How the Pro's Fly Floats

Robert S Grant

This article first appeared in Canadian Aviation Magazine April 1983 and is accompanied by some wonderfully evocative photographs taken by Robert himself which I cannot replicate here, so I have added a few just to add a little atmosphere. The headings are also added for ease of reference. Thanks to Robert for letting me reproduce this article.

No one ever heard of Kegaska. No one except the pilots who drop in on windy days. The place is a small settlement exposed to the salt-water swells of the Gulf of St Lawrence. Inbound to pick up a bag of clams for an inland fishing party, I saw the truck sized walls of water breaking over the shoreline. As I touched down in a sheltered cove a blast of power, to avoid a fishnet, ran poor CF-GCX into the swells. Moments later, I wryly reflected on what a pleasure it was to fly floats for a living, as Les Ailes du Nord's Beaver bumped against the dock.

Float flying, according to a four-inch stack of aviation magazines on my desk, can be gratifying under the most adverse conditions. If we can believe what the passengers, writers and newly-minted pilots say about the Norsemen, Beeches, Otters and Beavers every year, there is a romanticism about flying of the water.
Skies are not crowded in float country (at least, so it seems to a non-flyer), and the possession of a pair of floats underneath an airplane is practically a carte blanche to freedom.

Some Basics
In many cases, however, what are reasonable performers on wheels become poor ones on water. Large cabins and cockpits often invite overloading. Some onboard material, such as life preservers, first aid kits etc., are made compulsory by Dept of Transport air regulations. A telephone canvass, among the pro's nest of pilots who operate in northwestern
Ontario, revealed additional items selected to get the airplane back to base. Several carried no more than a handful of rags and coathangers in a limp cardboard box. A Beech 18 "driver" recommended a canvas pouch of bolts, washers and nuts with appropriate screwdrivers, adjustable wrench and vice grips, as well as a tube of gasket cement.

"If you punch a float, you can always scrounge something to use as a patch", he explained. "I once cut the top off an oil can and repaired a tear I had above the waterline. The gasket cement and a couple of bolts sealed it nicely. Some people used pieces of leather boots, tin roofing, stove pipes and even inner tubes."

Several years ago, a Piper Super Cub, contracted for fire patrol in British Columbia, departed almost daily from a shallow "water alighting area" dredged beside Dawson Creek's runway. The pilot never carried more than a six-foot piece of nylon curtain cord, but managed to fly an entire summer without losing the airplane to high winds.

Every float aircraft should a minimum of two 50-foot ropes at least one half inch in thickness and a shorter one neatly coiled and placed near the pilot. A permanent loop at one end of the throw rope saves frustrating fumbling with a knot after the floats have nicely paralleled the dock and then just as nicely floated beyond jumping distance.

Safety and Common Sense
A float pilot has not yet been borne who will not fall into the water or get his feet wet during his career. Personally, I take my socks off and put boots back on to repel attacks by the rapacious starving bloodsuckers so common in northern
Ontario. When passengers have to work outside from a float, as they do during water sampling or commercial fishing, a life jacket should be worn, particularly on choppy days. This safety precaution makes sense, but the law only requires that passengers be advised of the location of jackets and their proper use.

Survival kits are mandatory on commercial float aircraft, but many aircraft owners and pilots tend to forget what type of medium their platforms land on. It is great fun to watch a seaplane slowly submerge into the loonslime taking life-sustaining gear down with it. Some operators have been placing their survival packages in several buoyant containers with the reasoning that one or two will float to the top if a rare error of judgement strands them in the wilderness.

Paddling certain aircraft on windy days would be comparable to attempting to polevault across the Straits of Belle Isle with a ballpoint pen. Nevertheless, every water-based airplane needs a paddle. There are times when aircraft must be pushed from muskeg shorelines and sand beaches or fended from other airplanes or docks.

A small hatchet placed within reach of the pilot's seat may someday come in handy when float repairs are performed in the field. A layer of saplings cut and placed under a float serves well as a temporary ramp when punctures occur below the waterline. If an aircraft goes upside down at the bottom of a lake, doors can jam because of impact or water pressure. Although windshield plexiglass has considerable strength, a hatchet would probably win a lifesaving "let's get the hell out of here" battle.

Anchors may be useful on saltwater coasts or in the summer Arctic but, for most aircraft, the weight and bulkiness makes them a nuisance. When carried, they must be fastened to a member of the airframe. If an airplane should dig in and pitch nose down, that metal in the rear baggage area instantly becomes deadly.

Until recently, the standard float pump was a heavy brass affair, very chilly to use in cold weather. If an aircraft owner purchases one, it should be unceremoniously thrown into a deep body of water and a plastic pump substituted. Working float pilots will be forever grateful. There would be one less of the easily jammed brass pumps on the market.

