Take The Bet & Get Your Seaplane Rating

by Curt Drumm
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2017 Issue

It all started with a bet. My friend, Steve, bet me I couldn’t fly a taildragger. “Of course I can,” I said. The bet was on. I tracked down my favorite tailwheel instructor, rented the local club Champ, and put in the hours. A few days later, I had a fresh sign-off in my logbook.

To collect on the bet, we went down to the Manitowoc Yacht Club, right on the shore of Lake Michigan, Manitowoc, Wis. It was a beautiful sunny evening, light winds, the waves rolling in. As we sat there, a cute little red seaplane came flying along the shoreline. It was beautiful. The evening summer light was shining on it, gently orange from the setting sun behind us. Steve came up with another bet as the seaplane faded away, flying to the north: “Bet you can’t fly a seaplane.”  Of course, the answer was “Of course I can,” and the bet was on.

I grew up along the shores of Lake Michigan, and always loved the water. As a kid, we went up to our cottage in Three Lakes in northern Wisconsin. We learned how to boat up there, swam and water-skied every day. I love living around water, so flying a seaplane was a natural for an aspiring pilot. By the way, if you’re ever looking for a nice grass runway to fly to, the Three Lakes Airport (40D) has the best grass strip I’ve ever seen…about 3400 feet long. If you come in from the north, it’s a great view over the water. The Sunset Grill at the end of the runway on the lake is the highlight of that airport for sure. And for seaplane pilots, there is docking available.

Steve and I ended up doing our ratings together in a J-3 Cub on EDO 1340 floats on a small lake called White Lake, about 7 miles south of the Shawano, Wis. airport (KEZS).

Just a little tip….if you ever want to sit and talk seaplanes with a guy who’s been doing it for quite a while, stop in and talk to the airport manager, Clarence. He’s a great guy with a lot of history. He is always fun to talk to.

Shawano is a great place to fly into, too, with a couple of restaurants within walking distance of the seaplane base. It is one of the few official seaplane bases in Wisconsin, and has a ramp that slopes right into the lake. If you’re in an amphib seaplane, it’s fun to drive up from or back into the lake.

It’s kind of a unique experience in an airplane, as you transition from floating on the water to being an airplane on the taxiway. Going downhill is even more thrilling…taxiing your plane right into the water. With the plane on amphib floats, it’s a different view, being so high up. You’re probably 5 feet higher than a regular 172, for instance…kind of like the view from a King Air.  For straight float pilots, there are some nice docks, and a restaurant just down the creek. Clarence also offers float service, and it’s a great place to go to spring and fall if you’re going to take your floats off and put them back on.

Back to the bet. Steve and I spent a couple weeks doing the rating. We probably each had about 10 hours. We were not in a rush…this was far too much fun, so why hurry through it? Plus, I think you learn more if you take your time, thinking about things in between lessons. What a neat experience to come gliding over the shoreline, just a few feet above the trees, to gently splash down in the water.

White Lake, where we trained, has a little hook to it and a couple little islands near the west shore. The total water run is about 4,000 feet, plenty of length for a Cub, but you have to make a gentle turn during your takeoff run to dodge the islands. Flying seaplanes isn’t exactly like flying landplanes. It has a whole new element to it. You don’t have windsocks, taxiways, or any of the airport niceties, including straight runways. You’re on the beach or dock in flip-flops and shorts. Sometimes you get wet. That makes it fun!

Arriving and departing a dock is a whole new experience, too, especially if there’s a little wind. Unlike being on a ramp where the wheels are on the ground and the airplane generally stays wherever you park it, seaplanes always weathervane into the wind. In fact, it’s part of the certification of a seaplane called positive-weathervaning. Sometimes it helps you coming and going from the dock, but other times it makes that a real challenge.

I remember one arrival at our cottage seaplane dock in Three Lakes where the wind was coming on-shore so strong that every time we got close to the dock and pulled back the power, we lost rudder effectiveness and the plane weathervaned back out, away from shore. We made three attempts to get to the dock and just couldn’t do it. Fortunately, my wife, Marisue, loves airplanes and is a great dockhand. We finally made a high-speed taxi past the end of the dock. She jumped off the float and rolled onto the dock, as I kept moving ahead so we wouldn’t hit the tail. Finally I circled back in, again with a little bit of power, and with a hefty tug, she grabbed the rope and pulled me in. Whew! I was glad to finally get on shore.  We tied up the plane, walked up the hill and enjoyed our favorite Old Fashion overlooking the seaplane, as the sun set gently to the west. There’s nothing prettier than a sunset with a seaplane in your front yard.

Oh yeah, back to the bet. When Steve and I were ready, we took our checkrides and finished up our training. It was bittersweet….exciting to finish up and get a shiny new license in my wallet, but sad at the same time because our seaplane experience came to an end. Steve and I celebrated again at the Yacht Club, running through all the great memories…watching out for boats, dodging birds, and hearing that gentle “whoosh” when we touched down. As we watched the waves roll in on Lake Michigan, that did it for me. I had to have a seaplane.

Shopping for a seaplane is a new experience. Lots of things to think about, watch for and inspect before you make a purchase, but that’s a different article.

Our first seaplane was a Piper PA-18 Super Cub on EDO 2000 straight floats. Solid black…we called her “Black Beauty.” We had a great summer flying the plane, and my partners and I built up the hours we needed to finally feel comfortable in it. Since then, I’ve had a couple other seaplanes, but finally settled with a 210 hp Hawk 172XP on Wipline 2350 amphibious floats. The ultimate in versatility, you can land at just about any airport, and also on thousands of lakes.

We’re fortunate here in the Midwest, as there are very few seaplane restrictions on our lakes, so we have lots of options.

Over the years in which I have been flying seaplanes, I’ve logged over 1500 hours on floats, with nearly 7,000 water landings. Along the way, I got my CFI ticket and have taught over 100 students from all over the world. One of the most memorable experiences I had is when two pilots came over from Switzerland and wanted to shoot video of their experience. We had a week of absolutely beautiful sunny weather with light winds.

On each flight, we clipped two GoPro cameras onto the plane, moving them all around to get different camera angles. I think we got about 15 hours of footage. Since I had a television production background, I directed all of our flying, and worked it into our lessons. Then they downloaded all the footage, and took it back to Switzerland, where they masterfully edited it to music. If you want to see an absolutely stunning seaplane video, check it out on YouTube. Just search Eagle River Seaplane. It’s just over 8 minutes long.

Along the way, we’ve been able to fly to some very fun places. Seaplane fly-ins are fun for pilots and visitors alike. You will find them all over the Midwest – just check the Seaplane Pilots Association website at www.seaplanes.org.

So if a pilot buddy challenges you with a bet some day, take him up on it. You might just have a great time!

EDITOR’S NOTE: Curt Drumm is an aviation consultant based in Wisconsin. He holds an Airline Transport Pilot Certificate, and is both a land and sea instructor. He can be reached at 920-901-2200 or cdrumm@lakeshoreaviation.com (www.lakeshoreaviation.com).

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