Taking the Plunge: Becoming a Seaplane Pilot
May 5, 2015
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  • “I’ve always wanted to do that.”

    That’s the response you are likely to get if you tell someone that you have a seaplane rating. Float flying is on the bucket list of many an aviator, and it starts with finding the right place to do the training.

    Although there are FBOs with flight training at most of the airports in the United States, finding one that supplies instruction for the seaplane rating can be a little more difficult. More often than not, you must travel relatively far from home to acquire it.

    The Seaplane Pilots Association has a wealth of information for the aspiring water-wing seeking aviator, and Wipaire, the manufacturer of Wipline floats, also has a list of places that provide floatplane instruction on its website.
    If you chose to do your research via word of mouth, two of the most frequently mentioned seaplane schools in the United States happen to be at opposing ends of the country. One isJack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Florida; the other is Kenmore Air Harbor in Seattle, Wash.
    Established in 1963, Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base is now run by Jack’s sons, Jon and Chuck Brown.

    “We have trained over 20,000 pilots,” Jon notes. “It’s a fun rating, back to basics.”

    Training is done in either a Piper J-3 Cub for approximately $1,400 or a Maule M-7, which runs about $2,100.

    Kenmore Air Harbor, established in 1946, is located on the north end of Lake Washington, a 33-mile-long freshwater lake that borders Seattle. It offers training in a Piper Super Cub. The six-hour course runs $1,695. There is also a 10-hour course for $2,150.

    Both Jack Brown’s and Kenmore provide the required ground training, although Kenmore advises pilots study before they arrive on site. Recommend materials are Gleim’s Online Seaplane Rating Add-on Course, Edo’s “How to Fly Floats” and the FAA’s FAA-H-8083-23 Seaplane Operations Handbook.

    Many people chose to make the acquisition of the float rating part of a vacation package. Winter Haven is an excellent destination in the winter and Seattle is wonderful in the summer for the vacation-minded. The duration of training for the certificate, if it is done as an add-on rating, depends on pilot aptitude, but a six- to 10-hour range is often quoted.

    For pilots who aren’t sure if the rating is right for them and would like to get a taste of seaplane flying without setting foot near a dock, there is “So You Want to Fly Seaplanes,” a DVD and downloadable program from Sporty’s Pilot Shop.

    “Much of the video for the Sporty’s course was shot at Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base,” notes Paul Jurgens, vice president of publishing and chief instructor at Sporty’s Academy. “Hal Shevers was friends with John Rennie, who wrote ‘Step Up to Floats’ and was an instructor at Jack Brown’s. I used his ‘Step up to Floats’ book as my primary resource for information. I backed up the book with the FAA’s newly published ‘Seaplane, Skiplane and Float/Ski Equipped Helicopter Operations Handbook’ and some other excellent books on the subject.”

    He notes he did some re-writes during shooting after discussing some concepts with the Brown brothers. What made the project especially interesting is that most of the other Sporty’s programs are shot at Sporty’s homebase in Batavia, Ohio, he noted.

    “This was an unusual project for Sporty’s in that nearly all of the video was shot at a distant location,” Jurgens recalls. “We had an extensive shot list to acquire and only a few days at the seaplane base, but it went very well, other than none of us accounting for subfreezing temperature in the morning and having appropriate clothing for that weather. One of our guys picked up a few extra shots that we couldn’t get due to the weather on a quick one day visit during SUN ‘n FUN.”

    Jurgens did not have a seaplane ticket when they began shooting the video for the DVD. In essence, the DVD follows his journey through the training.

    He quickly noticed that once in the air, a floatplane handles pretty much like a wheel-equipped aircraft.

    It’s the ground training portion of the floatplane rating that includes parts of the airplane specific to water operations, right of way rules, sailing, understanding wind and water currents, flight to and from various surface conditions from glassy water to rough seas, docking and beaching — just to name a few — that presented a challenge, he said.

    Jurgens, who had been flying for about 20 years when the video was in production, quickly picked up on negative transference issues that wheel-to-water pilots face when they learn to fly floats.

    “I think that the biggest negative transference for me was the transition from the sterile environment of an airport to the disorganized environment of a lake,” he explains. “When taking off or landing at an airport, you know exactly where you will do that. You have a windsock to show you the current wind conditions and perhaps even a controller to tell you when it is your turn. On the water, it is generally up to you. You need to determine the wind direction from the available information and decide how you will line up for the takeoff or landing after taking the size and shape of the body of water into consideration, along with potential obstacles and noise issues. You also have to contend with boats that may be driven by an individual with an understanding of the right-of-way rules or by a joy rider who has never seen a seaplane and decides to get up close and personal.

    “While on the water, you also have to contend with many more obstacles than you would see at your typical airport,” he continues. “Other than living obstacles like deer, most of the obstacles at an airport don’t move like they can in the water. Obstacles at an airport tend to be removed or at least well marked,  but that is not the case in and around the water. I didn’t comprehend this as well as I should have and it nearly got me in trouble during my practical test while demonstrating docking procedures. There was a pole near the dock that I missed in my scan and I came very close to hitting it with the wing tip. I also saw another negative transference when I realized that I had no way to stop the moving plane when I recognized the pole. Luckily, we were able to maneuver away in time and there was not an incident.”

    Energy management is also a challenge, he says, because seaplanes, unlike land planes, do not have brakes, and there is no way to stop a moving seaplane other that having it collide with something.

    The downside of float flying, say those who have acquired the ticket, is that it can be difficult to find a floatplane to rent.

    Most floatplane facilities that provide training do not allow for solo flight because the insurance costs can be astronomical. So why bother to get the ticket?

    More often than not it is because the pilot has the intention of buying a seaplane in the near future or wants to do the seaplane rating to meet the requirements of the Flight Review, which requires a minimum of one hour of ground and at least one hour of dual flight instruction. Others simply want to get the ticket because it is on their bucket list.

    Kenmore Air Harbor anticipates the “why bother?” question and suggests these reason on its webpage: “Challenge yourself, have something on your FAA certificate that your friends will be jealous of, sharpen your skills and broaden your experience as a pilot, learn to read the environment around you, access remote locations unavailable to others, and be part of an elite group of pilots that have experienced the thrill of landing on the water.”