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Floatplane transition training

We as humans seek experiences that are routine, comfortable and safe. We intentionally do things that are predictable because we like to believe we can control our environment and for that matter ourselves. Control we eventually realize is only an illusion. Change is rarely easy. Learning new things is often punctuated with awkward moments, frustration, failure and surprises that can literally stop us in our tracks. As pilots we could argue we have a slightly higher tolerance for this sort of uncertainty and risk but at our core we are still risk averse.

This exposure to risk and uncertainty can be confirmed by a venerable group of insurance companies that take little time to say “No” to requests for seaplane transition training insurance. This stopped me in my tracks. The timing was uncanny as it was just days away from me completing a floatplane purchase after having earned my Single Engine Seaplane rating just weeks before. I couldn’t help but wonder how people were able to fly floatplanes if nobody would insure them? It seemed that in our time of uncertainty nobody was willing to take a risk on a pilot with 2300 hours and 52 countries under his belt that had never even scratched an airplane.

Luckily with the help of my broker, Bill Pasey, and account manager Kori Moseley, from Pasey-Bond, the company W Brown that insured my turbine commander took a chance on me. This “chance” was backed by a premium that honestly shocked me. The quote was higher than what I was paying for my twin turboprop after increases two years in a row that totaled more than 60 percent. Ouch!

To make this palpable, I reasoned that few things in life are without cost either financially or emotionally. I decided after doing some “plane math” to throw caution into the wind once again to proceed despite the fact that this line of reasoning made absolutely no sense financially.

Training for insurance purposes

Park Rapids Aviation had a young instructor they recommended that was the son of the owner, Jeff Voigt. His son Ean is 23 and following in Jeff’s footsteps but didn’t quite fit the the insurance carrier’s hour requirements. With a letter, we got Ean accepted as an instructor.

Ean is a great instructor and drilled into me that I had to be 100 percent clear on the position of my landing gear 100 percent of the time before each landing. Up for water landing and down for runway landings. I embarrassed myself the second day out by making the critical mistake that no floatplane pilot should ever make.  In the confusion of the moment, I left he gear down on a water landing. I quite simply blew it. Ean of course caught the mistake before it became a catastrophe. I remember walking away that day feeling totally defeated and ashamed. I knew Ean was disappointed as he had been working so hard to prevent me from making that error. After a couple-hours-long pity party I did what we pilots do: I picked myself up off the ground, swore I would never do it again, and decided to go back to fundamentals.

Back to fundamentals-building my checklist

Fundamentals for me meant doing what worked for me which was building and following a solid checklist. Let’s face it, we are human and the weakest link in an airplane. Ean didn’t use a checklist but my mind was not that of a 23 year old and I needed one. I was going to never make that mistake again even on a day when I was distracted by life. I decided there was no shame in relying on a checklist as a backup.

Ean got me proficient in about a week even though we had planned three days. I’ve honestly never been able to take flight instruction for more than two hours at a time in an airplane. This week gave me time to sit with the information and slowly think through what I needed to understand.

Building confidence

Ean signed me off at 20 hours and 25 landings per the insurance requirements and I felt pretty good. I headed back towards Washington stopping to do some landings on Newman and Hayden lakes where Addison Pemberton had introduced me to amphibious aircraft months before in his Grumman Goose.

Landing on my own for the first time was a knee knocking moment and I had a couple of hard landings. On one I landed a little uncoordinated and felt a sheering effect on the Aerocet floats as the plane corrected itself. I took off another time with the water rudders down, which created a lot of drag extending the takeoff run. Once I forgot to set the prop full-forward for takeoff. I was certainly making mistakes. I even landed on a runway and forgot to put the water rudders up. Luckily, I came in flat enough that I didn’t tear them off my Aerocets. I remember seeing that they were down after I got out of the plane and I hopped right up and retracted them before anyone could comment. Ean’s Minnesota voice rang in my ears, “You can make a lot of mistakes in a floatplane, just get the gear right.” I had done that, but I had more learning to do. Maybe the insurance guys were right about the risks of transition training after all?

I realized I still had a lot to learn on my own. No instructor. No excuses. I was now 100 percent responsible! I sat down and continued to build my checklists, cross checked them with what Cessna had for my airplane, and put reminders in for myself. I sat and thought through each of my procedures slowly so they made sense. I was getting more comfortable with floatplane flying.

Gaining confidence in the machine

The plane needed some maintenance love since she was a low-time 1977 model with 1,750 hours on her and had not been flown much. The owner did a major renovation in 2013 and the Sea Swan, as I affectionately called her, looked great but that didn’t mean she was reliable. Putting hours on her would reveal her faults. Gary at Corporate Air Center replaced a starter, starter adapter, the exhaust manifold, a gasket on a fuel bladder, and cleaned up some of the EGT sensors. While all this was happening I was feeling a little nervous since I now hadn’t flown in close to 3 weeks.

I realized I hadn’t felt that level of stress since my first VFR solo.  I kept asking myself how could I be feeling this lack of confidence after 53 countries, 2,300 hours and two circumnavigations? Well, it was real. I reminded myself I was a beginner to floatplanes and I adopted the beginner mentality which keeps pilots alive.

