Getting Wet in the Aviat Husky

Robert Goyer takes to the skies in a pair of two-seat float planes, the latest and greatest; and then a crusty antique to train for his rating.

husky_1.jpg
Aviat Husky on amphibious floats

I don't know if there are 10,000 lakes in Central Florida to match Minnesota's famous license-plate claim, but I wouldn't be surprised. As I flew over the region in the Saratoga on my way down to Sun 'n Fun, I looked down at a landscape freckled with lakes, lakes big and small, blue and green, many of them perfectly round, or very nearly so. Unlike in some states, where it's virtually impossible to find a place to land a water plane, the vast majority of lakes in central and northern Florida are publicly owned, and many are perfectly suited for float flying, which was just what I was heading down there to do.

I'd been wanting to get my seaplane rating for some time, and to fly the Aviat Husky on floats. So when Stu Horne, the owner of Aviat Aircraft, invited me to try out his company's latest float plane, an Aviat A-1B on Baumann BF 2150A amphibious floats, I didn't hesitate. We agreed that Sun 'n Fun would be the ideal time to do it, since all of the major characters-Aviat's chief pilot, Mark Heiner, myself and the float-equipped Husky-would be there for the fly-in.

I'd flown float planes before, including a few spiffy little Experimentals, though I had not logged any actual instruction time. Unfortunately, it turned out that I couldn't get my float rating, or any other instruction, for that matter, in the Husky at the show, as it was temporarily registered as an Experimental while the new floats and bigger prop went through the certification process. We still had all day to go flying, however, and I figured the time spent would be valuable experience, not to mention a lot of fun.

Sitting tall on its amphibs in the grass next to Lakeland's south ramp, the Husky towered over the other, nearby airplanes. After a walk-around of the Husky, Mark asked if I wanted to take the front seat (the solo position and the one with the brakes) or the back seat. I've taxied amphibious seaplanes before and was surprised at how easily, despite their tiny little wheels, they taxied, so I opted for the front seat.

One wouldn't normally think of the Aviat Husky as being a complex airplane, and by FAA standards, it's not. Neither is it technically a "high-performance" airplane. No matter what imprimatur the FAA puts on it, the Husky on amphibious floats, with retractable gear and constant-speed prop, both demands a lot of a pilot and rewards him with remarkable performance.

First built by Christen in the mid-1980s, the Husky has been through a few upgrades since Aviat took over. Today the A-1B model is the top of the line. From a distance, the airplane looks like a Super Cub, and it does share the basic design scheme and materials with that old Piper, but once you get beyond the silhouette, the Husky is an entirely different beast, both literally and figuratively. Aviat's airplane has a more modern engine (a 180-hp fuel-injected Lycoming), the aforementioned constant-speed prop and a redesigned airfoil. The Husky carries 50 gallons of fuel in its wings (the Super Cub carried 35 gallons in wing and header tanks), and it does this while slightly bettering the Super Cub's excellent useful load of around 700 pounds. The Husky is also a significantly better performer than the Super Cub; Aviat's taildragger cruises faster (around 120 knots with wheels compared to just over a hundred knots for the Super Cub), climbs better (1,500 fpm compared to 960 fpm) and maintains the Super Cub's remarkable short-field (or small lake) capabilities.

Like any certified floats, the all-aluminum Baumann 2150-F floats feature numerous separate compartments and a number of pumping holes to get rid of water when, and not if, it works its way inside. We made good use of these, as the early-development floats installed on our airplane were pretty leaky. Aviat says the production models are much tighter.

Getting into the Husky on amphibs is not any more difficult than getting into a landlocked version, thanks to a step-rail built into the float rigging. Once inside the airplane, it's clear this is no 1950s vintage Super Cub. The fit and finish are clean and thoroughly modern, and heavy-duty seats feature five-point restraint systems.

What immediately catches your eye, though, is the panel, a high-tech marvel unlike anything you'll find in a two-seater this side of an F-15. With its flight instruments laid out in the standard "T," the Husky makes a fine instrument platform. The one I flew had a Garmin 430 all-in-one navigator installed, a Garmin audio panel with two-place stereo intercom, a Vision MicroSystems engine monitoring display and a Garmin digital transponder. How does all of this fit into the panel of a Husky? Surprisingly well. An additional panel block in the center houses the landing gear lever and annunciator lights-remember, it's an amphib.

Mark briefed me on the whereabouts of things, we got the 430 programmed and I fired up the Lyc. Turns out I had guessed right: the airplane taxied easily, and the visibility was much improved with the tail off the tarmac-on floats it's no longer a taildragger; it's a four-wheeler.

