Floatplane Training, Canadian StyleBy Lane Wallace - December 2005
As I start the engine, close the door and steer away from the shore, navigating gingerly around a submerged tree trunk and the last log in the rugged breakwater a few yards away, the butterflies in my stomach advance from a jittery dance of anticipation into something more akin to a whirling dervish frenzy. It's been a long time since I've done this. Eighteen years, to be exact. And if I screw it up, there will be no one else on board to save me.
It's that last part that's causing the butterflies. For aside from that, the task facing me is at least vaguely straightforward. Taxi out into the main portion of the lake while performing my pre-takeoff checklist and engine run-up, and then turn into the wind, remembering to retract the water rudders just before adding full power. Then all I have to do is execute a safe takeoff, taking care to head quickly toward the edge of the lake as I climb, hugging one of its steep, densely forested mountain slopes until the canyon widens enough for me to turn, then complete the circuit, remembering everything on my pre-landing checklist, and successfully touch down into the wind again ... at least five separate times.
It's a simple and yet completely intimidating maneuver known as a first solo. And the last time I soloed a completely new type of aircraft was April 28, 1987, when I flew my newly purchased Cessna 120 taildragger alone for the very first time. The aircraft in question this time around is a 1959 Cessna 182 floatplane. And I'm soloing it because I've been doing my floatplane training in the wilds of British Columbia, where they have the odd notion that a proven ability to safely handle the aircraft by yourself should be part of any worthwhile training program and check ride.
So why did I come all this way for floatplane training, when I could have gotten a rating more simply and cheaply at any number of places in the United States, where no stress-inducing solo would be required?
Well, maybe it's because very few people get the opportunity to solo a floatplane in a breathtakingly gorgeous mountain lake, undisturbed by all but one floatplane, one fishing boat, a ranger station and a few eagles. Or to learn floatplane flying in such a challenging but stunning variety of real-life conditions, from mountain lakes and wilderness fiords to ocean bays, crowded harbors, and isolated islands in the Georgia Strait. Or to learn from a working floatplane charter pilot/instructor and guide, who's seen the best and worst that floatplanes, weather and nature in these parts can supply. Or to see so much country and have so much fun, all in the name of training.
If I had all of these opportunities, it's because sometime last year, Mike Seib, the enterprising and enthusiastic owner/operator of Island Air, in Courtenay, British Columbia (halfway up Vancouver Island, on the eastern side), got frustrated with just teaching floatplane flying in a few local spots around home. Sure, you could do it that way, but he knew he was sitting in the middle of one of the most beautiful and diverse natural and floatplane environments in North America. How much better it would be in terms of training, and how much more fun it would be, to take people as deep and far as he could into the wilds of Vancouver Island and the fiordlands of British Columbia's western coastline. They could explore, fish, wander remote islands, and get a real taste of what floatplane living could be like, in addition to getting a wide variety of training challenges.
Of course, being a married man himself, Mike also realized that a lot of families might not take too kindly to a spouse going off for a week of adventure and fun by themselves. So he decided to put together a package deal to encourage friends or families to come enjoy the training and adventure, as well. You and your friend/spouse/family pretty much own Mike and his airplane for a week of floatplane backwoods flying adventure and fun, during which time he also manages to impart a heck of a lot of knowledge and skill in practical, real-world floatplane flying.
Not having a spouse or family right at hand, I managed to twist the little pinky finger of my buddy Jeff to come along with me. Mike picked us up in Vancouver in his 182 and flew us over to Vancouver Island, where he put us up at a beachfront cabin resort not far from the floatplane base. Then, each morning except the one where it poured down rain and wind, we got up and headed out with Mike to explore the water wonderland of British Columbia.
On one of the first days, we head out over the Georgia Strait to Desolation Sound … a winding labyrinth of majestic, green slopes that drop precipitously down into the deep blue-green fiords that snake their way inland. On the way, Mike points out the "cat’s paws" and streak lines that indicate the presence and direction of gusts and wind over various parts of the water.
"I also used to think wind flowed straight over islands," Mike says. "But drop down by that island there and take a look." I descend lower and fly around a small, hilly island in the strait, looking carefully at the waves to determine the wind direction. At first I think the wind is from the south, but then, as we continue north along the lee side of the island, the waves start coming toward us. "Wind shear?" I ask.
"Actually," Mike answers, "the wind’s from the west. But it’s following the path of least resistance, wrapping itself around the island before heading on. It’s something to keep in mind, if you’re planning a landing when the wind’s up in a place like this."
Tips like that one, discussed in real-time as we encounter an endless variety of conditions and situations throughout the week, are an invaluable part of the training Mike offers. For while floatplane pilots can make a runway almost anywhere there’s water, there’s no ATIS, Unicom or windsock to help you figure out where, or in what direction, that runway ought to be. Not to mention the fact that the runways themselves aren’t predictable or solid. They’re fluid, changing, and moving surfaces—with obstacles, no less—that can be punishing or hazardous if their characteristics are misjudged.