Doing the research

After some research in the Puget Sound area I found two lakes with Seaplane bases (indicated on sectional charts by an anchor) and studied them. I even drove by Lakesamish (spelled correctly) and Lake Whatcom on my way for dinner in Bellingham one night. I read what my Garmin Pilot app said about them and took a look at them from the air using the satellite feature. I studied the surrounding areas and talked to one person about the area.

The moment of truth

The following morning when I was prepping the floatplane the words of a great friend of mine Dick Rutan rang in my ears. “The greatest learning comes when you fly solo.” He was right. I spent some extra time working on the preflight, got a weather report, and took off low and slow thinking about the many things that Ean had told me.  Ean and I had spent lots of time reading the winds and I decided I would circle until I was 100 percent clear on what the wind was doing. I set up into the wind by reading the lines on the water, the smiley faces on the waves, and the calm spots on the upwind side of the lake. I bled off as much speed as I could knowing my plane, outfitted with wing extensions and vortex generators, doesn’t stall until 33 knots. I corrected for wind just before I landed and had a vision of a duck landing with wings out and feet down gracefully skimming the water just before touchdown. I landed so smoothly I could barely feel it. Any duck would have been envious! I thought this landing must be pure luck and I never could do it again, but proceeded to do if five more times between the two lakes. I surprised myself and realized how landing on water is even more of an art form than landing on an asphalt runway.

Making sense of it all

As I flew back to Corporate Air Center at Skagit where the Sea Swan calls home part of the year, I was thinking about how well the plane flew, the configurations for takeoff and mentally seeing that from outside. Of course on takeoff the water rudders would be up, flaps down, prop forward, mixture and manifold pressure in.

Needless to say, I had a smile on my face a nautical mile wide. I thought to myself that flying low and slow and landing on the water felt really good. All that work had paid off and it made sense.  My floatplane fantasy had come true!  I was flying a beautiful plane by myself up in the Pacific Northwest and I could barely wait until I took her upon to Canada and Alaska for the ultimate tests.

As I reflected back over the next few days, I came to realize that while we can’t control 100 percent of everything that happens in our lives we certainly can take steps to mitigate the risks, improve our skills and drive our lives forward in the direction that we feel guided.  This “transition” brings many challenges and surprises but ultimately the cost is far exceeded by what we learn as pilots and humans.  We navigate our way to fuller lives with the help of aviation and sharing the experience and joy with others.

Robert DeLaurentis is a successful real estate entrepreneur and investor, pilot, speaker, philanthropist, and author of the books Flying Thru Life, Zen Pilot, the children’s book The Little Plane That Could, and the upcoming book Peace Pilot: To the Ends of the Earth and Beyond. A complementary 12-part worldwide docuseries, “Peace Pilot to the Ends of the Earth,” will be simultaneously released. A Gulf War veteran, Robert received his pilot’s license in 2009, completed his first circumnavigation in 2015, and recently completed his second record-breaking circumnavigation from Pole to Pole in his aircraft “Citizen of the World,” on a global peace mission, “Oneness for Humanity: One Planet, One People, One Plane.” For more information, visit PoletoPoleFlight.com.

1 Comment

  1. Welcome to the wonderful world of flying floats! If you really want to see an eye-popping insurance quote, give the underwriter an Alaskan address and then watch your wallet shrink.

    Your blog post made me think of a few things that I’d like to pass on to you. Congratulations on the marked improvement in your float landings. Personally I think floatplanes are much easier than wheel planes to make passenger-pleasing landings in. One caution, however, is to make sure that you don’t land too flat. Most sources view this risk as “stubbing a float tip,” but the real risk is that if the landing is too flat, the “center of pressure” point is in front of the CG. If this occurs, the aircraft will try to do a “water loop,” much like a taildragger will ground loop. The correction, fortunately, is easy enough – pulling back on the yoke moves the center of pressure behind the CG and the aircraft straightens out. The first time this happened to me I had no idea what was occurring and was afraid the aircraft was going over. Fortunately, pulling back on the yoke is natural after touching down on floats, which corrected it. I finally found the explanation in Burke Mees’ excellent book, Notes of a Seaplane Instructor. This is not something that I learned in my training.

    Checklists are fine to ensure not missing something, but I was taught that just before takeoff, to run my hands/eyes over the controls (carb heat, throttle, prop, mixture & flaps) and then down to the fuel valve and water rudder. I usually have my hand on the water rudder lever as I make my 180 degree turn just before beginning the takeoff run. The water rudders should come up at this point and stay up until after a water landing.

    I don’t fly amphib floats, but a landing with the gear in the wrong position is the big risk you face, as you wrote about. A comment I heard once is that “an amphib pilot should feel very uncomfortable any time the gear is down.” Make sure the gear comes up immediately after every land takeoff, even if you’re doing T&Gs in the pattern.

    Always, always overfly the lake to check the wind and look for boats or other obstructions. There was a local accident near me a few years ago where the high time pilot dialed up the ATIS for a nearby runway and landed straight in, using the wind direction for the airport, which turned out to be different than the lake. He had a quartering tailwind, which lifted one wing and dragged the other, flipping the plane. I have also landed on lakes where the wind direction has been different in different parts of the lake. You can spend lots of time in the air, planning your landing, without getting in a hurry.

    Since you mentioned wanting to fly to Alaska, I highly recommend a series of articles that Tom Bass wrote for the Seaplane Pilots Association regarding his trips staying at Forest Service Cabins. They are fabulous and most are located in absolutely stunning locations.

    Happy landings…..Ross

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