Like many out-of-the-way places, Maine is a victim of its geography. Tourists will sometimes venture inland for encounters with moose and Français-speaking locals, but most prefer to stick to the glittering coastline and the quaint towns, picturesque inlets and islands up and down bustling U.S. Route 1. But Maine is also home to some 6,000 lakes and ponds across a vast wilderness from its western mountains — still capped with snow when I arrived in mid-May — to the pictorial Kennebec Valley and the Maine Highlands to the north, the site of Baxter State Park, a 200,000-acre protected wilderness area that is home to more moose than people. Farther north still is what residents refer to simply as "The County" — Aroostook County, a huge expanse of isolated bush country along the Canadian border that is larger by total area than the state of Connecticut.
Most visitors to Maine miss it all, preferring the relative tranquility and charm of places like Kennebunkport, Boothbay and Bar Harbor on the coast to the remote wilds of Maine's North Woods and Western Lakes regions, which are far less accessible by car but no less rewarding in their natural splendor.
This helps explain the popularity of seaplanes in New England's most inaccessible state. Seaplane operations are permitted on almost all of Maine's public lakes and rivers. The inland town of Greenville, on the southern shores of Moosehead Lake, is even home to the annual International Seaplane Fly-in, an event that has been attracting like-minded floatplane pilots from across Maine and around the country for more than 40 years.
My goal in coming to Maine was to experience the state by air and in the process learn the art of flying seaplanes, a goal I've had for a long time but a skill that's not of particular use in my home state of New Jersey, which prohibits seaplane operations on every one of its lakes. A secondary goal was to have fun in the process of earning my seaplane rating and hopefully not fall in the water. A good time was had — but I'm embarrassed to admit that, yes, I got wet.
The Art of Seaplane Flying
The day I arrived at Twitchells Seaplane Base in Turner, Maine, it was blowing a gale, with winds out of the north at 35 knots that churned the water into ominous whitecaps. Flying didn't look promising, but it would be a perfect opportunity to complete the ground school portion of my training and maybe try my hand at taxiing on the water in the strong, gusty winds.
I chose to do my training at Twitchells, located a few miles north of the twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn, on the recommendations of friends who'd been taught there as well as a long-held reputation the school has earned as the place to go to get a seaplane rating in Maine — not to mention one of the few spots in the country where you can rent a seaplane and fly it solo.
Owned and operated by the Twitchell family since 1946, the school has a well-deserved regard for providing its students with a solid base of knowledge to begin a lifetime of floatplane adventures. I was excited to start mine.
Still, I was a little surprised when I was introduced by Dale Twitchell, owner of the school along with his brothers Mike and Chris, to my flight instructor, Nate Theriault, a fresh University of Maine graduate nearly half my age. I guess I just figured I'd be flying with some grizzled bush pilot with thousands of seaplane hours and a million stories. What I got instead was an enthusiastic flying companion who not only knew his stuff but who also had a knack for imparting his knowledge in easily digestible lessons to a floatplane newbie like me.
After a couple of hours of ground instruction during which we discussed everything from the federal aviation regulations to the effects of the wetted area of the float on hydrodynamic drag to proper seaplane operating techniques, as I scribbled copious notes, we jumped in Nate's truck and headed down to the seaplane base.
Set in a narrow inlet off the Androscoggin River, Maine's third largest, where I would be doing most of my flight training, the seaplane base was home to about a half-dozen airplanes, with more on the way as summer approached. Tied to one of the docks was the airplane I'd be doing my training in, N734ME, a Cessna 172M on straight floats with a handsome blue and gray paint scheme. It looked a thousand times better than any flight school Skyhawk I've ever seen. Somehow I immediately knew I'd get along wonderfully with this airplane. Sitting high on its floats it just looked right.
Fighting the Wind
As the wind buffeted us from seemingly all directions at once, Nate described the preflight "walk-around" procedure, which involved literally walking along a steel wire spanning the floats at the nose to reach the far side of the airplane.
"You're kidding!" I said with a laugh — and then, realizing Nate was not kidding, I followed him by gingerly planting one foot in front of the other as I negotiated the tight wire, moving past the prop and onto the other float. I got busy removing water from each float's six compartments using a small hand pump and checking the gas and oil, along with the control surfaces and float attach points. As I worked cautiously, the black water swirling beneath my feet looked cold.
With the preflight completed it was time to launch. Almost. Pushing off the dock in a seaplane can be an exercise fraught with peril, especially in strong winds. The major concern is that, after the lines are untied and the airplane pushed off with a mighty heave, the engine won't start. In such cases it's imperative to have a plan B, and even a plan C. Concurring with Nate's suggestion we agreed that if the engine didn't start we would use the water rudders to steer us away from nearby rocks and the other floatplanes tied up in the inlet and try again to start the engine. Plan C would be to grab an oar and start paddling.
