Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Things to do with a seaplane

We bought our seaplane in 1997. We had owned the lake house for five or six years by then, and I had spent lots of time growing up on that lake at my father's cabin. Once we got the plane it was really liberating. There was so much to explore and do.

Lake Martin has 750 miles of shoreline and there are lakes above and below it that are not accessible by boat, and impractical in a car. I originally envisioned taking the seadoo or the fishing boat on a trailer to these other lakes, but this never happened because of the effort involved.

Boats are generally so slow and expensive to operate from a fuel standpoint that getting very far on the lake is just not practical. Even a seadoo which you would think would be fast and efficient can only go about 50 mph for any length of time all the while burning 10 or more gallons per hour. The plane burns 8 gallons per hour while cruising easily at 100 mph. The very nature of the plane is to go far fast. You do miss some of the local scenery on the way, but there is so much other scenery you get from the plane view that you never see from the boat.

I was noticing yesterday all of the azaleas that are blooming in the middle of the woods. Unless you are a pilot flying low you would miss it. A whole world opened up to me and my family when we added the plane. My daughter and I go exploring on many weekends. We almost always get comments about how cool the plane is and we have seem way more of the lake in the last few years than I explored in the 30 years prior to having the seaplane.

We also use the plane to go and visit friends and until recently our old family lake house. We take the plane to lunch and dinner on the lake. A stir is caused when the plane pulls up. It is always a positive reaction. I will let people sit in the plane if they show interest. I love to encourage aviation interest and we do it wherever we go. We are very careful not to intimidate or annoy anyone with our activities, and it does take being careful. So we use it as a way to explore and a way to get to dinner.

I often take it to the lakeside country club for golf. We even use it to go pick up pizzas. The local Domino's will not deliver to our lake house because of the distance, but they will deliver to the local marina where I can fly in with the plane. The pizza guy really gets a kick out of delivering to a plane. Part of what makes our plane so practical is that it lives at our dock full time. I think it actually helps the property values.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Protecting the seaplane from wind and storms.

Our seaplane has no wheels and we have no water access to a hangar as yet. I dream of building a hangar on our lake lot, but most of my dreams like this are just not practical. I would probably spend fifty to a hundred thousand dollars to protect a fifty thousand dollar airplane. Whatever I build to protect the plane cannot reduce its utility by making it tougher to get it into the water and flying.

When I originally bought the plane it lived out of the water on a pontoon boat trailer. This got the plane out of the water, but left it vulnerable to trees, wind, and limbs. It also put the plane really high off the ground making it tough to tie down and tougher to preflight and fuel. The real clincher, though, was how tough it was to get onto the trailer in a high wind situation. Storms come up pretty darn quickly in Alabama. Usually the first indication is the gust front, and by the time that gets to us, we are already in trouble for threading the needle to put the plane on the trailer. It sits best on the trailer with the tail towards the trailer tongue, so that means a turn around on the water as well. I never had any issues or damage while doing these manuevers, although I personally got wet a few times. It became clear to me that I needed to keep the plane closer to the water and better tied down.

I built a U shaped dock to hold the plane which gave me multiple points to tie it up and tie it down. I then built a ramp in the middle of the slip and attached a winch and cables to lift the ramp/platform and the plane out of the water. This whole deal cost me a couple of weekends and about $2,000 including the wood, floatation foam and the winch. I was very proud of my engineering feat when I finished. This dock has provided me and the plane with years of protection and support. It has held up through several hurricanes and countless storms and boat wakes.

I am about to need a new winch, and my cabling corrodes and gives out every two or three years. The dock provides a great place to work on, fuel, and preflight the plane, and it has multiple points for tie downs. The support platform keeps the floats mostly out of the water and it keeps them stationary to the dock. When docking the plane, the platform acts like a ramp and keeps the floats from bashing into the back of the dock. The dock also weighs enough to hold the plane down during a storm, so it is secure at the dock. I can relax a little more when I hear about storms heading for Lake Martin. I still worry but just not quite as much. I still wish for a hangar.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Protecting the seaplane from the Alabama sun

The Alabama sun can be brutal. We have temperatures into the 100s sometimes for days from July through September. It is not a dry heat like Phoenix. This is a wet and sticky heat. Our plexiglass windows deteriorate in the sun. The UV rays break down the polymers and make the glass cloudy and eventually the plastic will craze and look almost shattered.

Our avionics and our bodies don't care much for heat either. UV rays also attack our upholstery and interior plastics. I use a cabin cover which I bought from Bruce's Custom Covers at http://www.aircraftcovers.com.%20these/ are very durable and easy to put on and take off. I have tried other brands which can be cheaper, but they were not as sturdy and they fell apart after just a few years.

