Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Seaplane Landing Issues

Some of the most striking views and greatest flying adventures are afforded the seaplane pilot. You can never use the same water runway twice.

Our paved runways are hard and fixed. Fences keep the area as sterile and aviation-centric as possible. There is never a rogue wave that came from some distant truck on the interstate. We never have a 12-year-old on a 130hp SeaDoo trying to get a better look at the airplane taking off; or randomly cruising in and out of blind coves, completely oblivious of his surroundings. Seldom is there a power line strung across our intended runway. The FAA has done a fine job of making sure that our land runways are pretty free and clear of troubles. This is not to say that deer and recently giant lizards in Florida haven't made their way onto runways and that another plane might take the runway in front of us. We still have to be vigilant.

Simply landing or taking off from the water changes it. It creates waves that can last for hours. By the same token, there are few things in flying more satisfying than executing a perfect glassy water landing. Every landing and every day is a learning experience and a new piece of water conquered. Yesterday I was eying the river below Lake Martin. It was a perfect sheet of glass. I setup to land and as I was coming down I started noticing debris in the water and lots of it. It was mostly tree limbs and sometimes whole trees. I aborted my landing. Recent rainfalls have been pounding the state, causing the rivers to swell.

Land planes rarely have to worry about the depth of the runway, but to a seaplane this is an issue of great importance. Lake Martin is very clear and a simple fly over of the landing zone will show the orange clay bottom if the water is shallow. Rivers are almost always too murky to see the bottom. Some rivers in the state won't allow you to see more than a foot or two and if the bottom is a dark color then you will never see the problem area. Still it is worth the fly over to check for debris. If there is a current, shallow water will change the surface pattern on the water.

The last obstacle that I am going to talk about is probably the most important and usually the easiest to avoid. Boaters.... We have a great view of the landing zone as we turn to final. I like to look for any boater that might come into my area. Personal Watercraft, PWCs, are the most trouble, since they can change direction at the drop of a hat (sometimes literally as a cap blows off), and the are stupid fast. They can dart out from a dock or a hidden cove. PWCs are so loud for the driver that they will never hear a seaplane and they are so personal that the driver is ususally focused straight ahead. I am ever vigilant for these guys.

This is part of what makes seaplane training so important. The seaplane pilot has to be more aware of his surroundings. The good thing is that the surroundings are so interesting that it is not a chore at all.

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