Confronting Weather When Flying A Seaplane

by Michael Kaufman

Many readers of Midwest Flyer Magazine may wonder why the guy that writes a column on “instrument flying” and “avionics technology” is writing about “seaplane flying?” I make my living flying and teaching in technologically advanced aircraft and enjoy it, but my roots go back to the basics, and my greatest joy today is seaplane and glider flying. I learned to fly in a Champ in the mid-1960s with air racing legend Bill Brennand of Neenah, Wisconsin, as my flight instructor, before I learned to drive a car. After getting my private pilot certificate, my second pilot certificate was for “seaplanes.” Unfortunately, I did not fly a seaplane from the early 1970s until the early 1990s. It was always my dream to have my own seaplane, and a Cessna 185 amphibian was my dream airplane. My wife’s influence, however, turned that dream into a Bonanza in 1988, which I am not totally sorry about. Being the understanding wife that Linda is, I was able to buy a Piper Cub on floats in 2000 (and keep the Bonanza), along with a summer cottage on a lake in Eagle River, Wisconsin. That’s a pretty nice dream come true!

The following story about a seaplane flying experience I had should go in a “never again column,” as it took every bit of skill, judgment and luck I had for a successful ending, and I still consider myself very lucky.

All summer long for the previous 10 years, my Cub sat in the sun on a modified pontoon boatlift in Eagle River. The sun takes its toll, and I had the Cub meticulously restored in 2011 by craftsman/mechanic Roger Shadick of Noble Aviation at Eagle River Union Airport.

I try to take the Cub to EAA AirVenture-Oshkosh each year if my schedule will allow, and Oshkosh 2011 was special because of its recent restoration. The aircraft flew beautifully after Roger’s restoration, and the flight to the EAA Seaplane Base that year was out of a picture book. The aircraft got special notoriety and appeared in all of EAA’s promotional literature for the 2012 convention, “The Year of The Cub” (75 years). But the trip back to Eagle River on the last Saturday of the 2011 convention turned out to be the opposite of stellar.

I had spoken to my wife earlier that day, and she had planned to drive from our home in southwest Wisconsin to the cottage, and I indicated I would probably fly the seaplane back to Eagle River as it was near the end of the show. I am always cautious about every flight, a sign of being a mature pilot. I always teach my student pilots to do the same, “do as I do,” not just, “do as I say.”

After topping off the fuel in the main and wing tanks, I proceeded to the weather building at the seaplane base for a last weather check before departing. The weather looked great with about 10 knots of headwind; the flight should take about 1 hour and 45 minutes under those conditions. Takeoff was normal and the first hour and a half was again a picture book adventure.

Approaching Pickerel Lake about 30 miles southeast of the Rhinelander VOR, I noticed that the sky to the northwest was looking a bit dark, and I began to feel uneasy. I had not taken the XM weather unit on this trip as it takes some work to take it out of the Bonanza, but I knew this was not looking good.

I increased the RPM on the Cub by 200 and picked up about 5 knots of airspeed. As I did a visual scan of the impending storm, I realized there was no way around it, and it was looking worse by the minute. A decision needed to be made…continue on in hopes of beating it home, land in a nearby lake and take the storm on the water, or land and try to find a dock or place to beach and tie down on the shore. The decision I made – right, wrong or indifferent – was to fly on with hopes of beating the storm or confront it in the air. I continued on with hopeful thoughts, but about 10 miles from my dock, I could see that I was going to have to confront the storm in flight.

I was just 3 miles from the dock when the airplane was hit by the gust front of the storm. The little Cub was tossed around violently, and I did my best to maintain control and keep it in the air. I later learned that wind gusts in excess of 50 mph were reported at Eagle River Union Airport. It took everything I had learned in all of my years of flying to just maintain flight, truly the worst storm I had ever experienced. The rain was very intense, and yes, the airplane leaked, even after the great restoration. There were lightning flashes all around the aircraft as I approached the cottage. The wind and turbulence had subsided a bit, and my thoughts turned to attempting a landing. I was not sure if my wife had made it to the cottage, as we normally communicate by amateur radio. Linda is also an amateur radio operator. My handheld amateur radio was behind me, somewhere in the back seat, and I had all I could do to keep the aircraft under control without trying to find it.

I flew over the cottage in hopes that Linda would hear the airplane and come out to the dock to help me. I was sure she would not be expecting me in this bad storm. After the flyover, I made a circle back to line up into the wind for landing and saw Linda at the dock as I made my final approach. The lake was extremely rough with white caps, so I decided to land as close as possible to the upwind shore – the opposite side of the lake from the dock. Keeping the aircraft under control with an estimated groundspeed of 10 knots, I splashed down for a decent landing in smoother water about 200 feet from the upwind shore. Now the task at hand was to reach my dock and secure the aircraft, as the upwind shore was rocky and unfit to beach.

Another seldom used skill – sailing backward in the wind – was called for as there was not enough distance from the shore to attempt a downwind turn. I reduced power on the engine, and we sailed backward to a distance from shore where I would attempt a downwind turn and drop the water rudders. But something did not feel right. I then discovered that I broke the water rudder steering cables in the turbulence of the storm. I now wondered if I could make the turn at all with most of my water steering gone. I decided to try it, sail backward another 200 more feet, plow taxi at high power, then make a slight turn to the right, followed by a hard left using torque to help. This trick worked, and I was headed downwind toward my dock and now faced with the next challenge…docking in this strong wind.

I remember my dear friend and seaplane Jedi, Waldo Anderson, from Minneapolis, telling me to keep the prop from picking up spray to avoid nick damage, but I had no choice but to keep the power almost full on during the plow taxi to the dock, even if it cost me the prop.

The dock is nestled in a cove at the mouth of a river, and I kept the power at almost full, figuring on the worst if I miscued by even a half second. Linda was waiting at the dock soaked by the heavy rain, but I was confident in her, as she is a veteran dock person. She grabbed the docking line as I bumped the dock quite hard and was able to get around a tie-down cleat on the dock. Something I learned in Alaska seaplane flying is to always have a docking line on the front of the float, and it must be free to grab, not tied to the back of the float. The next challenge was to get the seaplane secured on the lift in the strong wind. We worked the airplane slowly onto the lift by always having at least one line tied to a cleat, as no one could hold it in the strong wind.

The excitement was finally over and the conclusion was positive…no damage, other than the water rudder cables…not even the prop!

The Cub is a well-built airplane, but I would not want to run this test again. The storm knocked out power to the cottage for several days, Linda and I were soaked, and the storm continued to move toward Oshkosh 150 miles away and damaged several aircraft and blew down tents. It was totally un-forecasted at the time of my departure. Rusty Sachs, former administrator of the National Association of Flight Instructors (NAFI), once said: “You know you have been good, when entering heaven, the Lord gives you a Cub on floats to fly”– but not in a storm!

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