Seaplane flying, Alex’ experience
Updated: Feb 13, 2022
There is nothing like flying. It is the most fun and exhilarating activity; from the moment you get in the plane and speed down the runway, feel you are lifting and leaving the planet with everything and everybody and all its worries down below, until when you realize that the world becomes smaller, and cities and countries get closer as you jump from one to the next. And the freedom; the freedom of being just you and your flying machine taking you from wherever you want to wherever you want, in three dimensions. When, how, where; it is just your decision.
There is also the continuous challenge to learn and grow and learn some more. I obtained my first private pilot license (PPL) in Argentina 20 years ago and my examiner told me that it was just a license to keep on learning to fly. I got the European one 3 years later and then the US license with an Instrument Rating and back to Argentina for a Multi-engine Rating and a Commercial Pilot license.
And then there is the Seaplane.
Between all of them, the one that was most fun and exhilarating, the one that made me feel the most freedom and the license that I enjoyed getting the most was the Seaplane Rating. In the water a seaplane is a boat, and you sail it following the same techniques and sea codes that have ruled boats and ships forever. The engine and propeller power you forward, and you use water rudders for maneuvering, sailing, overtaking, mooring, dealing with wind, waves, and other boats. In the air it flies more or less like other airplanes, heavier and slower but pretty much the same. The big difference is transitioning from water to air and back. To take off from the water versus a runway, the big change is managing drag; while the seaplane is still, a big part of the floats is under water to hold the plane up above the surface. As you add power to start your take-off run, the seaplane initially ploughs tons of water forward with the submerged floats; impossible to get enough speed and wind on the wings. You need to do three things to reduce this drag; first, raise the water rudders, you don’t need them when there is air flowing on the tail, they are very susceptible to damage, and it’s like dragging oars slowing down the plane. Second, get the floats to slide and ski over the surface as opposed to plough water from below. The float design has a clever “step” (like water ailerons) on its middle portion that can support the plane as if on water skis as soon as it carries a certain speed. Once on the step, the drag is reduced very significantly and with the same power the plane can accelerate faster. Finally, when approaching rotation speed, you swing the ailerons to one side to lift the wing and the float on the opposite side, and with that you virtually cut the water drag in half allowing the seaplane to take-off gracefully. So cool! The landing technique depends on the water surface, where the “Glassy” water technique is the most beautiful yet the most challenging.
The idyllic picture of a plane approaching and barely touching a mirror-like water surface, as if on skis, requires not only skills but also a blind faith in them, literally. From the pilot seat, looking down the glassy water mirroring the sky makes it very difficult to distinguish where the surface really is and could fool the pilot into flaring dangerously high or hitting the surface too hard. The technique is to set the right speed and the right pitch attitude to maintain a well-controlled descent rate and then wait until you are surprised by the sissing sound as you kiss the water surface. Blind faith, heavenly reward. On the other extreme, landing on Rough Water, while it is easy to see where the surface is at, the challenge is avoiding slamming hard on the waves or submarining one float and risk capsizing the airplane. Best practice is to touch down as slow as possible on a nose high attitude, ideally looking for an area near the shore or behind an island with better protection from the waves.
Kevin and Bob at the Coeur d’Alene Seaplane base have a perfectly oiled schooling machinery, in three days they teach you all the theory and the practice you need to get you through the Rating examination. They allow a fourth day for extra practice if necessary and on the fifth day the designated Examiner comes to the school. In theory that is. My case as an Argentinian pilot was a little more complex since both my American license and medical certificate were long expired and I needed both to fly an American float plane. But none of that was a problem for Kevin. From the first phone call he was so positive and generous and helped me with every step. First thing was to get my Medical; Kevin lined me up with the local Medical examiner whose office was conveniently located at the Coeur d’Alene airport. Martijn and I made a little day trip out of that; we enjoyed a visit to the Bird’s Aviation and Innovation Museum, checked out the flight legends Dick and Burt Rutan’s hangar and went on to my medical appointment.
This is what a legend hangar looks like !
