Seaplane Rating, Alaska Style

** A seaplane rating is the perfect addition for
those pilots drawn to both the sky and the

(November 2011) Alaska is a state with a few hundred runways, about 13,000 roads and more than 3 million lakes. With so many options for landing sites, it is no wonder that Alaskan summer skies are filled with all kinds of aerial watercraft with pilots on their way to visit neighbors, load up on groceries, deliver supplies to remote settlers or drop hikers, hunters and fishermen into lodges to enjoy the abundant wildlife, untouched wilderness and clean air.

While it is prudent to verify that a lake is open for public use prior to dropping in, most lakes in Alaska can be used for seaplane operations. There are also around 140 official seaplane bases in the state. One of those seaplane bases is Christiansen Lake (AK8), a small lake with more seaplanes than homes and lots of tall trees. It is located in the outskirts of the tiny, touristy village of Talkeetna in the pristine flatlands below the great 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. Nestled in a small bay in Christiansen Lake is a flight school called Alaska Floats & Skis, specializing in bush plane, skiplane and seaplane flight training.

I met Don Lee, the founder and owner of the school, during a vacation several years ago, and I was thrilled to return to Alaska Floats & Skis to get my seaplane rating.

My flight instructor was Esther Hershberg, who had been working there for four summers. After a ground school session in which Esther discussed seaplane regulations and basic operations, and performance characteristics of the Tri-Pacer on floats in which I was to conduct my training, we went out to preflight the small blue-and-white airplane. Esther showed me how to use a simple plastic pump to remove the water inside the floats. Even a small amount of water can be a serious safety issue since it adds a significant amount of weight — more than 8.3 pounds per gallon — to the airplane.

Though the space in the Tri-Pacer’s cockpit was limited, I was able to pretzel myself into the airplane. Even though I’m fairly tall, I still had to sit on top of a life jacket and put a pillow behind my back in order to see over the Tri-Pacer’s cowl — a necessity according to Esther.

As habit would have it, I stepped on the brakes to get ready to start up. Even though this habit is crucial when you’re on the ground, it wouldn’t make a lick of difference when starting up the airplane at the dock in front of Alaska Floats & Skis.

With the immediate movement, it is critical to know that the path of intended travel is clear of airplanes, docks, boats, swimmers or any other things that may get harmed or harm the airplane. Fortunately, steering a seaplane on the water is quite easy (at least with light winds) with help from the water rudders, which are linked to the rudder pedals.

While we water-taxied slowly through the scenic lake, Esther explained how to look for the wind direction and how to find the optimal departure path. Small ripples had formed on the water’s surface from the slight wind, and a tall sailboat parked in front of the home base also pointed out the wind direction for us.

The sailboat would also serve as a perfect abort point in case the Tri-Pacer had trouble getting off the water. We visualized a runway on the surface of the water, with a climb-out path that led through an area with shorter trees in case our hoped-for climb performance didn’t pan out.

We completed our preflight checklist and run-up. It was odd doing the run-up while in motion, but with all the drag on the floats we didn’t go far.

Esther demonstrated the first takeoff. She retracted the water rudders with a small handle that looked like a punctured spoon, hung it off a small hook below the mixture, aligned the airplane with our visualized runway and applied full power.

After gaining some speed, Esther pushed the yoke forward to “get on the step.” The step is a prominent protrusion on the bottom surface of the float that ends abruptly toward its aft portion. The step reduces the amount of surface area that is in contact with the water to minimize hydrodynamic drag. Once the airplane picks up speed, it needs to stay balanced on the step. If the airplane’s center of buoyancy gets behind the step, the airplane will skip on the surface of the water. If it gets too far forward, the airplane will porpoise. Skipping and porpoising can both lead to loss of control. During my training I experienced both conditions, but they were easily cured by changing the amount of back pressure applied to the yoke.

During the takeoff, the airplane doesn’t stay on the step very long before it achieves enough speed to lift off the water, unless the water is glassy, that is. It may seem counterintuitive that the takeoff run is longer with flat water, but a smoother surface causes a greater amount of drag on the floats.

To reduce the hydrodynamic drag and shorten the takeoff run, Esther explained that I had to lift one float out of the water by applying full aileron deflection to create more lift on one wing. With only one float in the water the hydrodynamic drag is reduced by half, and soon after the airplane becomes airborne.

For rough water takeoffs, the trick is to add additional flaps, because the goal is to get away from the rough surface as soon as possible. With the Tri-Pacer, one notch of flaps is always used for takeoff. The second notch is added once the airplane has achieved enough speed to fly in ground effect. I got the sensation that I was lifting the airplane out of the water with the manual flap handle on the floor of the cockpit.

