When trying to come up with a site for floatplane heaven, you’d go through a lot of places before you hit upon Texas, but this didn’t stop me from saying “yes” when Cessna’s chief pilot of propeller airplanes, Kirby Ortega, dropped me a note asking if I wanted to go float flying with Cessna’s resident float flying expert, Jeremy Schrag. We’d find water somewhere.
The bird of choice was the Turbo 206 on Wipaire Wipline 3450 amphibious floats, the CAD-designed, laser-drilled beauties that represent the current state of the art in things that float and fly. The Whips boast a number of latest-and-greatest features, and when combined with the Garmin G1000 panel (bearing in mind that most bush pilots — and private lodge commuters — have made a tentative peace with glass cockpits), they provide the kinds of safety warning systems that were previously unavailable.
Cessna’s latest Turbo Stationair — the bird we flew was the T206-H model — is outfitted with the Lycoming TIO-540 310 hp engine with completely automatic wastegate for ease of operation and built-in overboost protection. The combination of lots of power and lots of drag gives you about 125 knots true at just over 18 gph, plenty fast for crawling from lake to lake and plenty powerful to haul a big load in the process.
When it gets the float kit, the 206 also gets some airframe mods, perhaps the most popular of which is a right-side door. When it comes to docking, you can’t have enough doors. You also get, of course, the hardware in the cockpit to extend and retract the gear — which is pretty cool. (After all, how many 206 RGs do you know of?) There are the water rudders and an emergency lever to raise or lower the gear in case the electrics fail. There’s a tail kit that increases the vertical surface by adding a vertical fin aft of the rudder. There’s an added ventral fin, the three-blade prop is a few inches shorter, the flaps are limited to 30 degrees and there are hydraulics for the gear and rigging for the water rudders too. In all, the changes to the airplane to accommodate floats, especially amphibs, are many and beautifully executed.
The end result is, as you can see, a very pleasing package. The whole thing goes for right around $750,000, which seems like a lot, until you realize that six- or seven- year-old 206s on Wipaire floats are going for a very large percentage of that asking price. The value is there.
Jeremy met me at Austin-Bergstrom International on an unseasonably warm day, and neither one of us was complaining about it. There was a big event in Austin the next day, so there were more than a dozen bizjets, from CJs to Gulfstreams, on the ramp. Arguably, though, the 206 on floats was the prettiest bird around. It’s not very often that a 125-knot airplane turns the heads of guys flying in Challengers, but the 206 on Whips does just that.
Interestingly, the 206 was also nearly the tallest airplane on the ramp, with a cockpit height about that of a 737. It’s a multi-step job climbing up into the airplane, but surprisingly not a particularly tough one, though my days spent on big walls in Southern California have made me pretty blasé about climbing around on tall objects, much to my wife’s chagrin. The interior, also surprisingly, is simply that of a 206, though with a number of useful add-ons. There’s a real disconnect, sitting 12 feet in the air but in the cockpit of an airplane very much like all the hundreds of ground huggers I’d flown previously. It’s kind of fun, like a carnival ride.
In a like manner, taxiing is an unusual experience because it seems as though it should be a familiar activity and it’s anything but. For those of you who have never flown a good-sized amphibious float plane, the experience is a little like taxiing an airplane while it’s perched on a giant shopping cart. The feel is very different from taxiing a regular tricycle gear airplane; the bumps in the ramp feel more pronounced on the smaller wheels, and it can really turn on a dime. There are great things about it, including the visibility; it’s like driving an SUV among smart cars. That kind of stature also lets you go right over the top of lesser airplanes, including other “high-wing” Cessnas. The 206’s wing can pass right over the top of theirs with room to spare.
On takeoff, the big Lycoming kicked in and we had flying speed, 55 knots, in no time. You break ground by rotating and then immediately pushing forward, as once you break ground and the wing gets its angle of attack going, this bird is ready to fly. It’s an unusual technique; Jeremy gave me plenty of warning, and I was sure I’d be ready for it. And I was, but just barely. The effect is dramatic. Be ready to push.