Early in the afternoon, we were already flying back over the lakes to Sandpoint with a fresh Medical certificate in my pocket. Next thing was to get me current again in the American system by performing the required Bi-annual flight review. That is not much more than flying for an hour with a flight instructor, Kevin in this case, which we did in our Cirrus while he showed me the beautiful Sandpoint surroundings. As a bonus, the flight included a couple of landings on little airstrips that are a joy to land in with a little bush-plane but a sweating feat for our faithful round-the-world-flying-machine.
We also flew over the Condo del Sol complex where we were staying:)
A staple at the CDA Seaplane base is the EpicFlight: fly to and land on 24 lakes, 5 rivers and 3 states on a single tank of fuel. The story started 10 years ago when Glenn, at the time chief pilot at CDA Seaplane base, was hired by the Burt Rutan to test flight their latest development, the SkiGull plane. The impressive SkiGull had floats, skis and wheels, and could fly non-stop from San Francisco to Hawaii at 140kt, amazing.
During the trials, over lunch, Glenn celebrated with the Rutans the capabilities of the new plane BUT, he claimed it was not as good as his school Piper Cub floatplane. The heated discussions ended with Burt betting that there was nothing that the school plane could do better than the SkiGull. Glenn took off and flew to and landed on 24 lakes, 5 rivers and 3 states on a single tank of fuel and won the bet; the Epic Flight was born.
But the Epic Flight would be my fourth day at the CDA base. The first three days started with breakfast and theory learning at the back of the local Cafe. There was always the instructors, Kevin or Bob, and another seaplane student, Blaine, who was himself an aeronautical engineer and brought a lot of knowledge to the class. Another humbling and enriching experience.
and Blaine (in KSZT)
This was late summer but felt like fall up in the northern lakes, so the mornings were usually foggy, and we had to wait for the sun to burn the clouds and give visibility on the beautiful glassy waters of the Pend Oreille river before we could start our flights.
Every practice was a gift in itself. I could have happily continued going to school for a lot longer, but on three days we were pretty much done. Luckily, we still had the window of the fourth day, and I grabbed it to try the famous Epic flight,
I started by saying that the great thing about flying is how fun and exhilarating it is, and the Epic Flight took that to another dimension: Kevin guided me on a roller-coaster flight of short landings on hidden lakes on approaches that hugged the side of a mountain, up-river take offs leading directly to an overpassing bridge, steep descents inside a narrow valley searching for a lake that you don’t see but you hope is going to be where Kevin said was going to be. Wow!!! It also highlighted the increased freedom you get with a float plane, as it gets rid of the main constraint of the airplane: the need of an airport or a runway. Just a small lake or a straight portion of a river and you are ready to go; and in that part of the US lakes and rivers are everywhere. But you shouldn’t get too confident or overly excited, you still must be constantly alert and fly the plane within its tight envelope. We had a scary experience with that. As we were sailing back to the beach after my Epic Flight, we heard on the radio that a Search and Rescue mission was launched to look for the pilot and a passenger of a capsized floatplane on the Pend Oreille lake, “our” Sandpoint lake! Kevin got on the phone and agreed to join the Search. We turned around and took off in the general direction of the accident, while getting updates on the radio in real time about the location of the sinking plane. We flew a pattern over the indicated area scanning the surface of the transparent and greenish waters of the lake. A plane standing on its floats is not small, it should be very easy to see, but we couldn’t see anything. Suddenly we spotted a large stain (oil?) on the surface and we flew immediately towards it.
Sure enough, in the middle of the stain we saw the bottom of the white floats and the silhouette of the plane hanging upside down below them. The lake was choppy, probably the reason for the capsized airplane, but Kevin managed to land and sail to the upside-down-floating aircraft.
We attached our plane to it and turned off our engine to look around safely, but we couldn’t find anything or anyone inside or around the wreck. It was gloomy.
Kevin phoned back to report our progress and phewwww! We got great news: the crew had just been picked up by a fishing boat and were being sailed to the shore where an ambulance was waiting; but they were doing just fine. Upon landing at the base I asked Kevin if that was a regular feature of the Epic Flight; he didn’t think it was funny.
I had to come back the next morning for my official check ride, but it was truly on my Epic Flight day that I earned my Seaplane rating.