Learning to fly the seaplane...
It has been far too long since I updated my blog and much has happened. I had planned to accomplish many things before leaving on my great adventure in Vietnam. Unfortunately my departure date was moved up and I was not able to accomplish very many of them. One of these things was learn to fly a seaplane. Having nearly 800 hours of flight time now, I have flown many different kinds of small planes. But never a plane on floats.
The idea to fly seaplanes came to me when I was driving down Kearny Villa Road right next to Montgomery Field on my way to a flight and passed by my primary flight training school Pacific Wings. Parked out beside the building was a 1994 Maule MT-7-235 on amphibious floats. Hanging from the plane was a banner advertising seaplane lessons from Socal Seaplanes. I went inside Pacific Wings and was put in touch with Brian Humphries of Socal Seaplanes. We set up an appointment for our first flight.
I met Brian at Pacific Wings where the plane was parked. We went over some basic preflight items which is just like any other plane. Check flight controls, check oil, check fuel, look for any parking damage, etc. Only additional items are to lower, test, and raise the water rudders to make sure they work properly, inspect all of the water rudder rigging and pontoon struts for corrosion or damage, and occasionally pump any accumulated water out of the floats. We manually turned the plane around on the ground and got it pointed towards the taxiway and climbed in. This thing sits WAY up off the ground compared to what I am used to. You climb up onto the floats and them climb a little ladder made of the float struts from the deck of the floats into the cockpit. Your butt is probably a good 8 feet off the ground when sitting in the cockpit. More than twice as high as I am accustomed to. Starting the engine is just like any other fuel injected lycoming. One oddity of this plane is that it has a vernier throttle like a Bonanza. I am still undecided on whether I prefer vernier or standard push-pull throttle. It took quite a bit of throttle to get the plane rolling initially because the castoring nosewheels were at 90 degrees from where we spun it around by hand just as if you turned a tailwheel airplane around by the tail and then jumped right in. But once it was rolling it taxi's just like any other airplane although the site picture is different from being so high up. This plane is heavy with the pontoons so it does have some inertia. But steering was simple.
Once we arrived at the end of the runway we did the usual preflight checks of engine runup, control surface check, instrument checks, etc. Then I called for clearance and moved into position. Brian had warned me that it can take some back pressure to make the nose come off and not to overcontrol it or cause the plane to porpoise when we rotated and he was right, it is a little more touchy than a non-float plane. Once the nose comes up you just have to release a little back pressure and it is fine. Once safely off the ground we put the landing gear lever in the up position and the hydraulic pumps go to work raising all four wheels. Once in the air the plane does feel heavy and you can sense the change in handling all of that additional side area and drag caused by the pontoons. You really need to use the rudder to make coordinated turns in this airplane and hold lots of right rudder on climbout in order to keep the plane coordinated and passengers comfortable.
We made a slight left turn after departing Montgomery and headed for Lindbergh's class Bravo airspace. I called up Lindbergh tower, got a clearance to enter and make the taxiway Delta transition over Lindberg. This means we fly from north to south straight over taxiway delta which crosses perpindicular to their single east-west runway. If I recall correctly we may have been at 3000 feet. This takes us right past downtown where we got an excellent up-close look at all of the big buildings and a view down into the new "Petco Park" ballpark. Soon we were past downtown and over the bay. We flew to the south end of the bay where there was a boat channel used to get from the marina to the sea marked by pylons. This was to be our runway. I made an approach 500' up and off to one side of the landing area to look for boats, surfers, or debris which could harm our pontoons and finding that the area was clear brought us around flying a standard pattern for a normal water landing.
Since this airplane is an amphibious airplane you have a little more to deal with than your standard complex airplane in that there are three states the landing gear can be in: Up for cruise, up for water landing, down for landing on land. The landing gear lever is accompanied by a pair of lights: One green and one blue. When the gear is up the blue light is illuminated and when it is down the greet light is illuminated. To remind ourselves of what the appropriate position for the gear lever and landing gear to be in we say "Green light, green grass" when landing on the ground. Or we say "Blue light, blue water" when landing on the water.
Landing a seaplane on the water is actually pretty easy. When landing on land you have to time it just right so the wheels touch down smoothly but because the water has small waves and ripples it just seems to have a lot more "give" so that as soon as the pontoons touch the water it slows the plane and it just settles down very easily. We fly a normal pattern and approach to landing just as if we were going to land on concrete. Landing the seaplane on the runway is a bit of a challenge because I am sitting up so much higher than I am accustomed to which makes judging the height above runway more difficult. But once on the ground it handles very much like any other airplane.
Glassy water landings are more interesting. When there is no wind and no ripples on the surface of the water to give you some way of estimating your height you must be very careful not to crash into the surface of the water with a high speed or high descent rate. Glassy water landings are basically an instrument approach. You fly down to within a couple hundred feet of the surface using the altimeter and then descend using the vsi at around 200 feet per minute at around 75kts until you fly it onto the water.
Taxiing the airplane on the water is the most difficult part of operating a seaplane in my humble opinion. Especially if there is any sort of wind. After touchdown you lower the water rudders into the water to give the plane some directional control. Now we are essentially a boat, perhaps even a sailboat with all of the exposed side area an airplane has, and all of the boating laws apply. If there is any wind the airplane naturally wants to turn into the direction of the wind because of the pressure of the wind pushing on the airplanes rudder. Turning downwind can be very difficult or even impossible, especially if you are going slow. High speed water taxiing turned out to be difficult also and I still have not mastered it. You have to be careful not to let a pontoon dig in and flip the plane.
Takeoffs are pretty much like land takeoffs. Get pointed down the runway, raise the water rudders, visually clear the area, the go full throttle and the airplane accelerates until it is ready to lift off.
Brian turned out to be a pretty nice guy and very cool instructor. I will be sure to post more details of my seaplane flights in the future.