Taxiing and Manoeuvreing
Ducks, although they may be shot at from time to time, have distinct advantages over any floatplane. They have far more control on the surface and can make themselves sit still in the water. Airplanes are subject to the vagaries of every breeze that whistles through the spruce. Luckily, someone invented water rudders to steer the airplane under most wind conditions. Sixteen years ago, a young pilot in northern
Manitoba forgot the basic maxim that water rudders must normally be down if one wishes to guide the aircraft away from crowded docks. Since putting two badly-needed Cessna 180's out of action that day, water rudders have been the number one item on the checklist of every float aircraft I have touched since.

In most floatplanes, normal taxi rpm should not exceed 1000 in order to avoid propeller spray damage. When turning out of a strong wind becomes necessary, short burst of power may be sufficient. Once the nose of a float submerges, the time has come to pull back the power and begin sailing. (Water rudders up, flaps down and plenty of patience will help manoeuver the aircraft into very tight spots). Some types, such as the Beech 18, will not sail well, but it's twin engines provide asymmetric thrust to aid in changing direction.

"Certain makes of floats have poor floatation in the rear compartments," explained Joe Sinkowski, 5000-hour chief pilot for Green Airways of Red Lake, Ontario. "With an Otter, for example, the engine should not be shut down while sailing or the airplane may go back too fast and submerge the heels. The high wing pitches the nose up and tail down. More than one airplane has gone over backwards in high winds".

When Manoeuvreing in confined areas, pilots use every possible means to control direction. Some recommend opening doors on one side or the other, but this can create embarrassing situations. "I yelled at a backseat passenger to open the right rear door", said a Beaver pilot who had had to work his way towards a small bay in a shallow wild rice lake. "he did exactly as I asked, but when he opened the door, his tool box fell out and sank out of sight in the mud".

External Loads
Sooner or later, everyone who flies into lake-country will carry external loads. Boats or canoes are th most common objects fastened to the sides of airplanes. Stoves, lumber and refrigerators are common in the fall of 1982, a pool table, almost nine feet long and four feet wide, roped to the side of a Norseman, made the journey to Poplar Hill, an Indian reserve north of
Red Lake.

Armchair of "dock" pilots, insist that external loads be carried on the right side of an aircraft to help counteract the right-hand swinging tendency encountered at take-off. I personally have flown boats and canoes on both sides and cannot discern any differences. However, being familiar mainly with high-powered airplanes, I put the question to several highly experienced pilots who fly long-run types such as Norsemen and Stinsons. "I've had external loads on both sides and cannot see much, if any, difference" said Norm Wright, a chief pilot with Sab Air of Cochenour, Ontario. "I prefer loads on the left because that's where I can see whether anything shifts. If it does, being able to see it just might give me time enough to get on the water before anything comes off".

Under average conditions, once water rudders are up, takeoffs on floats are not difficult. For most aircraft, the control column must be held hard back to the stops to avoid prop spray. The point cropped up again and again while teaching float flying at Georgian Bay Airways at
Parry Sound, Ontario, particularly when dealing with land-plane trained pilots. Most having learned on tricycle -geared Cessna 150's or Piper Cherokees, have been taught to let nose wheels run along the pavement all the way to liftoff. Once the nose stops rising on a seaplane, a release of pressure will permit the nose to lower, a phrase termed "on the step" or the "planing attitude". Most moderately loaded airplanes will not require forward shoves on the control column. Some novices watch the spray line at the side of the aircraft, but eyes should be straight ahead. Boaters are the enemy and they do strange things when they see razor blades coming at them. Commonly, low timers unintentionally allow the nose to pitch downward which extends the run considerably. With the control column too far back, heels dig and the resulting drag again helps pilots run up on far shorelines before flying speed arrives. Distances required vary considerably with temperature, wind, load, aircraft and pilot. A friend with a 65-hp Taylorcraft regularly despaired at his seven-mile takeoff run on the Bay of Quinte in southern Ontario.

While researching water flying, I came across an article in a well-known magazine published in the United States. The writer recommended starting rough water takeoff with 10 flap and then, when at minimum speed, applying abrupt full flap to throw the airplane into the air. The resulting drag was supposed to be offset by the sudden lift. The response from an un-named group of pilots was "jeez, what the hell's he talkin about? He's gonna kill someone tellin them that!"

Anyone can sit back in his rocking chair and say that rough water take-offs must be avoided. The person stranded at a northern village where there are no disease-free places to sleep or eat has a different outlook. Besides, the load of fish on board will not keep all night and the sleeping bag is in the airplane he flew yesterday. When it becomes necessary to get back to base, leaving from behind an island may help even at the cost of a crosswind takeoff. The pilot must be on the step before he comes out of the sheltered area or he will receive a damaging pounding not only from the waves but from the aircraft owner when the aircraft returns to base.

