welden said. “It’s fun to see their eyes light up when they see all the toys. Generally, students are having the best time of their flying lives as we enjoy the Alabama lakes.”
The biggest challenge of running the school is scheduling. Lining up lessons for students and working out timing with examiners is only part of it, however. Welden also has to plan for maintenance on seven different types aircraft and make sure qualified mechanics are available to meet the fleet’s diverse needs. Even so, when asked if he had a favorite aircraft, he refused to choose.
Tim Pope came to Alabama-based WaterWings from Alaska. Pope, who has flown 15,500 hours in his 25 years as a pilot, discovered WaterWings while looking for something new to try. He arrived at the school with quite a few certificates and ratings to his name, including his ATP and tailwheel endorsement. According to Pope, his biggest challenge while working on his seaplane ratings was learning how to be one with the aircraft.
However, it’s not an accident that Pope calls Welden the best instructor he’s ever hired. “He has that unique ability to get across to the student in a way the student can understand and process,” Pope said. “In my case we spent an entire afternoon just flying around playing. It made a huge difference in my growth.” Pope earned single- and multi-engine seaplane ratings at WaterWings. He can be seen in the video below putting skills learned at the school to use in a Widgeon amphib he says Welden inspired him to buy.
In addition to Welden himself, WaterWings employs two other instructors: one for multi-engine land instruction and one for single-engine sea training. Welden, who has been instructing for 18 years now, handles most of the seaplane and tailwheel instruction himself.
The training philosophy at WaterWings centers around practical piloting and “real-world” flying. “We actually expect students to learn this stuff,” Welden said. “Nobody is experienced after just a couple of days of training, but at least they have the tools to gain that experience without getting hurt. The students are [here] to learn and we help them to become real seaplane pilots.”
Longtime WaterWings student Allen Taylor agrees. “[Welden] teaches us to be pilots, not [just] to fly aircraft,” said Taylor. “Situational awareness, why things are what they are, how to get out of situations or avoid them before they become issues is a big part of what he teaches vs. simply performing specific maneuvers to meet PTS requirements.” In addition to getting his multi-engine and multi-engine instrument ratings with Welden, Taylor also earned his seaplane rating, rotorcraft add-on and tailwheel endorsement at WaterWings.
The goal at the school is to provide aviation knowledge and experiences that extend beyond simply earning a new rating. Led by Welden’s enthusiasm, curiosity and skill as both a teacher and pilot, WaterWings occupies a special niche—providing a diverse selection of aircraft, instruction and opportunities that allow its students to explore areas of aviation they might not have considered before walking through the doors.