More Floatplane Fun in the Florida Sun

Two years after I started my training, I’m back to finish up my single-engine seaplane rating in the Cub. Sam Weigel

It’s a warm, sticky August morning in Florida, and even the stiff breeze swirling in through the Cub’s open door fails to refresh. I wipe my brow and adjust my ball cap, then peer intently at the lake we’re approaching. It’s not just the climate making me sweat; I’ve been working hard, and things just aren’t clicking, though this is my 18th or 19th landing of the flight. “OK, Sam,” says my young instructor, Chris Taylor, from the front seat, “go ahead and set up for a glassy water landing.” It’s an apt choice; the conditions won’t be simulated this time, for the wind has very nearly died. Besides, my landings have been pretty ugly with depth perception. Perhaps I’ll do better without it.

I go through the “WLNOT” checklist, noting the wind (or lack thereof), preferred lane, noise-abatement path, water obstructions and proximate towers and traffic. The last visual reference point, or LVR, is a low reedy peninsula jutting out into the lake. Abeam the LVR, I select carb heat on, clear the area, confirm the water rudders are retracted and retard the throttle. A steep circling approach brings us down to about 20 feet approaching the edge of the reeds, then I pitch to landing attitude, advance the throttle to 1,800 rpm and hold it. The Cub very slowly settles over the lake at about 40 mph; I resist the urge to pitch up as my peripheral vision detects a few small ripples rising to meet the floats. When we touch down, the impact is soft enough — but the plane gives a pronounced lurch forward and both Chris and I immediately haul back on our respective sticks to avoid porpoising or, worse yet, a nose-over. Damn! Too flat, once again. This is just embarrassing. Chris seems to sense my frustration and tells me to head back to Lake Jessie. It’s time to take a break and clear my head.

My last trip to Jack Brown's Seaplane Base two years ago was an unplanned lark on a layover, and I had a ton of fun (Taking Wing, October 2016). I've been meaning to come back to finish my single-engine sea rating ever since; my resolution to do as much GA flying as possible this busy summer finally motivated me to sign up. The school was flexible about scheduling around a work trip with two long Orlando layovers.

Jack Brown’s is best known for its two-day seaplane rating course. The school has churned out more floatplane pilots than any other outfit in the country, aided by good Florida weather, a plethora of fine training lakes around Winter Haven and a simple, sturdy trainer in the Piper J-3C Cub with 100 hp conversion and Aqua 1500 floats. The $1,400 course includes five hours of dual instruction, check ride and examiner’s fee. The consensus among experienced seaplane pilots seems to be that five hours is enough to earn the rating but not enough to be proficient in real-world operations. Considering the high checkout minimums for the few seaplanes available to rent, I’d guess insurance companies feel the same way. That said, I would also argue that a freshly minted private pilot isn’t truly qualified to immediately explore the full privileges of their certificate. Like famed Minnesota pilot examiner Bill Mavencamp told me when he handed over my new PPL, it’s a license to learn. I’m treating the seaplane rating the same way.

Back at the base, Chris and I go to lunch. Over sub sandwiches, we chat about GA flying and aviation careers. At 25 years old, Chris is a busy guy holding down three jobs flight instructing and corporate flying.

“I really love flying floats. It’s my passion,” he tells me. “I bugged these guys for months looking for a job, but they didn’t need any more instructors. Then, four months ago, a position opened up. I feel lucky to be able to teach here.” Chris’ enthusiasm is infectious, and soon I’m ready to head back to the lake and see if I learned anything on that first flight.

This time, things start to click. My depth perception improves and I start flaring at the correct height (unusually for an airline pilot, I was flaring late the previous flight, which is an excellent way to frighten a seaplane instructor). My pitch control is considerably refined, and I’m making adjustments with fingertip pressure. I talk my way through everything, and Chris scales back the pointers and corrections. He attempts to trick me into making a downwind-to-upwind turn while step-taxiing (a big no-no), but this time my guard is up and I refuse. We go through normal, rough-water, glassy-water and crosswind takeoffs and landings, as well as my favorite, outrageously fun maneuver: the circling confined-area takeoff. We practice docking, mooring and sailing. We beach the plane at a local park. All along the way, Chris continually distracts me and then pulls the throttle to idle at the worst possible moment, and by now, I’m wary enough to continually keep myself in a position to make an upwind or crosswind dead-stick landing on the nearest body of water. By the end of the second flight, I’m thoroughly exhausted, but pleased by my progress. Chris signs my logbook, and I head back to Orlando International Airport.

My last trip to Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in 2016. Sam Weigel

Three days and an 8,000-mile Amsterdam round trip later, I’m back for day two of the course. The morning flight is essentially a mock check ride; Chris says very little as I go through the required takeoffs, landings and maneuvers. At the end of the lesson, he pronounces my flying good, and we head to the base’s screened-in porch overlooking Lake Jessie to do a practice oral exam. That complete, Chris signs me off and I’m directed to Jon Brown’s office to begin the check ride, just like that! I’m struck with a sudden flutter of jitters, unusual for me. As an airline pilot, I’m basically a professional check-ride taker. At last count, I have 41 successful rides under my belt, and no pink slips. But there’s always a first, and anyone can have a bad day.

Jon Brown is Jack’s oldest son, the school’s current owner and one of two examiners on staff. Chris warned me that he has a bit of a reputation as a hard-nose, but he is fair and puts a strong emphasis on practical operations. I find that assessment spot-on. After some preliminary chitchat, Jon explains the ground rules for the check ride, asks if I have any questions and launches into the oral exam. Rather than ask me to merely regurgitate the rote information contained in the course packet, he poses a series of questions using real-world situations and stressing the role of keen judgment and conservative decision-making in floatplane flying. The flying portion of the check ride, likewise, is practically focused. “OK, if you looked down at that lake and saw whitecaps starting about halfway across the lake and extending to the northwest, show me how you’d land,” he says. I pick a southeasterly landing lane starting partway across the lake and extending into the lee of some tall trees and execute a rough-water landing, splashing down with a little power at minimum airspeed just as the open door starts to levitate (the Cub’s version of a stall indicator).

The check ride isn’t perfect. I accidentally start a downwind-to-upwind step turn to avoid boat traffic, and there’s just enough wind working with centrifugal force that the floats get a little loosey-goosey. I curse my idiocy, pull the throttle to idle and put the stick in my lap, aborting the step taxi. But Jon is apparently satisfied that I recognized my mistake and took appropriate action, and the check ride continues. Back at the base, he shakes my hand and congratulates me on a job well done. After debriefing and some paperwork, I’m handed my new temporary certificate with “Commercial Pilot Privileges, Airplane Single Engine Sea” appended to my other ratings. It’s my first new certificate, other than type ratings, in more than a decade.

I’m not sure when or if I’ll get to use my new seaplane rating. I’ve missed a few neat experiences in the past because I didn’t have one, and I suspect having the ticket will yield some interesting opportunities in the future.

Regardless, simply going through the training process was worth the price of admission. In aviation it is all too easy to get stuck in a rut; the sublime becomes routine, and boredom eventually sets in. Earning a new rating is a great way to shake off the cobwebs, challenge yourself and discover a completely new facet of the wide world of flying. I’ve already decided I need to do another add-on rating next summer. There’s really just one question: commercial pilot-glider or ATP multiengine sea?

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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