We were soon lined up to go on Runway 27 Left. (The parallel taxiway serves as 27 Right during show time.) It was close to 9 a.m. by the time we launched, and people were already heading for the shade. On top of the temperature, we were full of gas; still, when I applied power the Husky accelerated ever so briefly-a few hundred feet of ground run-before it levitated skyward. Our initial rate of climb, a quick glance told me as I pulled the power back to 25-squared, was around 1,200 fpm, and that was at a speed well above the figure for best rate of climb, but a speed that gave us a much improved view of things in the Sun 'n Fun traffic pattern.

As if we needed rate of climb. Our planned cruising altitude over to Unnamed Lake Number 1-well, we didn't know what it was called-was an even thousand feet, give or take a bit. Around Central Florida, there's no point in getting much higher than that, and lower is often better. In this case, it was better for looking at gators in a lake to the east of Lakeland that's well known for being infested with aquatic reptiles. Like latter day versions of Jim Fowler and Marlin Perkins, Mark and I set off to look for gators. We dropped down a few hundred feet and cruised just over the surface, watching for the telltale wakes on the glassy surface. Soon we spotted dozens of the trails, each with a dark green gator cruising along at the tip. Which made me wonder, "Was this such a good place after all for a beginner float pilot to practice water landings?"

A few minutes farther along Mark and I found a suitable looking lake for shooting some splash and dashes. What makes a good lake for landing on? For starters, it has to be legal to land there. But how do you know? Good question. The Seaplane Pilots Association (www.seaplanes.org) publishes a excellent guide, Water Landing Directory, which is a start. Even then, there are countless bodies of water not covered, and the status of other bodies is subject to change without any legal notice required. Your best bet is to land at a body of water that you already know is legal and hope it still is.

We picked a small one-a couple hundred acres of water-that had a scant half dozen or so homes surrounding it and no boat traffic.

On the way over, Mark had showed me one of the most basic seaplane pilot skills, how to determine wind direction and approximate velocity. You'd be amazed at how close you can come to the wind's true speed simply by observing the size and nature of the waves. Waves just starting to exhibit white caps, for instance, betray the wind's speed at about eight knots. The direction of the wind, another crucial factor in seaplane operations, can be determined by the orientation of the streaks on the water, as well as a telltale band of glassy water along the upwind shore. (For you Peter Garrison fans, that's the area of laminar flow of air over the water.) Signs are less obvious when the wind isn't very strong, but luckily, it doesn't matter as much then.

The landing pattern for a seaplane, when conditions and terrain permit, is pretty much the same as for a landplane: downwind, base and final, only lower, a few hundred feet or so. The inspection of the landing site-the water-on the flyover is more critical, however, for it's at this point that you'll need to look for obstructions, partially submerged logs, boaters and pilings, that could wreck your airplane and your day. And did I mention alligators?

Different kinds of seaplanes have different kinds of landing checklists, and the most important item on the Husky's is "gear." When landing on water, a gear-up landing is a good thing, and vice versa. In fact, a gear-down landing on water is almost always much worse than a gear-up landing on a runway, which generally results in little damage to persons or property.

A normal landing in a floatplane like the Husky is a relatively simple affair, though if you're in the habit of doing full-stall landings, you'll have to learn to moderate the flare. Flying floats is all about being able to establish an attitude and hold it, based on the conditions. That said, my first landings in the Husky were pretty good, though I did tend to flare a bit too much. The Husky has just the right blend of stability and responsiveness for an airplane of its type; its straight flaps are quite effective, and aileron spades provide increased roll power. Moreover, the climbing ability of the thing is remarkable, which is a welcome trait in any seaplane.

Next on our seaplane skills hit list were glassy water landings. While lots of wind makes for hazardous seaplane operations, so does no wind at all, because of the danger that glassy water poses. When the water is rippled, wind streaked or even a bit choppy, it's pretty easy to judge your distance above the surface. Not so with glassy water. The technique, in short, is to establish a landing attitude above the last visual reference, a tree, bush or buoy, and then hold that attitude until the floats contact the water, avoiding in the process the urge to judge your height visually. You don't try because, repeat after me, you can't tell. With truly glassy water, the bottom of the lake or bay, which may be 20 feet or more below the surface, can look like the surface as you set up to land. When conditions are like this, a pilot trying to judge the flare visually can fly the airplane floats low directly into the drink, seeking that illusionary surface, with predictably disastrous results. The key with glassy water is to not trust your instincts, relying instead on the technique. It's a skill that takes practice.