One gripe about the Turbo 206 has always been that it tends to get hot going out on a warm summer day fully loaded, so pilots have had to pull back on the power on departure and early in the climb, sometimes when they really wish they didn’t have to. This, Jeremy told me, is no longer an issue, as the improved ducting and cooling on the Lycoming keeps the engine cool even in tough conditions.
Heading out of Austin-Bergstrom International, we climbed out at 90 knots, staying below the scattered layer of fair-weather puffy white clouds. The engine stayed plenty cool.
Flying the 206 on floats is like flying any 206, except that in this configuration it yaws a bit more and is a good bit slower. That said, the creature comforts are great, with leather seats, available air conditioning (not a popular option for float operators, as every pound of useful load matters, and there’s usually a pleasant breeze on the surface) and the same roomy cabin for the front four seats the 206s are known for. The rear two seats (for a total of six) aren’t bad for kids or for adults on short hops.
As I said, there aren’t normally a lot of places to go float flying in central Texas; what I didn’t say is that these days the situation is even worse, as a years-long drought has dropped the lake levels by as much as 30 feet on some bodies of water, leaving new hazards to be discovered by unsuspecting boaters and the occasional water flier.
We picked nearby Lake Travis to do some splash and dashes, and I got to do two things: one, see the way that technology is making float flying safer and, two, have a little fun flying floats.
Jeremy helped me with speeds and procedures as we set up on long downwind over the rolling real estate of the Hill Country. The Garmin system is set up to remind you of the configuration you’re in. While landing wheels up on the land is an expensive thing, landing wheels down on water can be fatal, so it’s critical that pilots pay careful attention and never, ever let their guard down.
The system helps you with this by reminding you with voice annunciation what configuration you’re in. Below about 80 knots you get “Gear is up for a water landing” in a grumpy guy’s voice. If the landing gear is extended, you hear “Gear is down for a runway landing” in a far more pleasing woman’s voice. It’s an ingenious move to differentiate between the commands like this, so there’s no mistaking the general sound of one for the other. There are also obvious visual markers on the floats themselves, a green “down for land” indicator and a blue “up for water” one. There’s backup upon backup.
On the water, all the technology goes away, and the pretty Turbo 206 is all airplane. We had a huge crowd watching us on Lake Travis, as ferry riders waited for their boat on the shore near where we were landing. No pressure. With a crosswind — Jeremy wasn’t going to make this easy on me — we did a few touchdowns and taxi backs. Words cannot describe how much fun water flying is. I’ve been flying floats for more than 20 years, but I don’t do it as much as I’d like.
The target is 70 knots on final with a slight nose-up attitude. With all that drag, it’s easy to get too slow, so you need to make quick and sure responses when it starts to. You need to remember, too, that you’re sitting way up there, so you should judge your flare accordingly. Once you’re in the landing attitude, hold it off until the floats hit, then power all the way off and pull the yoke back into your gut. You’re done flying just like that.
On the go, the 206 accelerates nicely — for float operators, the turbo will pay for itself by allowing operators to work out of smaller places with bigger loads, and the new, more effective cooling will keep the heavy-breathing engine happy. Climb was good, and the return to terra-firma-based Austin-Bergstrom was quick and easy.
We were, predictably, greeted by a crosswind upon our return, but the 10 knots off the wing wasn’t a big deal. The technique is very much the same as in a conventionally geared airplane. In some ways, it’s a little more straightforward, as you have a steadier platform beneath you when the downwind wheels finally touch. Again, when we taxied in, all eyes were on us — pretty bird.
The Turbo 206 will continue to be a good niche seller for Cessna, in part because it does what it does so well. Some of the folks buying it will be pilots with discretionary income who want one of the world’s most awesome toys. Others will be charter operators who want a formidable tool. Both will get exactly what they’re looking for.