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Skimming Blue Waters

Flying is fun. Here’s the entertaining story of my training and checkride for my seaplane rating. On every flight, even training experiences like these, you have the potential for experiencing exhilaration, awe and laughter.

“Need help?” yelled the guy in the tour boat.

“No thanks,” I replied, not daring to turn my head too far, for fear of falling into the water. We were adrift in the middle of the Colorado River, with me balanced precariously face down on the seaplane’s float, pumping water out of the forward float compartments.

Twice we had tried to take off, unsuccessfully, given today’s calm wind and glassy waters. “You must not have emptied all the water from the floats,” said examiner Joe La Placa, finally, “get out there and do it again.” Great way to start a checkride, I thought.

Lake Havasu widens the Colorado River not far from Needles, California.

Lake Havasu widens the Colorado River not far from Needles, California.

I was here to earn my single-engine seaplane rating from La Placa Flying Service at Lake Havasu City, Arizona. At the time Joe and Jean La Placa trained seaplane pilots from all over the world — this in a state with just one natural lake and only four rivers that flow year-round. (These days Joe limits his service primarily to single-engine land- and seaplane flight tests.)

My training began at a tiny cove on the river with no flight school and no ramp — just a faded-orange Cessna 150 on floats, forlornly perched atop a winch platform. Unlike normal 150s, this one features bracing behind the windshield, and an electric fuel pump to ensure fuel flow at high pitch attitudes. Between the seats is a handle for raising and lowering water rudders on the floats, and under the cowl lurks 150hp, half again more than what originally came installed. Floatplanes are no speed demons — the oversized engine is required to get the airplane off the water.

Like boat hulls, seaplane floats accumulate water, and therefore must be pumped out before every flight. I was to become expert at this process, using a hand pump and one powered through the cigarette lighter receptacle. “Drain the floats properly before leaving shore,” Joe counseled me, “’cause it’s a lot tougher in the middle of the lake.” (I would later learn the truth of this wisdom.)

We also checked the propeller for water erosion and cracks caused by spray, a problem so serious that wilderness seaplane pilots sometimes carry hacksaws in their survival gear, for removing damaged prop tips if necessary to reach a place where proper repairs can be made. Water flying often requires improvising where help is not available.

After preflight, I was surprised to see two-foot lengths of tiedown rope still hanging from the wings. “Those show us which way the wind is blowing on the water,” explained Joe.

Lengths of tiedown rope are left dangling from the wings to show wind direction when the plane is stationary on the water.

Lengths of tiedown rope are left dangling from the wings to show wind direction when the plane is stationary on the water.

We zeroed the altimeter to mark the lake’s surface, and started the engine. “No need to test the brakes,” observed Mr. La Placa with a smile. As soon as the engine starts you’re moving — there’s no ground resistance to hold you in place. With water rudders in the water, “idling taxi” proved surprisingly easy.

Next I learned high-speed taxi “on the step,” which means hydroplaning like a speedboat. From there it’s a simple matter to increase power and take off. Once in the air flying was like a landplane, but more stable due to additional weight and lift from the floats.

It turns out that the biggest seaplane kick is flying low — really low. We spent almost all of our five flight hours within five hundred feet of the water, including downwind for landings at two hundred feet.

Height above water is tough to judge, especially under calm conditions, so for landing I learned to stabilize our approach for minimum descent rate, then wait for the plane to land itself… better to touch down softly, as there are no springs on the floats. Mr. La Placa also taught me to skim the shoreline on final, so as to better “feel” the level of the lake surface ahead. For “short field” practice we landed in a postcard-pretty cove and beached the airplane for a break.

Joe La Placa shares pre-takeoff pointers.

Joe La Placa shares pre-takeoff pointers.

By the time for my recommendation ride with instructor Barry Grant, I felt like pretty hot stuff; my takeoffs and landings were going great. But I inadvertently “plow taxied” back to shore, slogging nose-high through the water with lots of power, without getting “on the step.” You’re not supposed to do that, Joe chided me upon return, because it consumes fuel, erodes the prop, and accumulates water in the floats.

Worse yet, I apparently didn’t get all that water out prior to the checkride, leading to our takeoff debacle. If only that tour boat hadn’t come by, me bent over the pump with my butt in the air, and all those people waving! Fortunately my efforts paid off and we took to the air, the rest of the checkride being so much fun that my embarrassment was quickly forgotten.

We flew the Colorado River through craggy Topock Gorge, its tumbled peaks cast aside as if by ancient gods playing in red clay.

We flew the Colorado River through craggy Topock Gorge, its tumbled peaks cast aside as if by ancient gods playing in red clay.

Along with airwork and water maneuvers, we flew the rugged Colorado River north to Needles, California, traversing massive marshes and ancient Indian glyphs along the way. Best of all was craggy Topock Gorge, its tumbled peaks cast aside as if by ancient gods playing in red clay. Upon return Jean La Placa greeted us with completed paperwork, sweet home-grown tangerines, and a smile to match. We winched the plane out of the water, and suddenly it was over.

All too soon I was winging my way homeward aboard the “Flying Carpet,” with rich images of sun and spray captivating my mind as they would for days to come. When learning something new, no matter how many others may have preceded you, there’s a bit of pioneering associated with it. The popular TV slogan notwithstanding, all it really takes for adventure is to boldly go where you have never gone before. Flying gives us that opportunity time after time.

Skimming gracefully over blue waters at 200 feet… Wow! I’m still dreaming about it.

In the comment box below, tell me about your own fun experiences with flying, whether for lessons or as a passenger.

About Greg

Greg Brown is an award winning flight instructor, pilot, author and columnist. In 2000, he was the National Flight Instructor of the Year. Greg writes the Flying Carpet column for AOPA’s Flight Training magazine and co-authored You Can Fly! with Laurel Lippert. His other books include Flying Carpet, The Savvy Flight Instructor, The Turbine Pilot’s Flight Manual, and Job Hunting for Pilots. Visit Greg Brown’s own blog at www.GregBrownFlyingCarpet.com.

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2 Comments

  1. Jeanne
    Posted April 9, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

    Greg,

    You’ve inspired me to think about pursuing my single-engine seaplane rating sometime in the future after I finish up my private. Last summer I watched a float plane land and take-off on the lake that we live on. It was fun to watch as it circled the lake to land.

    Your description of your experiences with emptying the floats brought back memories of an earlier lesson when I did my preflight and discovered that I couldn’t get anything more than a dribble of fuel to come out when I pulled on the sump. I showed my CFI and he figured that the sump must be plugged.

    Then we got the mechanic and he tried it and the same thing happened. He looked at me and asked if the fuel was on. I checked and it was off. Embarrassed and a little smarter than before, I now make sure the fuel is on when I preflight. Some how I had missed it on my checklist. It always had been on before but someone had shut it off from a previous lesson.

    Even though I had an embarrassing start to a lesson, it will remain in my mind to be thorough while doing my preflight and checklists. I think that if we see something enough times we can become complacent or not notice things we should. I think that is one benefit to checklists-to make us keep looking and checking.

  2. Steve
    Posted May 6, 2009 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    This is an awesome article!! keep em coming mate… love the personal experience element rather than the encyclopedic feel of other websites.

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