No one has ever had a problem getting an airplane on the step in high winds. The pilot must learn to read the waves which tend to travel in herds, i.e. waves of lesser size follow the larger ones. Flap should be set as for a normal takeoff and, according to another high-time Beech 18 driver, "trim works best set full nose up". The initial part of a trough water takeoff "ain't no time to be foolin' around with flap!" snorted another veteran. Once on the step, the trim may be "felt" to help flatten the airplane. Care needs to be taken that the aircraft does not leave the water until safe speed has been attained despite what the American writer claimed. The extra speed ensures control through the gusts always present in rough water conditions. A pilot yanking an aircraft from the water in a semi-stalled condition leaves himself in a very dangerous position. Should a gust pitch the aircraft up and leave it "high and dry" 20 feet from the wave tops, a stall would pitch the nose down. The floats would catch the swell and abruptly terminate the flight. Pilots must remember that although the airspeed indicates high, the actual groundspeed (waterspeed?) is low, thus the pounding would not be as severe as striking the surface fully stalled.

A popular booklet, sold by a float manufacturing company recommends the steepest possible stall with maximum flap for rough water landings. Again, experienced personnel were appalled at such a suggestion. In fairness, the writer's suggestion might do for Piper J-3's, Cessna 150's etc or any airplane with a low stalling speed and small floats. For heavier machines with large gear, the late Orville Wieban recommended a full flap landing with as flat an attitude as possible. "The strength of the float is certainly not in the heels", said Joe Sinkowski, who's career began with Wieban's Superior Airways at
Thunder Bay, Ontario. "If an aircraft hits tail first onto the water, there's a terrific shock and a very real possibility of severe structural damage. With the Beech or anything with larger floats, the 'V' of the keels cuts several waves simultaneously, thus distributing the stress along the length of the floats instead of at the rear end. And increased airspeed provides better control as well".

Sometimes the temptation exists to land in heavy waters in front of the village to save a long taxi. Even if sheltered islands or bays are considerable distances away, that long taxi could prevent the loss of an airplane. For those unfortunates who have to fly from the harbours of Toronto or Vancouver, rough water mixed with ferries, sailboats and motorboats can be highly hazardous. Airplanes may utilise the smooth area behind large moving freighters. Pilots did so frequently during the Second World War.

Landing in a familiar area day after day rarely presents problems, but away from base, a significant difference between landplane and floatplane flying becomes apparent. On runway fields or even on the Arctic tundra, if someone has landed there before, there will usually be some indication. On floats, the pilot lands on his own every time, unless he happens to arrive within 10 minutes of another aircraft which leaves tracks in the water. The first circle over the lake selects the best parking area. From the air all hills and ledges look flat. More than one pilot has taxied up to what he thought was a natural dock and found a cliff or rock face higher than the wing tips. Another circle determines wind direction and the size and shape of the body of water. Finally, a safe take-off path or escape route must be selected. The area may be surveyed from a parallel pass, but if wind ripples the surface, a slow turn directly over the centre of the lake enables a look straight down for shoals and deadheads. An oblique look would be useless in glare or choppy conditions. All this implies that float flying involves considerable memory work. Each hazard must be memorized from the air because after touchdown, the obstacles disappear. If the wind changes, the pilot must recall what hazards lie in his alternate takeoff path.

Downwind takeoffs & Landings
It makes little sense to depart into wind when a large hill awaits the end of a run. Downwind take-offs are standard procedure under certain conditions, i.e. with a not so heavily loaded aircraft and lower wind velocities. "You've got to stay right on ailerons and rudders and keep liftoff speed higher to prevent weather-cocking", said Norm Wright, whose 14,000-hour total flying time includes 9,000 on floats. "Pilots tend to forget that their downwind groundspeed is high, but it's the indicated airspeed that counts. A person should, if possible, stay in the same aircraft from day to day. This way he develops a feel for that particular machine and will not have to be searching for an airspeed indicator during a tense takooff run. He'll feel when it's ready to fly".

Downwind landings warrant caution. Some airplanes, especially the Beech 18, tend to dig the nose of the floats in and must be watched. Groundspeeds are still higher and here, touching down a long way back from the intended docking area might prove to be wise. Plenty of pilots have misjudged their waterspeed and spent a day or two picking dock spiders from their hair.

Landings with light loads on gently rippled, long lakes are far easier than touchdowns on paved runways. When available landing spaces shorten, an aircraft has to be flown considerably slower than normal. A Beech 18, for example normally approaches at 90-95 knots, but if light, an 80 knot IAS suffices. Full flap with throttles backed right off, almost always comes into play. Joe, Sinkowski recommends plenty of practice in airspeed control and believes in strict adherence to the book numbers. "Power on about 10 or 15 feet up will reduce the stress on landing. Once you flare at the lower airspeed, there's no guarantee the rate of descent will stop just because you raised the nose. Unless you're ready for it, the airplane might wind up hitting hard enough to cause a few wrinkles in the fuselage".

