by Woody Minar
Published in Midwest Flyer – June/July 2017 issue
Yes, I’ll take water with my Cessna 172 on floats. Stirred, not shaken, please! In the beginning, we learned to fly on asphalt and sometime afterwards, we made that first landing on a grass runway. What a thrill to feel the softness and forgiveness of the grass. A few of us have gone on to learn to take off and land on water. Seaplane flying combines the fun of boating with the adventures of flying. When I gave a friend his first seaplane lesson, we weren’t 500 feet from shore when he turned to me with a huge smile and said, “My two favorite passions – boating and flying.” He was hooked and went on to get his seaplane add-on. Today, he has a Super Cub on amphibious floats (amphibs).
So what makes seaplane flying so much fun? Maybe it’s the kid in our hearts and minds. It’s the smile that everyone gets when they depart the dock or beach and taxi to the other end of the lake to take off into the wind and then to settle down to land on the water. Whether the seaplane is on straight floats (no wheels) or amphibs (retractable wheels), every lake becomes your playground.
The Seaplane Pilots Association, www.seaplanes.org says it best: “Seaplanes are the ultimate off-road vehicle. They will take your passion for flight to a whole new level. Only three percent of pilots have taken advantage of this amazing skill, and seaplane pilots are highly regarded for having greater stick and rudder skills than the average pilot and it shows in their flying. The fun way is no runway… Every landing that a seaplane pilot does is unique, as the water surface and conditions are constantly changing.”
Seaplane flying is a different dimension in flying, not unlike flying a tailwheel. Flying is the easy part; we already know how to do that. It’s the takeoffs and landings on water that we have to learn—use the basic skills you have and re-define them for water. Keep in mind, every lake has the potential for 360 runways! It’s not very often you takeoff or land in a crosswind. It’s a different skill set to not only be able to read the wind on the water by looking at the waves, flags, smoke, moored boats, etc., but to determine what’s UNDER the water, such as rocks, sandbars, and logs.
Safety, concern for others, and protecting the environment are extremely high on the list of every training syllabus. Besides being noise conscious, the seaplane pilot also needs to watch out for the boats, water skiers, jet skis, swimmers, and fisherman. On the water, the seaplane becomes a “boat magnet” – everyone wants an up-close look at this oddity, and you’re the main attraction.
Handling the plane around the dock or a rocky shoreline in a wind can be very tricky. You are manhandling a giant weathervane and aluminum is thin and soft. This is where most of the damage occurs. Puncture a hole below the waterline and you’ve got some serious problems.
Rough water, where the winds are over 15 knots, is very rough on the instruments and the plane itself. A seaplane is very rigid and has no cushioning that tires provide. Water may be soft, but can be as hard as asphalt. A hard landing can easily damage a seaplane. Many firewalls have buckled from a hard landing.
Glassy water landings can be tough because you see shoreline and cloud reflections in the water. It’s difficult to know how high you are before you touch down, so we have a technique one learns and uses to make a smooth landing. It is very similar to a soft-field landing. The takeoff can be equally tricky because the water surface tension wants to keep the floats for itself and not let them go unless we use a technique we learned in training.
It sounds difficult, but it’s not. Eight to 10 hours of flying is usually enough to get you through the flight portion of the practical test; the oral is more about common sense and risk management. Advanced seaplane training reinforces the basic training.
So, really, what’s the hardest part about learning to fly a seaplane? Learning to fly low and slow over the tops of the trees. There’s a saying among seaplane pilots that we get nosebleeds and hypoxic when we are flying over a thousand feet AGL (Above Ground Level).
Travel Destinations Aplenty!
Where can you go with a seaplane? With some exceptions (as listed under each state on the Seaplane Pilots Association website), most any lake, reservoir, or river can be our destination and our playground. Whether it’s to do splash and goes, dock at a nearby cabin or fly to Canada, the list is endless. For Minnesota and Wisconsin, you can start by searching the Minnesota Seaplane Pilots Association website: www.mnseaplanes.com/destinations.php. There are about 50 fly-in locations listed. The criteria to be listed is that it must have seaplane suitable facilities, seaplane friendly staff and owners, good food, and recreation and lodging opportunities. While too numerous to print here, I’ve selected a few seaplane destinations to whet your appetite that either I have visited or have heard quite a bit about.