Thankfully the 160-horsepower Lycoming four-cylinder engine came to life without any difficulty, and we were underway. Keeping the yoke pulled all the way back I taxied out of the inlet, remembering to keep the power under 1,000 rpm to avoid water spray damaging the prop. Maneuvering the airplane at slow speed with the water rudders deployed turned out to be less of a challenge than I'd imagined, though the wind certainly was playing tricks on me. I practiced making turns from a direct tailwind by initially turning in the direction opposite the way I wanted to go and gaining momentum by swinging the nose back the other way, while being sure to make the correct aileron inputs for the direction of the wind and while adding a burst of power at just the right moment.
On one of the turns the wind was simply too strong to allow us to make a 180, so I had the chance to try "sailing" in a seaplane. That's when you shut the engine off and let the wind push you backward, using the water rudders to steer and even opening a door on either side to help with maneuvering like a sail on a boat would. Of course, now I was in a similar predicament as I'd been back at the dock, floating backward and hoping the engine would restart before we ran out of space. Thankfully the engine fired right up and we were moving under our own power again.
Later on, the winds had died down considerably and Nate decided it was time to try step turns, which involve adding full power and letting the nose rise out of the water, and then easing the yoke forward and coming back on the power to 2,000 rpm to put the airplane in a level attitude up on the float step. It's a similar sensation to being behind the wheel of a powerboat, with the major difference being that you can inadvertently rise off the water and start flying if you aren't careful. Step-taxiing is a great way to cover a long distance on water quickly, but it's also one of the more dangerous maneuvers in seaplane flying since things can go wrong in a hurry, especially if a wind gust catches a wing.
Time to Fly
Once we'd run through all the required taxi maneuvers, I figured we'd head back to the dock and call it a day. Nate had other ideas.
"You know, it's not too bad out here," he said. "You want to go flying?"
It was still windy but not nearly as bad as it had been earlier in the afternoon, and so I said, sure, let's go, and off we went. Pointing the nose into the wind for the takeoff run (a luxury seaplane pilots enjoy far more often than land-based pilots) I added full power and waited for the nose to come up once and dip and then come up again more dramatically. This let me know it was time to ease the yoke forward to get us up on step and let the airspeed build toward 55 knots as I held a constant deck angle that would allow us to fly.
Like magic the little Cessna lifted off the water. The acceleration as soon as the floats came out was sudden and dramatic. I leveled us off to let the speed build a little in ground effect and then started a normal climb. Nate had us climb to do some airwork to get a feel for flying an airplane with two draggy appendages hanging below its belly — but apart from some slight additional adverse yaw that made judicious rudder use a must, I found that a seaplane flies pretty much like a regular airplane, only slower.
Nate demonstrated the first landing to give me an idea of the sight picture I should expect on approach. The descent was initially steeper than I expected, but the touchdown was at a gentle rate with the nose held slightly high. Next it was my turn. The takeoff was good but I dropped it in on the landing. Instead of a satisfying kiss onto the water it was more of a thump. Nate blamed it on the wind. I tried again. This time the result was better. I kept practicing — and practicing. By the end of the lesson I had logged 18 takeoffs and landings. Seaplane flying, I decided, is a blast.
For me — and I suspect most seaplane student pilots — the landings were by far the most fun. I had an inkling I would love landing a floatplane, and I was absolutely right. Some say there's nothing better than landing a Stearman on grass, and I would have agreed. Now, though, I knew a secret that many taildragger pilots are oblivious to: The most fun you can have in an airplane is landing on floats on the water.
Landing on a glassy smooth lake or pond is the most fun of all. It's actually one of the more dangerous things a seaplane pilot can attempt too, as I learned on my second day of training in calm winds under a brilliant blue Maine sky. When there are no ripples or waves in the water, you lose depth perception as you descend toward the water, making it impossible to accurately judge your height above the surface. If you try to make a normal landing on a glassy lake, you're likely to make a hard landing and even risk flipping over or losing control.
The trick with glassy landings is to descend with power close to a shoreline so you can use the trees to judge your height. Once I was about halfway down the trees I would shift my focus to making a shallow descent with power, being mindful that we could land at any time. On several tries this meant flying along at a height of a few feet — or even a few inches — for what seemed like forever before the floats gently touched the smooth water. But I found that glassy water landings are actually one of the easiest maneuvers to demonstrate on the practical test because everything happens so slowly.
In one exercise Nate had me flying along at a height of 2 inches off the water to hone my handling skills in the final moments before touchdown. That was fun. We also performed rough-water landings, a procedure that will vary depending on how rough the water is but which involves carrying some power into the roundout and touching down on the waves in a flatter attitude, holding aft yoke until the airplane nearly comes to a stop and then pushing the yoke forward to let the floats break into the waves.
