Tales from the Pilot Journal: Learning to Fly Floats

2008 was a great year of flying for me, which means that during 2018, I’ve had a number of 10th anniversaries of various achievements. August 22nd it was earning my CFI, August 24th was my first flight as an instructor and on August 28th it was adding on my single engine seaplane privileges. It was quite a week between my CFI and seaplane checkrides. All the more impressive when you consider that my CFI checkride was in Massachusetts and my seaplane checkride was in Alaska…

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The beauty of the Alaskan wilderness. Denali is all the way to the right in this image.

At the time it was to be the summer between my junior and senior years of college. With two of my closest friends, Brett Boothman and Sean Fitzgerald, we all decided that the end of that summer would be a great time to take a vacation trip to Alaska to learn to fly float planes and have an adventure with college buddies. We planned the trip the spring before and at the time we figured we’d each complete our flight instructor training during the summer and enjoy a trip to Alaska to follow up our training as somewhat of a celebration.

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Good ole N251DB, “The Arrow!” The chariot for my CFI checkride!

As fate would have it, thanks to an aged Piper Arrow that needed a new engine and difficulty scheduling check rides, I was the only one of the three of us to complete the vaunted CFI checkride before we left for Alaska. For me it was really a celebration, Brett and Sean enjoyed the trip too, but were also in the final stages of preparing for their own upcoming flight instructor check rides. Once we returned from the trip, each of them both would go on to easily pass their checkrides.

During our trip to Alaska we flew and stayed with the awesome crew at Alaska Floats & Skies in Talkeetna, Alaska. This was many years before ReviewBeforeFlight of course… At  the time of the trip I had a lot of friends and family members that were interested in hearing about the trip so I created a blog specifically to capture the Alaska adventures. During the trip I updated the blog at least daily, with many days seeing multiple entires as fun encounters and experiences unfolded. My plan was to find the old blog, and ‘re-master’ it for re-release on the 10th anniversary of the trip. Unfortunately, the blog no longer exists, I spent considerable time searching for it. I also can’t seem to find the plain text versions I saved on my computer at the time, likely a casualty of my college laptop failing after graduation.

My next plan was to use the limited information from my logbook and the pictures that we took to piece together the story, though I know some pieces are now lost forever without the original blog. As fate would have it I came across a Pilot Journal I kept during my flight instructor training to document the CFI training experience. Since my float plane training came right on the heels of my flight instructor training, I apparently continued the journal during the Alaska trip, memorializing some of our experiences and some details from my float plane flights into the Alaskan wilderness…

We arrived in Talkeetna on August 26th and that evening (remember it is Alaska during August, it was light out until extremely late) we each made our first seaplane flights. Upon arriving we learned that the local pilot examiner would be leaving to fly a Cessna 310 to St. Louis with his granddaughter in three days, so we had two more days to get our training started, finished and take our checkrides. So much for a leisurely seaplane-themed vacation… But we were ready for a challenge, and the team at Alaska Floats & Skies was ready to get us prepared and trained up. That night we made our first seaplane flights, Sean went first and once they burned off some gas in the old green and white, highly modified Piper Tripacer on straight floats I took my first seaplane lesson. The experience, according to my Pilot Journal:

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We pushed off, started up, taxied out across the pond, and then took off from left to right across the lake from the reference point of the dock. We climbed to about 900 feet and banked around a large hill, at which point we were setup to land on another lake. This much larger lake was known as “Larson” and was a seriously huge lake! The Tripaper cruised at 80 MPH, climbed at 80 MPH and descended at 80 MPH – essentially 80 MPH was the magic speed for the ‘well-experienced’ airplane…

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At Larson we did three takeoffs and landings. Following the second takeoff, the flight instructor, Ester, took the control and made a 360-degree turn about 200 feet over the lake and pointed out a very large brown bear that stood up on its back legs, with paws extended in the air as if he/she was waiving at us… After another landing and subsequent takeoff we climbed up to 1,200 feet and flew through a break in a ridgeline and came in to land at Christiansen Lake. The whole thing was awesome!