Boats, carried stern end first to reduce the turbulence around the elevators, require less flap than normal on landing. A shallow descent with gentle movements on the controls and no more than takeoff flap, are adequate on most airplanes. Final approach should be 10 to 15 knots faster.

Glass Water
Glassy water landings have sunk more airplanes than any other type of floatplane accident. Most professional pilots go to great lengths to avoid such conditions. Rather than gamble, many put down a considerable distance back from the dock on a ripple or boat wake. The object is to prevent the nose of the floats touching first or, at the worst, a high roundout, and it may be attained by nose high, power approaches. A steady rate of descent at 150-200 fpm, aided by judging height from nearby shorelines or trees, if available will carry the aircraft onto the water. If water birds are present the approach may be made toward them. Ripples created on their terrified takeoffs are helpful. If possible, pilots without experience should contact someone at their destination if they are flying into cottage country or settled areas. A motorboat does wonders in roughing up the water. Slow flight practice, even on wheels or skis, may someday help the potential float pilot.

Short Takeoffs
There are many schools of thought on the short lake take-off. For certain, pumping the floats again may make the difference between clearing a shoreline or hanging in the spruce. Rear compartments are the most critical area of the float. A load of water at 10 pounds a gallon in the rear end of an airplane creates a dangerous center of gravity condition. One suggested method is to begin as far back on the shoreline as possible, perhaps in a nearby cove. The position of the aircraft should be at right angles to the intended path on the initial run. This may add 10 to 15 knots before coming up on the step. With some aircraft the use of flap is quite straightforward - in the Cessna 180/185 for example, one notch before power application followed by the second after the aircraft has attained the planing attitude. Larger aircraft may perform better with less than normal takeoff flap at first, or none at all until reaching flying speed. Some may be 'walked', i.e. the alternate movement of the rudder pedals increases the velocity of the float to hasten attaining the step position. Once off the water, the nose must be levelled and flap removed very slowly. Power should not be retarded until a positive rate of climb and airspeed well above the stall are reached. The extra speed ensures the airplane will fly through any gusts and prevent settling on the water again.

Docking & Beaching
It has been said that anyone can fly floats, but not so many can properly park the airplane. Shut the engine off too soon and, other than swimming, nothing remains to be done except grind the expensive starter over and try again. Shut off too late, and float repairs cost over $20 an hour [1983 rates!]. In settled areas, the spectators are often anxious to help reach up and stop the inner wing. This pivots the airplane around and slams the inside float into the dock. In the bush, passengers such as prospectors, hunters or trappers often want to be dropped off in some strange places. High treed shorelines are common to many Canadian lakes. Usually a break in the trees can be found where an aircraft wing will fit. Whenever possible, a helper familiar with the use of an axe should accompany the aircraft. If not, a level headed passenger 'educated' as to the dangers and the high cost of replacing propellers may be a great asset. When the pilot has to work alone, a few paint scratches are practically guaranteed. In a light wind, approaching downwind with engine idling as slowly as possible will get a man to shore. Judgement for shutdown has to be precise. Too soon and the aircraft will weathercock even in the slightest breeze. The first person off the float can chop down a few trees to enable an easy departure. If the aircraft has not weather-cocked, paddling or poling straight back to clear the wingtips will prevent the tail from snagging in the bush.

Somewhere there must be a pilot's heaven where there are endless miles of treeless sand beaches. Shallow water leading to a beach sometimes contains hidden hazards in the form of semi-submerged rocks. In settled areas, stakes driven into the bottom for securing boats are not unusual. Low sloping sand areas may be approached head on to allow passengers to step off the float onto the sand. Unfortunately, the airplane often grounds far enough from dry land that someone, usually the pilot, has to go into the water. Once the first person gets on shore, a rope attached to the back bollard or tail will pull the airplane to face the nose away from the beach. It helps if passengers disembark and move toward the front end. This raises the heels of the floats and allows the airplane to be pulled closer to shore. Approaching a beach at a 45 angle and grounding, makes it easier to swing the airplane around after the load has departed. On windy days, simply pull up the water rudders, weathercock and sail in backwards so the heels touch first.

Float flying differs in various parts of Canada. Those who operate on the west side of British Columbia and the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador have evolved techniques that would be of little use in the flatlands of the central provinces and the Northern territories. Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic are subject to fog, wind and tide most pilots never experience. Monsonee-based crews quickly become proficient in handling the fast rivers emptying into Hudson and James Bay.

Regardless of where the floatplane pilot goes, there will be new challenges every time his floats touch down.