Why Seaplanes Are So Boring

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By normal aviation standards, seaplanes are boring as hell. They’re slow, tend to be fuel hogs, often don’t carry much because they’re hauling around a boat or two and, like boats, they have to be pumped out and they rust. Who would want one?

Yet, in the dedicated community of pilots who fly these things, floatplanes and flying boats are just crazy fun. I think I know why. It has less to do with flying to some remote lake to fish or to dock at the summer cottage than it does what the intersection of wind, water and airplane does to the usual operating constraints imposed on aircraft. That’s a roundabout way of saying the fun that happens in seaplanes happens at altitudes that make some nellies nervous. I get it. I’m just not one of them.

This occurred to me last week when I spent a couple of days in Tavares, Florida splashing, around in a Searey Elite with Rob Galloway, owner of Jones Brothers Air and Seaplane Adventures, one of a handful of companies that specialize in seaplane ratings. I added sport pilot seaplane privileges to my certificate. If I weren’t such a cheap bastard, I could have added SES, too, but the checkride costs more and I don’t need the vanity plate. But I did need a flight review and adding to the certificate is a good way to do that.

Nearly six hours of stick-and-rudder time in two days reset my attitude toward the argument au courant ignited by Icon’s promotion that its seaplanes are like jet skis with wings, or at least the interpretation by the aviation illuminati that this is what they’re doing. So when you’re out in the middle of the lake doing step taxi turns at 45 mph, it’s a hell of a lot like being on a jet ski. It takes more skill, for sure, and the consequences of screwing it up are more expensive, but the similarities are undeniable.

And those to whom flying low causes sweaty palms, you’ll either have to get over that to fly a seaplane or maybe pursue your fun elsewhere. What I find most thrilling about small amphibs like the Searey is that the flare for landing happens just a second or two after you think you’re going to plow the thing under the surface. But then you round out and it looks just right. It’s like landing on what you imagine is a too-short runway, only to have 500 feet to spare once you stop. Even at 65 mph, the water rushes the eyes like that sweaty nightmare moment you wake up before you hit the bridge abutment.

I don’t have trouble judging that flare height, but nonetheless, we spent a glorious 10 minutes skimming along a river trying to get the sight picture locked in. I was supposed to be a foot above the water, but was probably five. Naturally, the fear is that you’ll touch down inadvertently and ball the thing up. “Go ahead and skip it,” Galloway suggested. A little pitch down and skip it does, benignly. Spine stiffened, I nibbled it down to six inches for the rest of the exercise.

If landplane training reiterates ad nauseam stalls and emergency landings, the seaplane equivalent is the glassy water landing. It’s meant to provide serviceable touchdowns in conditions where the water is so flat and featureless as to make judging the flare height improbable. It’s difficult to train because true glass is not common. The slightest breeze, or a boat or a plop of bird dung, raises just enough ripple to aid in depth perception. Kerry Richter, who developed the Searey design, told me some Florida pilots carry a bag of oranges to heave over the side to stir up the water.

The glassy water landing is supposed to be a long, drawn-out run in which the hull touches down at a barely discernible descent rate. It requires supreme patience and microscopic throttle movement. I lack the former, which challenges the latter. 

The area around Tavares isn’t called the Lake District for nothing. There are dozens of them. Some are lined with trees, which are perfect for my favorite seaplane maneuver: the confined water landing. The idea is to swish over the top of the trees, chop the power and pitch the nose over to land in the shortest distance closest to the tree line. I discovered that the Searey is just stupid great at forward slips. With a wing down and pointed at the desired target, it flies as if on rails. I like to crank in max rudder, slip almost to the top of the trees, roll out and chop the power, then dive for the water for a smooth power-off splashdown. I’d do that all day. Indescribable fun.

And also, some risk, of course. There’s always the chance that you can misjudge the descent and crash into the trees or misjudge the flare and tank into the water. That’s why we practice these things. And anyway, you know what they say about Migs and Mig Alley.

Procedure wise, seaplane flying tends to be less, ummm, constipated than landplane flying at airports. There are no pattern Nazis whining about being cut off, no one getting into a snit because you flew a right base at 250 feet over the boat ramp and even the boat traffic seems down with the flying jet skis. That may be the great shining attraction of seaplane flying: almost undiluted freedom to fool around in that intersection between wind, water and airplane.

Anybody interested in halfsies in a Searey?    

About That Roadster

In Wednesday’s blog, I mentioned the SpaceX launch of a cherry-red Tesla Roadster into a Mars intersecting orbit. As of Sunday, the car is 970,369 miles from Earth, moving at 6947 mph. What hath Elon wrought? Follow it here.