The covers protect all of the glass in the plane as well as reducing the internal temperatures. I suspect it even helps prevent hail damage to the windows by providing a barrier. I have one of these covers for the Twin Comanche as well ,and when I have to park the plane outside for even a few hours, I install the cover to keep the plane from getting too hot during the warm months. I still wish for a hangar, but at $350-$400 vs $50,000 for a hangar, as well as easy on and off, the cover just has too many plusses.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Glider Clubs

One of the really amazing things about glider flying is that it is a group endeavour. If a tow plane is involved then there are at least two people required to launch. Optimally there is also a wing walker to lift the wing while the tow plane gets us going. There are self launch gliders, but part of the ambiance of gliding is being with the other pilots and telling stories. I belong to the Sylacauga Soaring Society glider club. The club operates several gliders and a Piper Pawnee tow plane. Every weekend there are at least a few guys from the club lurking around the airport. If the weather is bad then they will be working on their planes or just hangar flying. If the weather is good then they will hang out by the launch area on the field. If there is a glider to fetch or launch then they will help. There are cookouts and other more social events as well. Bob Hey is one of the founders of the club and he is the make it happen guy. He is nearly always on the field on the weekends. He sends a recap of the past day's/weekend's activities even if not much happened, and he generally facilitates the activities. Most of all Bob makes everyone feel welcome to the group. I feel that I am really fortunate to have become a part of this group and to have the privilege of flying with these guys. http://www.sylacaugasoaring.com/ You can contact me or Bob to arrange a demo flight.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Seaplane Passenger Briefing

Many of my first-time passengers are nervous about flying in a small plane—add that to the stress of flying in a seaplane. This is usually exacerbated during the pre-flight briefing when I mention the unlikely chance that we could be involved in an accident on the water; but it's also an opportunity to ease that tension with practical information and to mention seaplanes' excellent record in off-airport landings.

The briefing should cover the necessary topics while emphasizing the safety benefits of seaplane flying. On the positive side, seaplanes have several distinct safety advantages over land planes. To begin with, on Lake Martin we have about a 22 mile long runway ahead and 44,000 acres of runway below us almost the entire flight.

We have the option of landing on water or land without serious danger. Because the floats have very strong keels, seaplanes can be landed on grass safely without damage, or even on a concrete runway if necessary with minimal risk to the plane or occupants. All of that stucture below and in front of the passenger compartment helps to keep the plane upright.

Seaplanes fuselages also have structural enhancements to withstand the rigors of the water. The floats provide extra strength in front of and below the cockpit, which protects the occupants in the event of a landing accident.

The most serious issue in an accident is getting out of a sinking airplane. This is why pre-flight briefing is crucial. Passengers must be prepared for that unlikely event—they must be shown how to find and release seat belts, door, and window latches while upside-down, and the should feel free to kick out anything needed for egress. Finally they must know how and when to inflate life jackets.

The life jacket and the briefing—knowing what do and when in an emergency— should actually be a comfort to the wary first-time passenger, giving him/her a sense of security in the face of a new and exciting experience. Our life jackets are CO2 powered, but they must be manually activated and they must be worn. A life jacket in the back of the plane is of little use to someone who might be injured or cannot get access to the plane. At best it is a stressful activity to find the life jacket and actually put it on in the water.

I also like to include the standard type items in a briefing. How to use the seat belts. When the quiet times are. Too many pilots don't let their passengers know that there are times when a sterile and quiet cockpit are important. It won't do to have to tell this passenger to be quiet when you actually need to be concentrating on the task at hand.

Just be sure that you give your passengers a complete and rehersed briefing. You will look professional and make them feel more comfortable

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Mooring Strategies

Never assume your airplane is going to stay exactly where you put it while it's on the water. My plane is fairly secure at its specially built seaplane dock, which raises it out of the water and provides multiple solid tie downs. If it's anywhere else, I am never really at ease.
Strange docks are probably the worst. You never know how well anchored their cleats are going to be, or how rough the structure of the dock will be on the floats (be wary of objects below the surface that can jab at the sides of the floats). I am also nervous about other (especially pontoon type) boats that have roofs that can hit my wings. Boaters are not accustomed to other boats having a 12 foot overhang out to the sides. So I worry about these roofs denting my wings, ailerons, flaps etc.

