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Making a Big Splash

By Frank Hofmann
COPA Vice-President

Hofmann and a float plane
Frank Hofmann with Air Melancon's Beaver at St. Jovite, Quebec.
Floatplane pilots are individualists -
they are free, as pilots were always meant to be. . .

After 37 years of landlubber flying, what challenges are left? It took a unique flight to the PEI COPA Convention in Quebec Director Claude Michaud's 1945 Grumman Widgeon to raise my determination to get a float rating immediately. A week later I spent three days in the Orillia area hosted by the Canadian Seaplane Pilots Association Director Ron Newburg and his wife Patricia at their 'seaplane base'. I was in a new world.

"Keep the stick back."

What did I not know about float flying? You name it: airplanes without brakes or shock absorbers, runways everywhere and in all directions, preflighting by walking on water, docking operations, cold water if you misplace a foot, submerged obstacles, backing up, curving takeoffs, glassy water, and a whole sub-culture of 'bush pilots'. And just how do you do repairs on water anyway? I shudder to think of the fortune in tools that has disappeared into the cold depths over the years.

Before leaving Montreal for Orillia I ran into an experienced float flier, Roger Gravel. His immediate advice: "Bring lots of Right Guard." I laughed, enjoying his little joke. He repeated: "Bring lots of Right Guard." I laughed again, not yet appreciating how right he was.

"Keep the stick back."

Sage words at dockside: "Pump out the floats daily or they will kill you." But rocking floats don't make for easy pumping. Poor technique and the pumps can fool you into thinking there is no water in a compartment. And then you have to crawl through the cabin to get to the other float.

Training float plane
The C-172 training aircraft at Orillia, Ont.
I do wish that Cessna seats could be pushed all the way back as they used to be. My 6'3" and size 12 feet make a mockery of the Cessna Seat Rails AD as a safety device.

"Keep the stick back."

Foresee what the airplane will do before you untie it. Be certain of wind, currents and other traffic, because the moment you undo the knots you are on your way. Now just pray the engine will start. On day two of my lessons it didn't - for an eternity. We continued to drift ever backwards toward other moored airplanes. I learned it is de rigeur to jump out and climb onto the wings to avoid crushing sounds. But out of old habits I pushed on the brake pedals - Ha!

Read the water. Sail backwards, left and right. Use the wind. Drop the flaps to move backwards faster. Too fast backwards and the float heels will dig in and you can end up swimming. During slow taxiing, use ailerons to give you some drag for turning. Open your doors to move the airplane left and right. Look over your shoulder: what are you going to hit? Forgetting to pull up the water rudder before takeoff costs beers for everyone.

"Keep the stick back."

The novelty of a float climbing out of the water is mesmerizing. It undergoes a metamorphosis from submarine-to-boat-to-hydroplane in a matter of seconds, There is real exhilaration as the shuddering airplane finally claws itself up on the step' of the float; stick back pressure is released, and the 'sweet spot' is found that permits the airplane to accelerate best.

"You better not have any loose teeth with these waves!"

On land I would have aborted, figuring such rough terrain was not conducive to flying operations.

Hofmann, Michaud and a 1945 Grumman Widgeon
The trip that started it all: Frank Hofmann, left, prepares to depart for PEI with Claude Michaud in his 1945 Grumman Widgeon.
Another takeoff and I confirmed that downwind takeoffs are impossible in a C-172 at gross. She just wouldn't come onto the step. Even with the shoreline fast approaching there was no panic. I could make a smart turn into the wind and once again have the full stretch of water in front.

"You need a faster takeoff? Lift the upwind wing and accelerate on one float." Easy for the instructor to say. It was quite some time before I became accustomed to banking while still in contact with the water. I finally managed to keep her straight and banked without worrying about the wingtip or float digging in. But I made a mental note never to do this with landplanes.

This whole float experience was making me more aware. I sensed I was getting a much-needed refresher on airplane handling - airplanes of any kind.

"Keep the stick back."

Landings - not easy to judge height over open water. Short and low approaches,

Just how far will the plane 'roll' after touchdown? That sinking sensation as the plane comes off the step and settles into 'plow' is novel. 1 practised crosswind landings and takeoffs in case I found myself in a river. Finally they began to feel more comfortable. I settled down as I tried my next landing and I forgot to hold the stick all the way back! The look on the instructor's face said it all. I had reverted to landlubber techniques, and it almost cost us. I WILL hold that stick all the way back in the future.

Get used to hearing lots of stall warning horn. Water landings and takeoffs are made at minimum flying speeds. In this respect they are much akin to tailwheel airplanes.

Accident statistics indicate frequent damage to seaplanes. This is clearly not a function of the skill level of these fine pilots, but largely due to docking operations of one type or another. Just how do you judge how far from the dock you should cut the engine so that you have enough energy to drift to the dock, but not enough to crunch anything? Seaplane pilot associations run contests where pilots have to cut the engine and drift to a stop just short of a buoy - good practice. There are winds to consider, currents, engines that will not stop running when you pull the mixture, other airplanes tied to docks, long wings interfering with other long wings and other obstacles. And you have to time your jump onto the dock with perfection to prevent both a disaster to the plane and an unwanted dunking. An offshore wind requires all your strength to hold the airplane steady while you balance dockside trying to tie the ropes. Just what kinds of knots are acceptable anyway?

It didn't take long for me to discover that, as with converting to ultralight flying, converting to float flying demanded a whole new set of skills and awarenesses. With all the safety devices built into modern airplanes and airports, one can in fact become sloppy while still appearing safe. It is refreshing and rewarding to face a new environment that forces you to recall basic airmanship and to reopen the adrenalin connection that all novel situations supply. But make no mistake, learning to fly floats must he done with one of the excellent floatplane instructors found around Canada's myriad lakes.

Seaplane pilots form a cult -and understandably so. Until you fly floats you don't really understand that there are 'airport lakes' everywhere, each lake exerting its own authority and exacting its particular obedience. Countless pilots respond to the challenge with respect and a sense of adventure. Suddenly I have discovered this other population of kindred souls who operate across the face of Canada.

How many seaplanes are there? It is estimated around three thousand. Each of their pilots has stories to tell of wonderful places seen, fish caught, camps set up and visited, friends made, repairs executed, flying conditions met and conquered. These pilots are individualists who prefer no line boys, no paved aprons, no dispatchers, no tower control, no line-ups for a runway. They are enroute from the moment they untie the plane. They are free, as flyers were always meant to be. But remember: Stick ALL the way back.

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Frank Hofmann
Copyright © 1994