After some airwork-the floatplane Husky, by the way, flies with no surprises at low speed-we found another quiet lake and spent some time exploring the airplane's water handling capabilities. When you're moving slowly on the water, a maneuver called "idle taxi," you put down the water rudders-which are exactly what they sound like-for directional control. Make no mistake about it, though: taxiing on the water is not the same thing as taxiing on terra firma. On the water you're in a different world. As much as you'd like to, you just can't point the nose and go. Wind, current and shoreline require that you think carefully about the conditions first and then take what nature has to offer. In extreme weather that might mean sailing the airplane at idle, which you do by backing up and using the tail as the sail, to the downwind shore, even if you don't particularly want to go there. Flying floats can, and should, humble you.

There are two other ways to taxi, the plow taxi, a maneuver that for a variety of reasons is best avoided, in which you add power, lots of power, hold the stick in your belly and plow along. The plow taxi is handy for making the turn from upwind to downwind, a maneuver that can be difficult or impossible, not to mention extremely hazardous, with the idle taxi if the wind is blowing hard.

We also worked on the step taxi, in which you taxi the airplane in a fairly flat attitude at relatively high speed up on the step of the float. It's like getting ready to take off but just barely not taking the plunge (if you'll forgive the expression).

Step taxiing separates the real seaplane pilots from the neophytes. On my post-check ride interview I mentioned to the examiner, real seaplane pilot Jon Brown, that his demonstration of a step taxi-he would make turns two or three times tighter than I would have dared-scared the living daylights out of me. Jon just smiled and told me that every applicant that he'd ever had in the hot seat there had told him the same thing. It's one of those things that you get a feel for with experience, he assured me. I'll have to take his word for that and keep practicing.

Back to the Husky. After my day of lake hopping with Mark, I had grown quite desirous of one of my own. Who wouldn't be? The Husky on amphibs gives a lot of capability and flexibility. Fly on water or land, carry a good useful load and enjoy the enhanced ease of use and safety of a very well-equipped panel. As you can see in the accompanying photographs, the amphibious Husky has significant dock appeal. And while it's not the airplane you'd buy if you were looking solely for transportation-speed and seating capacity are both lacking-it's a surprisingly good cross-country airplane, though the floats do cut down on the cruise speed a bit. Then again, when you bypass the FBO and rental car agency at the regional airport, and instead taxi right up to the dock at your lakeside cabin, you do save a bit of time there. And did I mention the dock appeal?

Getting the Rating In order to get my seaplane rating, I popped over to Jack Brown's Seaplane Base (www.gate.net/~seaplane), in Winter Haven, Florida, the busiest such school in the world-they've trained more than 14,000 seaplane pilots. There I met Jon Brown, who runs the school that his late father founded in 1962. Even through it was the busiest time of year, Jon graciously found a spot for me to fly for a day the following Wednesday.

Now, why I decided to stretch my trip by a few days to get the rating is a good question, and it's one that Brown gets asked all the time. Like me, most of Brown's students don't need a float rating. They don't own float planes, and it's nearly impossible for someone off the street to rent one-flight schools can't get insurance to rent a seaplane of any description. No, like most folks who stop by Jack Brown's to pick up a rating, I did it simply because I wanted to. Which is the best reason for being a pilot of most any kind, it seems to me.

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.

2001 Aviat Husky A-1B
The airplane flown for this report, N206MA, was equipped with yet-to-be-certified Baumann BF 2150A amphibious floats and an 80-inch Hartzell constant-speed prop (also yet to be certified on the airplane). Also in the airplane was a premium avionics package that included a Garmin 430 all-in-one moving map navcom, transponder and audio panel with built-in stereo intercom. Additional equipment included a Vision MicroSystems VM 1000 engine monitoring system and a premium interior. Because the Baumann amphibious floats are still undergoing certification, all performance numbers are manufacturer's estimates based on the performance of the Husky on comparable amphibious floats.
Standard price $130,123
Price as tested $163,963
Baumann BF 2150A floats $36,000
Engines Textron Lycoming O-360-A1P, 180 hp
TBO 2,000 hrs
Propeller Hartzell 80-inch, constant-speed, two-blade
Seats 2 (tandem)
Length 22.6 ft
Height 8.4 ft (on wheels) 11.5 ft (on floats)
Wingspan 35.5 ft
Wing area 183 sq ft
Wing loading 12.02 lbs/sq. ft
Wing aspect ratio 7.4
Empty weight, as tested 1,380 lbs
Useful load, as tested 650 lbs
Maximum takeoff weight 2,200 lbs
Fuel capacity 52 gallons
Full fuel payload 350 lbs
Power loading 11 lbs/shp
Max rate of climb @ sea level 1,150 fpm
Service ceiling 18,300 ft
Cruise speed, 75 percent power 105 kts
Endurance, max cruise, no reserve 5.4 hours
Stalling speed, flaps down 38 kts
Baggage capacity 50 lbs