It’s been something like 18 months since I completed what I consider to be my “core” training. By that, I mean the private pilot certificate and the instrument rating. The certificate and rating that make aviation practical and fun and give you the best initial set of capabilities.
Since then, I’ve decided to seek new opportunities and just have a bunch of fun. Part of that journey has been to figure out just how high, wide, and deep aviation is and figure out how much there is to explore. And, man, what a lot of ground there is to cover!
Seriously, you could add a new rating or go after another experience every three or four months and not run out of them for decades!
If you ever doubt whether it’s worthwhile to get through the sometimes difficult parts of primary or instrument training (which, by the way, are wonderful in their own ways), the doors that those skills open will positively amaze you.
A few weeks ago, I went down to Sun ‘N Fun in Lakeland, Florida. It’s the second-biggest fly-in of the year and it has a vibe all its own. I usually stick to the main show site, but a friend of mine talked me into stopping at the seaplane splash-in at the Fantasy of Flight Museum. What the heck, it was on the way to Lakeland from Orlando, where I flew in commercially.
I’m glad we stopped. I had considered getting a seaplane rating before, but seeing the seaplane operations up close and checking out a lot of cool airplanes sealed the deal.
I spent five hours or so with Tom in a 1947 Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser on floats before the one-hour checkride and then found myself the world’s newest seaplane pilot.
If you show up having read the materials and reviewed the FAA practical test standards (“PTS”) and with reasonable stick and rudder skills, you can knock out a seaplane rating in a day. Sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate. You want at least one day with enough wind (at least 5-8 knots) so you don’t have to do glassy-water operations the whole time (see below). But it’s definitely doable within two days in most cases.
Seaplane operations are, at the same time, much different and very much the same as land plane operations. The differences obviously have much to do with the fact that you’re operating on water. The airplane doesn’t stay put when you shut off the engine. In fact, sometimes, you can’t really turn it in certain directions (after all, you essentially have a boat with a very high center of gravity and a tall vertical surface that acts like a great big weathervane) and you must then actually sail the airplane downwind backward.
It’s very cantankerous in the stall and in steep turns because of all of that junk hanging off the bottom of the aircraft. And, when you do an engine-out, it comes out of the sky right stinkin’ now! Not a precipitous descent, mind you, but more than 1,000 feet per minute, which means you want to keep it over the water when you're at low altitude.
And, most interesting to the uninitiated, you have to use specialized procedures to operate from and to glassy water. Yeah, that’s right. You’d think that perfectly calm water would be perfect, but it’s not. On takeoff, it’s hard to break the suction of the water on the floats so you have to pull the right one out of the water first, bring it back down to just off the surface, and then suck the left float off. A little precarious, especially when you consider that you’re also pitching forward and back for that sweet spot (the “step”) on the floats where the airplane has the least friction and will best accelerate.
The glass-water landing is even more counterintuitive. You can’t see the surface well enough to judge your height above the water. Many seaplane pilots have come to grief by flaring early, stalling, and digging a float into the water when the stall breaks and the nose pitches down. Or flaring too late and essentially doing the same thing.
So, to avoid that, you bring it in with a little more power and a slightly higher airspeed that, together, give you a 100-foot-per-minute descent rate and you just hold that pitch attitude and airspeed until – surprise! – you touch down. It’s not as hard or scary as it sounds, but you’ll have a much better time of it if you show up for seaplane training having the ability to fly pitch, power, and airspeed pretty precisely.
And that’s the coolest part of the training, by the way. There’s just nothing like nailing your numbers, bringing it in with the gauges looking like they’re painted on, and greasing the airplane in.
Which brings be to the similarities. Newton and Bernoulli don’t care that the airplane is on floats. It’s still an airplane and all of the control surfaces (with the exception of the water rudders) are the same. With minor differences in airspeeds, roll rates (again, all that stuff hanging off the bottom), and other characteristics, the airplane flies just about like any other general aviation airplane. You might find it a little easier if you’ve flown a tailwheel airplane before with a stick instead of a yoke, bit it’s still very intuitive even if you haven’t.
If you go for your seaplane rating (and you should! It’s crazy fun!), take along some Jack London or Robert Service to read at the breaks. It’s not hard to imagine yourself putting it down on some remote Alaskan lake with snowcaps on the mountains in the background.
The opportunities and challenges in aviation are more than enough to last a lifetime and the seaplane rating is just one of them. I can’t wait for the next great adventure!