By far my favorite maneuver during my two days of training was confined space operations — the water version of short-field takeoffs and landings. We used a portion of the river with an island to simulate landing in a confined area. The procedure involved flying at a slower-than-normal approach speed right over the tops of trees, allowing us to touch down as close to the shore as possible. As soon as I touched down I would throttle up to 2,000 rpm to keep us on step, turn the yoke full right and start a step turn to the right all the way around the island. After making a 360 on the water, I'd stop the turn, add full power and lift one float, and we'd leap off the water, simulating a takeoff from an enclosed space.
Nate encouraged me to come in even lower over the trees. "You can actually put your floats down between those two big pine trees," he counseled. I got the floats down to treetop level but was too chicken to let any part of the airplane go below the trees. I'm sure my insurance carrier would have appreciated my prudence.
The Check Ride
There's no question that seaplane flying is riskier than operating from dry pavement or grass. Floating debris, such as logs, and boats, personal watercraft and buoys all present special hazards for seaplane pilots. When flying amphibious airplanes with retractable wheels, it is imperative that the pilot ensures the wheels are up when landing on water since they will dig into the water suddenly, often resulting in a forward flip at high speed that in many cases proves fatal.
After my second full day of training and 5.5 hours in my logbook, plus a little downtime when we beached on an island and did some exploring, Nate signed me off for my check ride with the designated examiner. Mary Build was new to the school but not to seaplane flying. She'd earned her rating 20 years earlier — at Twitchells.
It's impossible not to be a little nervous before a check ride, but Mary made the whole process as painless as possible with her friendly banter and willingness to impart a little knowledge of her own about seaplane flying as she evaluated my skills.
After spending about an hour on the oral portion of the practical test, we headed to the airplane and climbed aboard. Nate offered to help me push off the dock, but Mary rebuffed the suggestion. She said she needed to be certain I could handle the floatplane in all phases on my own. After completing the run-up (unusual in a seaplane because you're moving forward at a decent clip as you perform the mag and carb heat checks) we lifted off the smooth surface of the Androscoggin River and climbed to 2,500 feet. That's when Mary hit me with my first emergency scenario: smoke in the cockpit requiring an immediate emergency descent and a simultaneous engine failure. It was something I'd enjoyed practicing with Nate. I made sure to make my first landing a good one.
We did several more takeoffs and landings, more simulated emergencies, step-taxiing and sailing with the engine off. Learning to fly a seaplane on a long, wide river is great because you can make several takeoffs and landings in quick succession, working into the wind with each touchdown and takeoff. For my last landing Mary asked me to stay on step and perform a high-speed taxi into the mouth of the inlet, where I'd chop the power and head back to the dock.
I knew if I nailed this last maneuver I was as good as golden. The check ride had gone about as well as I could have hoped. I made a smooth landing, pushed the power up to 2,000 rpm and made a step turn toward the seaplane base. Taxiing in I felt a sense of relief that the check ride was nearly over. All that was left was to pull up to the dock and tie up.
I came in as slowly as possible at a 45-degree angle to the dock, and when I knew we'd be able to coast the rest of the way, I pulled the mixture and cut the engine.
I had my seat belt and headset off and the door open, ready to hop out onto the dock and tie us up. Nate, who was standing on the dock to greet us, helpfully reached out to grab hold of the wing strut.
That's when things went haywire.
"Don't depend on him," Mary warned sternly.
I took this to mean that I wasn't allowed to let Nate help me with the docking. I had to do it myself. I sprang into action, flung open the door and stepped out of the airplane. In my haste my left foot became stuck between the seat rail and door frame and I basically swan-dived out of the Cessna onto the dock. It was a case of "falling gracefully," I would say. I landed with my knees on the floats and my hands on the dock. That's when I felt my left foot sans shoe dip into the freezing water, soaking my sock and lower pant leg.
"Don't help me," I said to my startled flight instructor, who dutifully let go of the strut.
We were stopped. Phew. I grabbed the dock line and looked over my shoulder at my startled examiner.
"Are you OK?" she asked. I told her I was fine, except for a wet foot.
"Did my shoe fall in the water?" I asked sheepishly.
"I think so," Nate said.
"No, wait! There it is!" I said.
The shoe was sitting on the floor of the airplane right where I'd left it. I grabbed it, stepped onto the dock, slipped it on and stood before the examiner with the widest grin on my face. (I had a strong urge to say "ta-da!" but held my tongue.)
Mary reached out her hand and said, "Congratulations. You're a seaplane pilot. That was a very nice check ride." Then she added quickly, "You're sure you're OK?"
I felt my grin widen as I burst into all-out laughter.
"Perfectly fine," I said. "This will give me something to write about!"
After bidding farewell to Nate, Mary and Dale and driving out of the Twitchells parking lot, I was already starting to think ahead to when I'd be back in Maine to rent N734ME and show my family how much fun floatplane flying can be. It's something very few people will ever be lucky enough to experience. If you've always wanted to learn to fly seaplanes, I highly recommend heading up to Turner, Maine, to Twitchells Seaplane Base and training with the best. Just do me a favor and try not to get wet.
Get online content like this delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for our free enewsletter.