The Lure of Float Flying

by Karen Workman

It was one of those pivotal points in my life. I did not know it that day, or maybe I did, but I would not acknowledge it for many months.

My husband and favorite co-pilot, Eric, flew with me to Hayward, Wisconsin to meet our friends Mike, Scott and Dawn. The one-hour flight in my Cherokee 180D brought us over the Trix cereal-colored landscape of late September. Announcing a downwind entry for landing, another plane announced they were five miles southeast, over-flying at 3000. “That sounded like Mike,” I said. We looked around and saw a plane on floats, off in our four o’clock position. “Yep, and I’ll bet he’s heading to Nelson Lake,” Eric concluded.

Dawn met us at the ramp gate when we landed and confirmed that Mike and Scott were out doing “splash and goes” in the seaplane. She would bring us to where the plane would dock on Nelson Lake.

The Cessna 172XP on floats that Mike and Scott were flying, soon came into view over the lake. We watched it descend gently to the water, flare and smoothly splash down. It taxied slowly toward where we stood on the grassy beach.

After catching up on the latest news with our friends, Mike asked casually, “Are you interested in some float flying to see the fall colors?” I agreed, not recognizing the bait that Mike had so gently cast. Eric volunteered to sit in the back of the plane so I could sit in the left front seat with Mike on the right. Mike had been my instrument instructor, so I was comfortable with the seating arrangement in this unfamiliar aircraft.

Once in position, we went through our BC GUMPPS: Boost pump, Carb heat, Gas, Undercarriage, Mixture, Primer, Prop, Seatbelts. “Flaps, flaps,” added Mike: Cowl flaps open and 20 degrees of wing flaps.

“Undercarriage” in a seaplane refers to the water rudders. Mike talked me through the takeoff procedures, shadowing the controls in case I needed his backup. “You want to be full back on the yoke when you add power. See the nose rise? Watch as it drops slightly and rises again. Now, we lower our pitch to the horizon and feel for the sweet spot.” When the plane found its perfect pitch on the water, it picked up speed and soon we were airborne. It was an awesome feeling, departing the water like that.

We climbed to an altitude that had us well clear of trees, but lower than I would have chosen for enroute flying. The sights were vivid that day: the clear blue sky, the sparkling lakes, the hillsides in their brilliantly colored patchwork coats of orange, gold, green and red. We flew around the area, enjoying the autumn display from the overhead perspective that you can get only in a small plane. “Are you ready to do a water landing?” Mike asked. I wanted to keep flying, but to be polite, I said, “Sure.”

We circled over the lake where Mike intended to land, looking at the boat traffic and for other obstacles. “See how the wind makes stripes on the water? Think of those as lots of skinny runways.”

After confirming a safe approach and landing environment, we went through our BC GUMPPS as we entered a downwind, slowing the airplane down. Mike completed that landing, talking through each of his actions with the base and final legs. The plane decelerated quickly with an extended “whoosh” when the floats finally touched down and settled into the water. Looking back, I think that water landing might have been when I swallowed the bait that Mike tossed to me on shore. I wouldn’t say that I was completely hooked on flying floats, but the lure was certainly in my mouth.

We turned the plane around and did a fast taxi (“step taxi,” I later learned) until we reached the more crowded end of the lake. Mike pulled the throttle back to slow down and was rewarded with that extended “whoosh” of sudden deceleration I love so much.

People on the shore and in their boats paused to watch us, seemingly enthralled that a seaplane would choose to land on their lake.

We paraded past a pontoon tied to a wooden dock. Men and women were boarding the boat, wearing brimmed summer hats and carrying small coolers. I was thinking that they had an afternoon of fun ahead of them, but I could enjoy flying from place to place, and explore many more lakes.

We splashed down in several more lakes that day, seeing the glittering water amidst the beautiful autumn landscape. Looking back, seeing those people with the pontoon was probably the moment when I swallowed the hook, line and sinker. I would become a seaplane pilot.

POSTSCRIPT: I bought a share in the 172XP and earned my seaplane rating the following summer at Surfside Seaplane Base (8Y4) in Lino Lakes, Minnesota.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Karen Workman is an Instrument rated Private Pilot (ASEL and ASES) and lives in Northfield, Minnesota with her husband, Eric, who is also a pilot. Besides owning a share in the Cessna 172XP floatplane, she owns a Piper Cherokee 180D.

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