Every floatplane landing, in other words, is actually an off-airport landing, whose success depends on a pilot’s ability to use nature’s cues to successfully judge the wind and runway conditions. So learning to read those cues and make or adjust your choices accordingly is just as important—and I think actually harder to learn—than the basic mechanics of taking off and landing.
Flying with Mike up and down the coast and interior of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, every landing I do is a new and complex problem to solve, requiring me to hone my situational assessment and judgment skills as well as my mechanical technique. There are tides and current to contend with in one inlet, crab pot obstacles in another harbor, gusty winds and swells in another bay, and high terrain surrounding an inland lake that requires some advance thinking to figure out the best approach while still allowing myself an exit route if I have to go around.
And believe me. After experiencing the punishing SLAM! SLAM! SLAM! of a landing across swells, you learn quite viscerally, and memorably, the place and appropriate use of a power-off, full-flap landing that will get you down and stopped in the meager 300 feet of protected water in one corner of a bay. You also get real focused on getting that particular maneuver right.
But along with all that training, we’re also having a very good time. Low clouds prevent us from reaching an inland mountain lake where Mike had arranged for the use of a floating cabin for a day of lounging and fishing. So Mike, Jeff and I divert to a place called Powell Lake, near the coast, where there’s a great restaurant right on the water, as well as an opportunity to practice docking the plane, which turns out to be yet another adventure in aviation humility.
One of the challenges of floatplanes is that they have no brakes. So everything—from engine run-ups before takeoff to tying them down at the end of a flight—has to happen on the go. Docking requires getting the angle and speed right, and then figuring out exactly when to cut the engine so you’ll coast gently up to the dock. And even if you get that part right, there’s still the acrobatic act—performed while the plane is still moving, mind you—of getting unbuckled, unhooked from your headset, and out the door onto the float so you can leap off the float onto the dock and secure your craft so it doesn’t go careening into another plane or bounding back off into the lake.
It is, shall we say, not quite as easy or straightforward as the textbooks make it sound. On my first attempt, I teeter dangerously on the float in my over-eager attempts to reach the dock, only barely catching myself from falling in. Good balance, I decide, is a very important quality for anyone thinking of becoming a floatplane pilot.
"Yeah," Mike laughs as we tie the plane to the dock. "If you fall in twice in one day, you ought to think about whether this is really for you."
And so the week goes. We take a day and meander through a series of landings down the coast of Vancouver Island to Victoria, where Jeff and I have lunch in front of the Empress Hotel and watch the seaplanes arrive from Seattle. We take low-level tours of fiords and waterways, banking gleefully around isolated islands and picking practice landing sites at will. But my favorite stop is a spontaneous visit we make to an isolated piece of sandy land in the Georgia Strait called Tree Island. We’re passing over it on our way back to Courtenay one evening when Mike looks down and says, "I’ve always wanted to check that place out. Want to stop?"
I look down and see a small, crescent island of tall pine trees surrounded by a ring of white sand, with two boats moored in the bay. Two minutes later, we’re down and taxiing slowly in toward shore. Mike looks at the power boat and sailboat at anchor in the bay and starts to chuckle.
"We’ve definitely got the coolest boat here," he says.
Mike and I both hop out on the floats to help paddle us in and steer around any obstacles in the shallows. The northern evening sunlight is glinting off the water, and I can see every pebble, fish and waving piece of algae through the crystal-clear shoreline water. We come to rest a few yards from shore, so Mike, Jeff and I all take off our shoes, roll up our jeans, and wade the rest of the way in. The water feels great. And the interior of the tiny island is covered with a soft bed of pine needles and white sand that makes barefoot exploring a joy.
"Just think," Jeff says as we emerge from the trees on the far side of the island and gaze at the distant fiords of the mainland. "Fifteen minutes ago, we were flying over this. And now look at us." He’s silent for a long moment, taking it all in. Then he looks at me and grins. "Kinda cool," he says.
Yeah. Kinda cool. In the same way, I’m tempted to add, as the Himalayas are kinda big. And that’s even before we see the pod of dolphins just off our starboard float as we taxi out for takeoff.
It might have taken longer and cost more to get my floatplane training this way. And there are some additional hassles for U.S. pilots who then need the FAA to sign off on their Canadian rating (stay tuned for the tale of that one). Not to mention the requirement of a butterfly-inducing solo—something even some floatplane instructors in the United States have never done. But, you know, I’d also forgotten just how exhilarating a first solo, completed successfully, really is. Just getting that feeling again was worth the trip.
In the end, however, the trip was worth it on all levels—because of the real-world education, experience, and training it offered, because of the places it let me see and explore, and because it was just plain wonderful fun. As the U.S. Navy would say … it’s not just a rating. It’s an adventure. And unlike the Navy, this adventure is one a spouse, friend, or family can come along and enjoy, as well.