Flying On Floats or Wheels…. Checklists Could Save Your Life!

by Philip Mattison

am a 5,000-plus hour pilot, with commercial, single and multi-engine, instrument, seaplane, skiplane, and instructor ratings. I have logged 1,200-plus hours in my Super Cub on floats, flying north of the Arctic Circle three times, have been as far northwest as Fairbanks, Alaska, and as far southeast as Key West. In addition, I regularly fly on business trips in a Twin Cessna 340. I am committed to continual training, to improve my ability and enjoy giving seaplane, skiplane and bush flying instruction in the Midwest and in Canada.

In August 2011, Brian Schanche of Adventure Seaplanes at Surf Side Seaplane Base in Lino Lakes, Minnesota, and I flew a group of his customers/pilots on a 10-day trip in a collection of Cessna 185s on straight floats (no wheels…water operations only). We flew north from Minneapolis across the border at Crane Lake, fueled in Red Lake, overnighted at Little Vermillion Lake, and caught fresh walleye for dinner.

Our next fuel stop was Gillam. We then followed the west shore of Hudson Bay looking for polar bears all the way to Churchill. In Churchill, we learned the history of the Voyagers, saw more polar bears, and beluga whales.

Next, we stopped at the Eskimo village of Rankin Inlet for more fuel. After leaving, we ran into ice an hour northwest and could not continue any further north.

We turned due west, flying over the caribou migration to Kasba Lake Lodge. At Kasba we enjoyed first-class accommodations and caught monster lake trout. We headed south a few days later, but were forced down by bad weather, stopping at Gunisao Lake Lodge, Manitoba, known for the largest walleye in Canada.

Finally, we headed home through Red Lake, Crane Lake, and back to Surf Side Seaplane Base in Lino Lakes, Minnesota. We enjoyed 10 days of bush flying adventure, logging over 50 hours flying the Cessna 185s on straight floats. We caught lots of fish, saw over 100 polar bears, several musk ox, and hundreds and hundreds caribou.

I fly as an Adventure Seaplanes instructor pilot on these trips. We teach all the techniques of bush flying, water landing, docking, etc, and we stress the use of a checklist when flying in the bush. There are no second chances when you are over 500 miles away from the nearest person. We help facilitate a safe and fantastic trip for our customer pilots, their spouses and/or guests. We pump the gas, carry the bags, set up and tear down the camps. We clean and cook the fish, and we even help drink the beer!

September 8, 2011, a few weeks after returning from this great trip, I was back into the hustle and bustle of my regular work routine. I was scheduled to be the keynote speaker for a Barron County, Wisconsin group of community leaders at their annual meeting at a resort on a small lake in northern Wisconsin. My presentation was to be about business planning, using an analogy about what planning a big seaplane adventure trip across the Arctic Circle has in common with planning a new business venture. It is a fun talk to give. Everyone gets a strong, easy to remember, motivational and organizational message, all delivered with fabulous photos and a strong, adventure flying analogy.

I was a little worried about flying in for this presentation, however. The lake was quite small and although I had flown over it, I had never landed or taken off there before.

As the date approached it looked like the weather would be okay. I had a much larger lake about 2 miles away as an alternate, but really wanted to splash in where I was speaking. I felt that flying in and out would really make an impression on my audience.

I only had on 1/2 fuel, had packed light and completed the preflight for my 180 hp Cub Crafters Super Cub on Wipline amphibious floats in the hangar the night before.

While packing the projector and a few other things I needed for my presentation, I was also entertaining a group of our sales people and their customers that night. (My hangar has a very well stocked bar and is often a social gathering place.)

The next morning as I arrived at the hangar, I was in the middle of a heated conversation on the phone. Since I was already preflighted, I felt I didn’t need to worry about a thing. I got off the phone and jumped in the Cub, and in no time I was airborne.

It felt good to be back in the Cub after flying over 50 hours in the heavy 185. I know this Cub so well and it is so casual to fly. All I have to do is think about where I want the plane to go and it just goes there. I don’t even realize I am moving the stick. After 12 years and 1200 hours, this Cub is like an old comfortable pair of tennis shoes. “Ahhh…nothing flies like a Cub!”

On takeoff I felt a little warmer than I expected to. As I climbed out and casually turned north, I took off my seat belt, my inflatable life jacket, and my coat. Feeling more comfortable, I put my seat belt back on and was thinking about the small lake I would be landing on in about 45 minutes.

With my GPS showing I was about 10 minutes ahead of schedule, I decided to make a practice, short lake landing on the next lake. The wind was 5 knots out of the southeast. Long Lake has a long hill that gives way to shallow lily pads on the north end. I thought, “if I can get down and stopped before that first dock on the left, then I should have no problem getting in or out of that little lake surrounded by tall trees where I am going.” I carefully looked at the water and measured the lake from the north edge to the first dock from 1,000 feet AGL (above ground level) by comparing it to the nose and tip of my floats. Now I had a reference to measure against at the small lake prior to landing.

As I turned final for my practice landing on Long Lake, I was too high and fast. No problem… I threw the Cub into a familiar slip and dropped down to just above the lily pads. I was still a little fast as I crossed over the last of the lily pads to the open water, but I thought, “No problem, I will easily be stopped well short of the first dock. Flying the Cub is so different than flying the 185. I will probably need one more practice landing to get slowed down properly.”

As my floats touched the water I felt my shoulder harnesses suddenly get strangely tight! I have no recall of the plane violently flipping nose first onto its back, or of the windshield busting across the top of my head and the plane filling rapidly with water!

The next thing I remember, everything is calm. I open my eyes and say to myself, “I am wet! I am under water! I have what’s left of my breath to get out of here!!!”