There are no aerial maneuvers required for the add-on seaplane rating. But with all the extra drag created by the floats, the airplane behaves quite differently compared with a conventional airplane. Not only is the airplane significantly slower, but in order to maintain coordinated flight, I also noticed my right leg becoming increasingly fatigued as the training progressed. I had to constantly apply right rudder, even in a descending left turn. The little Tri-Pacer was equipped with a ventral fin underneath the empennage that counteracts some of the aerodynamic changes associated with the floats. Apparently without the ventral fin, there’s not enough side surface to maintain coordination even with full rudder.

After a while, the constant rudder application became second nature. Esther and I flew into eight different lakes during our training, and there were many others within a stone’s throw of Christiansen Lake. The lake that was most conducive to training was called Larson Lake. The lake is long enough to practice a few touch-and-goes without having to climb out and go around for another approach. Larson Lake is also perfect for practicing step turns on the water. While playing around with more and less power, left and right rudder pressure and increasing and decreasing pressure on the yoke, the goal is to stay balanced on the step. It is a hoot, and the experience feels more like a wild boat ride than taxiing an airplane.

The step attitude is also used during landings, which require a flatter touchdown attitude than what I am used to when doing full-stall landings on a hard surface. It became evident why Esther was so adamant about me being positioned to see over the cowl of the airplane. She explained that I needed to see a couple of inches of water between the top of the cowl and the edge of the lake during the touchdown — a similar attitude as being on the step during takeoffs and step turns. This was the most difficult part to achieve during my training. I kept wanting to continue my flare until the nose got too high, which would result in a less than desirable landing.

Esther told me to “transition smoothly to a level attitude” a few feet above the water to get in the correct position for the touchdown. And that is the perfect instruction. Then I would simply keep the airplane in that position until it touched down smoothly on the surface of the water, occasionally adding a touch of power at the last second to arrest the descent rate.

The patience required to maintain that flat attitude was tested to the nth degree during glassy-water landings. During these approaches, there is no way to tell how high the airplane is above the surface of the water, so the final approach path needs to be close to the shoreline to maintain a point of reference. Before reaching the last point of peripheral reference, we would set up the airplane in the landing attitude and hold the position steady while maintaining an approximate 150 fpm descent rate until the airplane touched down. I would inevitably want to continue to flare as we got closer and closer to the water. But once I achieved the patience to hold everything steady, the landings were silky smooth.

In addition to Larson Lake, Esther and I spent some time practicing in a series of lakes south of Talkeetna called Rocky Lakes. While on a confined-area approach — a steeper than normal approach at 70 knots, Esther said: “There’s something over there; let’s go and take a look.”

A large, dark shape was evident in an adjacent lake, so I aborted my landing, applied full power and flew toward the unknown object. A mother moose was training two calves to swim, crossing the small lake adjacent to our training lake. The distraction in our training was fully worthwhile.

Another challenging landing that is part of the commercial seaplane curriculum is the 180-degree emergency landing. Like any emergency landing, the procedure is to pitch for best glide — 80 knots in the Tri-Pacer — and set up toward the landing spot. But once aligned with the touchdown point, I had to pitch down quite dramatically to reach 90 to 95 knots before transitioning to level near the water’s surface. The procedure was a little intimidating at first but produced nice, smooth no-power landings.

Parking a seaplane was not as challenging as I expected. I simply pointed the Tri-Pacer toward the dock at about a 45-degree angle, cut the mixture about 40 feet out and floated slowly to the dock. But I was fortunate to have light winds throughout my training, and I imagine that parking could be an incredible challenge with strong winds.

After seven hours of training over two days, I felt ready for my check ride. All went well and I had a fresh temporary airman certificate in my hand for the first time in many years. Getting my seaplane rating was one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in the dozen or so years I’ve spent flying around in little airplanes. Now every time I see a lake, I visualize the optimal approach and landing path. And while I’m sad to say that I won’t be using the privileges of my seaplane rating often, I highly recommend the rating to any pilot who is looking for a fun and rewarding learning experience. Alaska Floats & Skis offers float ratings from mid-May through October. The cost for the two-day course is $1,900, and it includes a three-night stay at a beautiful log cabin adjacent to the school to give enough time for the check ride on the third day.

Pia Bergqvist joined FLYING in December 2010. A passionate aviator, Pia started flying in 1999 and quickly obtained her single- and multi-engine commercial, instrument and instructor ratings. After a decade of working in general aviation, Pia has accumulated almost 3,000 hours of flight time in nearly 40 different types of aircraft.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Get the latest FLYING stories delivered directly to your inbox

Subscribe to our newsletter