Primary seaplane students at Jack Brown's fly in one of the school's well-taken-care-of Piper J-3 Cubs. The one I flew, both for instruction and on the check ride, was a 1941 model, the very year, coincidentally, that my father got his seaplane rating in a Piper Cub, a 45-hp J-2. The 85-hp J-3s Browns flies are outfitted with Aqua straight floats (as opposed to amphibious, that is), and that's about all they're outfitted with. There's no electrical system, though each Cub has a nine-volt battery powered intercom. The J-3 is a great trainer. You don't think about the radio (there isn't one) or systems (there aren't any), just about wing, wind and water, which is exactly where your attention should be while you're learning this craft.
My experience at the school was pretty typical, though it probably took me a few hours less to get my rating than it does for some, thanks to the fine instruction I'd gotten from Mark Heiner in the Husky a few days earlier. Most students will fly for the better part of two days and take their check ride the next day.
There's a lot of information to cover, much of it foreign to landplane pilots, and the Practical Test Standards require the applicant to demonstrate a wide variety of skills on the check ride. In addition to the airwork (stalls and slow flight and such), the would-be seaplane pilot has to demonstrate normal, rough and glassy water landings, all varieties of seaplane taxiing and emergency procedures, among many other skills. The oral test itself was a challenge; even through I boned up on the recommended reading materials, there were still a few questions that caught me off guard.
In the end I managed to get my seaplane rating, though my step taxiing was less than a thing of beauty, I admit. I couldn't be happier, and I called my dad right off the bat to tell him the news. Even though I'm still a beginner, and will be for some time, that's OK. The seaplane rating, like any ticket, is really a license to learn. The biggest difference is that with this rating, you get to take a dip between lessons. Though you do need to remember about those gators.
Notes about Floats Float Ratings: The Aqua floats on the J-3 I flew were rated at 1,500 pounds-a figure that's based on the amount of fresh water they displace. Each single float must be able to support at least 90 percent of the airplane's gross weight, and both floats must be able to support one-and-a-half times the airplane's gross weight. Also, they've got to be able to support the airplane's gross weight with two compartments completely flooded.
Compartments: Breaking floats up into compartments is obviously to keep the entire float from flooding if one area is compromised, but that's not all. Compartmentalizing also keeps the CG from shifting, perhaps catastrophically, from forward to rear on takeoff if there's a lot of water in the floats.
Water Brakes: A seaplane has huge water brakes, the floats, which allow the seaplane to decelerate quickly from high to very low speeds. Pulling back on the stick on roll-out puts the back of the floats deep in to the water, getting you stopped in a hurry.
Pilot Certification: Through a quirk in the FARs, with a total of about six hours total official time in seaplanes, I'm a commercial seaplane pilot-I was a commercial pilot to begin with. When I get my flight instructors rating, I'll be a CFI for airplane single-engine sea. Go figure.