If you want a truly great experience flying in Ontario, Canada with its 250,000 lakes, The Old Post Lodge is first rate. About two hours north of Crane Lake, Minnesota (KCDD), you’re bound to see moose. Here is what their website, www.oldpost.com, says: “Set on remote Lake St. Joseph, Old Post Lodge is northern Ontario’s finest fishing resort and best-kept secret. What began as a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post was rediscovered and transformed by the passion and vision of the Grace family. Through their pioneering conservation efforts, this piece of Canadian heritage teams with walleye and trophy northern pike, earning Old Post Lodge its reputation as the northern fishing experience of a lifetime.” Old Post Lodge has a nice beach with adequate tie-down facilities for seaplanes. The cabins are first rate and the food and hospitality are even better. Did I mention evening bon fires on the beach?
Adventure Seaplanes, located at Surfside Seaplane Base in Lino Lakes, Minnesota, www.adventureseaplanes.com, offers extended guided trips to Churchill, Manitoba, as well as to the Arctic where you can fly one of their planes or travel as a group in your own plane. These trips offer a lot of sightseeing by air where you can see polar bears and beluga whales, and enjoy great fishing. Their website states “Experience spectacular views by air as you fly over rugged landscapes, sparkling rivers and lakes, and pristine shorelines to set down in one of the world’s last great wildernesses.”
In Minnesota, Crane Lake hosts Scott’s Resort & Seaplane Base: www.visitcranelake.com/seaplane-base. Crane Lake is located 28 miles northeast of Orr, Minnesota. The lake’s northern shore forms part of the boundary to Voyageurs National Park. Crane Lake is an entry point to the park, and there’s a U.S. Customs port of entry for seaplane traffic to and from Canada. Scott’s Resort & Seaplane Base has all the amenities you could want, including fishing guides.
Zorbaz on the Lake, http://zorbaz.com/locationz/grand-rapidz, on Pokegama Lake is just two miles southwest of the Grand Rapids-Itasca County Airport (Gordon Newstrom Field) in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. They have a dock and a nice sand beach to park your seaplane. Your family can enjoy the lake and swim with a small bar on the beach and a full-service restaurant inside with great food just a couple hundred feet from the beach. Rusty Eichorn has a private seaplane base a mile from Zorbaz. If his plane is there, he might be, too, and he just might take you fishing.
Madden’s on Gull Lake, www.maddens.com, is a well-known getaway for the entire family. Fantastic accommodations to meet anyone’s style and budget and activity with some five star golf courses. You can beach your seaplane near one of the lodges or, if you have an amphib, you can land on the grass strip (9Y2). Watch out though, some errant golf balls might come your way from the driving range!
Just south of Red Wing, Minnesota is The Pickle Factory: www.pepinpicklefactory.com. Located on the east side of the Mississippi River on Lake Pepin in Pepin, Wisconsin, their restaurant offers shore side dining. On the other side of the river is Ohuta Park in Lake City, Minnesota, adjacent to and north of the Marina. There is a suitable beaching area next to the boat ramp. Tie down the seaplane to a nearby tree and take a short hike into town to shop or eat. Visit the marina with the hundreds of sailboats to see.
Seaplane events this year include: Minnesota Seaplane Pilots Association Annual (MSPA) Safety Seminar at Madden’s Resort on Gull Lake (9Y2), Brainerd, MN, May 19-21. Steam Boat Bay Seaplane Base (M16) is nearby, too. The Annual MSPA Pig Roast/Family Day is at Surfside Seaplane Base in Lino Lakes, MN on August 13th. Surfside (8Y4), complete with fuel and maintenance, is the largest seaplane base in the lower 48 states with some 60 aircraft based there.
When is a good time to get your seaplane add-on? Anytime, but spring is the best time. You can take advantage of nice weather and you have the rest of the summer to grab an instructor or, if your flight school offers it, get block time, and scratch that new certificate’s itch. The add-on counts as a flight review, too.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Woody Minar is a DPE, Master CFI, CFII, MEI, CFI-G, ASEL/ASES/AMEL/AMES at Osceola Municipal Airport (KOEO) in Osceola, Wisconsin.