My left hand automatically finds the seat belt, then I think DOOR FIRST!! The emergency egress training at the “Minnesota Seaplane Pilots Association Seminar” at Madden’s Resort in Brainerd the first Saturday in May each year teaches to always, always, always find the door first, get it open, then remove the seatbelt once you know your way out. My right hand finds the door handle right where it is supposed to be. I feel the door open and grasp the edge. I don’t even remember releasing the seat belt.

I come out between the float and the fuselage. The next thing I know, I was on top of the upside down fuselage waving my arms and hollering to a fishing boat for help.

As the boat comes near the plane, I pushed off and swim toward it. Then, I think “No life jacket… What am I doing! Can I swim? Am I hurt? Are my legs working?”

When I get to the boat, the older couple helps me up over the side and I am in. They hand me a fishing rag that I use to wipe the blood away from my head and eyes. Once we determine I am mostly okay, I ask to use their cell phone. The only number I can think of or remember is the one to my office. Everything else is on speed dial in my soaking wet phone. Because of my dependence on speed dial, and the shock state I was in, I can only remember my office 800 number. I get one of my staff on the phone and give her a list of people to call for help. She also had to call the resort where I was to be speaking and tell them I would not be there.

So what did I learn from this experience?

First off, I set myself up for this accident the night before. By preflighting the night before, I was able to get in the plane without thinking about flying the plane, or the systems of the plane. I had simply not put myself in the state of mind to fly that morning.

Second, I had ‘get-there-it is.’ I was preoccupied worrying about that little lake I intended to land on.

Third, I had not used my written checklist! In fact, I frequently didn’t use the written checklist in that little Cub. It was so casual and easy to fly; just check the mags, carb heat and go. I only used the common acronyms,  GUMPS (Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Prop, Seatbelt) prior to landing, and CARS (Clear Area, Rudder, Stick) prior to a water take off. In this Cub, the gas is always on both, and the prop is fixed pitch. So I had not properly transitioned mentally from the straight float 185 to the amphibious Super Cub.

Fourth, and most importantly, I had not done any after takeoff checks. Then I got preoccupied taking off my jacket and I had simply forgotten to raise the gear. As a seaplane instructor, I have helped three other pilots get re-certified following a gear down lake landing. The situation is ALWAYS the same. Distracted at takeoff, followed by landing on a nearby lake!

Fifth, yes, I have a Wipline gear advisory system. I was too fast on final and only slowed down as I rounded out, just above the water. I heard the little voice begin in the headset just as I touched down, but it didn’t register. The voice control is speed activated and I had failed to slow down enough in the pattern to hear it earlier.

Sixth, I now carry a small printed list of phone numbers in my wallet.

Back at the office my coworker made the calls to my friends at Surf Side: Brian Schanche of Adventure Seaplanes, and Bob Timm of Seaplane Services. She only had to call one guy from my home airport at Osceola, Wisconsin, Steve Mueller, who then called Dan Burch, Dan Thiel, Bob Poutre, and Chris McKenzie, all of whom dropped everything they were doing, left work and came to my rescue!

Brian and Bob flew in and landed on the lake. The others came with a gas fired air compressor, and six new truck inner tubes, and a boat. Bob from Roof Tech even pulled a boom truck off of a job site and had the operator standing by at the boat landing. Two locals lent the use of their pontoon boats. It took about three hours to get the plane floating upside down to the landing. Then Bob Timm attached the cable from the boom truck to the tail, and it was lifted very slowly and righted.

The wings were off in no time. We pulled the plane out using a borrowed pontoon boat trailer. Because of Bob’s unhurried approach, his experience and knowledge of the airframe, the plane suffered no additional damage from the recovery process. With the help of everyone, by 10:00 o’clock that night, the engine was dried out and we had it running again. The avionics were in a vat of isopropyl alcohol, displacing the water; my headache was subsiding; our wives had shown up with food; and sometimes you learn that the best and worst day of your life can be the same day.

As I have thought about this accident almost daily for the last few years, I have a few thoughts to share:

If you ever find yourself in this situation, call Bob Timm to do the recovery, even if you have to fly him in from a long ways away.

Most importantly, I have a written checklist attached to the frame of my airplane in plain sight and use it! My “pre-landing” checklist is as follows:

1. Downwind: Flaps, Airspeed (my target is 70 mph), Gear (Blue for Water, Green for Grass), Seatbelts.
2. Base: Flaps, Airspeed (60 mph), Gear, Seatbelts.
3. Final: Flaps, Airspeed (50 mph), Gear, Seatbelts.

To coincide with my pre-landing checklist, I created an acronym that is built into my written checklist and etched into my brain.  I suggest you create an acronym that works for you!

Following the accident, I squared up with the FAA and the insurance company. Then I sold the wreckage and purchased a different Cub. The Cub I bought is an experimental Back Country Cub. It is quite distinctive with its black nose and flame pattern down the side. It did not have a gear advisory system installed, so Seaplane Services installed one for me. The experimental advisory system has one unique feature that my Wipline system was lacking. On departure, if you don’t raise the gear within 60 seconds, you get an urgent sounding voice commanding RAISE GEAR, RAISE GEAR!!! I think all the certified amphibious float systems should have this feature as well.

For some reason this newer, wide body, cool-looking carbon fiber Back Country Super Cub just doesn’t feel as casual or as fun to fly as my old Cub.

A year later, despite the Barron County community leaders suggestion that I drive over, my hand seemed to get unusually tight around the stick as I finally landed on that small lake.

Strangely, the presentation they got had a different flavor from the one I would have given a year earlier!

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