Seaplane Training

Last weekend, I took my first shot at seaplane flying. I’d had business meetings at a research facility in Seattle, during which the other visitors and I were periodically startled by seaplanes suddenly appearing quite large in the window, passing very low overhead on their way in or out of the lake. It impressed me mightily and looked fun, so in the afternoon I got on the phone, rebooked my return flight and arranged some dual time over the weekend with one of the local FBOs.

The first introductory ride was easiest. The instructor had spared me the full preflight and was lenient regarding my takeoffs and landings which made me feel good about myself and confident I’d have it nailed in no time at all. The briefing essentially consisted of the airspeeds for this particular plane, and her instructions to treat the plane just like during soft-field operations on land. And a short introduction to the bilge pump (empty a total of 14 float chambers before flight), water rudders (retract before takeoff and landing) and the Johnson-bar-operated flaps: this was a 1964 plane without mod-cons. Everything worked fine, and I was proud of my results.

The second session cut me down a notch. It was a lot more work to begin with, a throrough pre-flight requiring almost an hour if you’re unfamiliar with the procedure. Many of the checklist items are the same, but you can’t walk around the plane so the workflow is very different. There are also additional checkpoints related to seaworthiness, and you need to learn how to turn handle the plane at the dock in different wind conditions. Knowing your nautical knots helps for handling, i.e. it helps to have done a sailing course before.

Some sailing knowledge also helps for understanding traffic rules on the water. Seattle’s Lake Union is densely populated by boats of all types, from kayaks to speedboats to seafaring yachts. Especially last weekend, as it was the official start of the boating season. With rowing competitions, water skiing and many other water activities. I found it unnerving to maneuver my propeller plane through the kayaks. At idle power, with water rudders, but without brakes!

Flying a seaplane in good conditions isn’t really much more challenging than a land plane. However a seaplane does handle quite differently – with a lot more control latency – both on the ground and in the air so flying it precisely is somewhat trickier than I expected, and it will take me some practice to achieve an acceptable level. There are also plenty of maneuvers related to less-than-ideal conditions which I need to learn if I want to get a seaplane rating, and a fair bit of practice regarding on-the-water handling such as docking (which again is quite like sailing except that the consequences of misjudging speed or distance are more interesting).

It’s a different style of flying. Much more “cowboy” in the sense that the result is important, not the straight-line precision of approach. In fact if I had to sum up the differences between land and sea flying in one phrase, I’d say: sea = curves. You have the freedom, and often the necessity, to change course at very short notice. Even during your takeoff and landing rolls! Indeed, one of the more interesting seaplane-only maneuvers is the special short-field take-offs and landings they can do by whizzing around a curve while landing or taking off, in a maneuver called a “step turn”. It’s great for getting out of a small lake which was big enough to land in, but not big enough to take off in a straight line.

I look forward to learning more.

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