Beaching is another matter. If the wind is blowing directly into the beach, you are in better shape but otherwise you need to check on the plane all the time. I had one instance this summer when I went back to the plane, and a pontoon boat was in the place I had beached my plane, and the boat was using my rope still tied to the tree that I had tied off to! My plane was nearby but loose, and fortunately the wind was keeping it at the beach. I can't imagine doing this to another boat. When we take the plane to lunch dinner in the plane, I usually check on it every 15-20 minutes.

During the drought of 2007, I had to leave the plane at the beach for nearly 8 months, while the water kept going down and then while the water came back up. I had to move the plane every 2-3 days. As the water was going down, I had to move the plane out deeper to keep it from being stuck for the rest of the season on the beach. I would keep one line on the tail cleat and one on each wing tie down attached to a large auger type tie down screw. When the water was coming up. the danger is with the tie downs over stressing the wings by pulling down while the floats are pushing up. The other fear is that the plane will pull the screws out of the ground and thus be free to float away. This up and down issue can also be an issue in coastal regions where the tide may change several feet in the coarse of a day. A floating dock or constant attention are really the only options.

The seaplane base at Oshkosh uses bouys achored to the lake bottom. A line is tied to the front of each pontoon and the planes are allowed to rotate into the wind. This assumes a pretty protected area, a secure bouy and that your floats don't leak too much.

The best sollution is to get the plane out of the water, but that is not always possible or convenient.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Seaplane Right Of Way

The question of who has the right of way on the water comes up very often in training. An airplane on the water has the same right-of-way as any power boat. Logic (and the Marine Police Regulations) dictates that the less manueverable craft should have the right-of-way.
A vessel towing anything is supposed to have ultimate right of way. Sail boats and unpowered craft come next on the food chain. Then there are power boats. The fact is that we are much less manueverable than a power boat. Most seaplanes do not have reverse. We have no neutral. We have limited steering. While on the step (high speed taxi) we have even more limitted steering and stopping options. While in the plow attitude even our vision is limitted by the nose of the plane.

This only matters if the other boaters know or recognize our challenges. Unfortunately, this is not the reality. The other critical fact is that boaters greatly outnumber seaplane pilots. They will have a much better chance of getting us kicked off the lake than we would have of getting them to recognize we are not a threat to their safety and happiness.

Part of being a good seaplane pilot is to learn to be defensive if not transparent in all our actions. Don't fly low over houses and boats. Don't fly super early in the morning. Don't do anything that might scare the other boaters. Give way whenever there may be a question. I have heard boaters worry that a seaplane might lose control and crash into their pontoon boat on landing. I have no easy way to educate thus guy, and there are thousands more like him. Our best course of action is to expose these people to as many good examples of seaplane courtesy as we can.

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.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Responsible Float Flying

We are fortunate to have many beautiful, clean lakes and rivers in which to play in Alabama. These are largely open to seaplane activity, while the majority of Georgia waterways are closed to seaplane traffic. We must cherish and protect the privilege of using our state’s wateways by being considerate of lake residents and boaters.
Most people living on the lake appreciate calm, quiet days, and almost none of them bought a lake house to be under an airport traffic pattern. Most of the comments I get from lake users are positive and they think the seaplane is pretty cool, but I am very careful not to frighten or annoy anyone.

Most of the time the seaplane attracts its own trouble. We will do two or three landing before boats start to congregate to watch the seaplane. The simple solution is to wave to the boaters and find a new place to play. During the summer and on busy lake weekends I try not to stay in one spot too long anyway.

There are many un-inhabited areas of the lake. Sometimes one side of the shore has houses and the other side does not. It is very easy to use a right hand pattern instead of left to use the side that does not have houses. Simple, painless and effective, but you do have to think about it to make it happen. I am also really carefull not to fly directly over houses climbing out when the engine is screaming. Just a few simple thoughts can keep a lake open to seaplanes.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Float protection at the dock

Floats are designed different from boats. Most boats are designed with the widest part about 2 feet above the waterline. Most docks are designed for boats with no attention paid to what is below the waterline. Floats are very fragile above the rub rail. A nail will go right through them. So we need to be carefull around docks.

One problem with floatplanes and docking is that fenders (boat bumpers) don't protect the floats. Why? Because the fenders float and the wide parts of the floats are actually below the water line. Here's a solution that actually will also keep the seaplane away from the dock and keep some light tension on the bow and stern ropes. Take a standard cylindrical boat fender and tie enough weight to the bottom of the float to just sink it. Attach a rope to the upper end of the fender and tie it or hook it to the wing tie down with enough length to set the fender next to the widest part of the float . The rope pulling on the tie down will actually pull the plane away from the dock thus providing a buffer zone.