Once we retuned to the dock, I hopped out and Brett got to make his first seaplane flight. My first seaplane flight was a whopping 0.7 on the hobbs meter, but it was truly an incredible experience. One that I will never forget… Once Brett was back the three of us all spent about 45 minutes with Don Lee, the owner and operator of Alaska Floats & Skies doing some ground training on seaplane operating principles. To this day Don is one of the coolest people I’ve ever had the opportunity to meet, a true bush pilot.

The next day (8/27) the three of us each made our second flights. As the Pilot Journal entry reads:

Today I did my second seaplane flight. Some good, some ugly. We did a couple land-and-then-full-power-takeoff-then-land-agains. Then we did some step taxiing which feels really weird. After that I did a power off 180* maneuver, which was better than expected because of my experience with the Piper Arrow and my recent CFI training. After the power off 180*, we did a 90* turning, confined area takeoff. At that point the fuel gauges were reading really low so we headed back (note: we had plenty of fuel, but when you’re miles form civilization 1/4 tanks feels like empty). We passed over the ridge to Christiansen Lake, base to final, we did a glassy water landing again and brought it in to the dock.

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This flight was very challenging, I remember at the time initially struggling with the glassy water condition and the procedures for a glassy water landing. Luckily with some practice this became much easier and eventually, a fun thing to do. My second seaplane flight was 1.0 on the hobbs and included a “close encounter” with a bear while taxiing for the confined area takeoff. The lesson of the day was that grizzly bears aren’t afraid of airplanes…

The next day (8/28) was already check ride day! First, we each had one more training flight. With a grand total of 1.7 hours in a seaplane, I needed at least 1.3 to get to the three hours needed to take the check ride. My morning flight on 8/28 was recorded in the Pilot Journal:

This morning I flew first, I met Ester at the dock as 8:45 and we pumped the floats and preflighted. We launched and flew over to Larson Lake for practice, some low clouds made it very challenging to maintain appropriate cloud clearances and make it over the hills to Larson, but we were able to find the necessary holes, dodging clouds and trees (or so it seemed, again the wilderness effect- we had sufficient safe clearance) while the clouds began to burn off for the day. At Larson we did confined area takeoff and landings, glassy water landings, step turns and more confined area stuff. I felt super good, it all went real well.

I remember returning from flight #3, which ran 1.6 on the hobbs, very confident in my still novice seaplane abilities. Brett and Sean each flew again and we were each ready for our checkride flights later that afternoon.

The checkride experience was another fun experience, and nothing like the rigorous, stressful day-long experience I had with the Boston FSDO for my flight instructor certificate just a week prior. According to the Pilot Journal:

After an oral that lasted all of 30-45 minutes with all three of us (Brett, Sean and myself) together, I flew first. Dick, the examiner, was a big guy so we filled the cockpit of the tiny Tripacer. For takeoff, I taxied to the extreme far end of the lake to get all available takeoff distance, due to our weight, which according to our preflight calculations wasn’t even at maximum takeoff weight, but was high, we climbed out low, but made it. Once I started talking I didn’t stop at all… We went to Larson and did a beautiful glassy water landing, stayed on the step, turned 180 degrees and took off the way we landed. Then we followed the Talkeetna River, at one point there was a huge rainbow right over the hills. Then Dick took me to a place called Sockeye Lake. It was a long and narrow lake with 100-150 foot tall trees all the way around it with mountains on either side. The setup and approach required flying at a reference point on essentially on a dogleg final, requiring a left 45-degree turn once over the lake to make the landing thanks to the trees and surrounding mountains. The water was perfect glass there and I eventually went around and we headed back to AK8. I did my best water landing ever for my finale and Brett and Sean gave me good hand signals to dock perfectly. Dick told me I’d make a great instructor and he’d love to come to New England to fly with me! By 6pm Brett, Sean and I were all commercial airplane single engine sea pilots!

The checkride was a fun experience, I’ll never forget apologizing for instructing so much on the checkride, talking about visually scanning for traffic and checklist usage in addition to the seaplane-related concepts. The examiner enjoyed my commentary though. The checkride was 1.1 hours on the hobbs and what has turned out to be my last pilot check ride to date, but I have plenty of time… I’ll never forget how glassy the water was at the hidden Sockeye Lake, when we finally turned onto a true final and I could see the water, it was as if there were a hole in the ground full of Alaskan sky as opposed to lake water. Even thought we didn’t land, the experience was unforgettable.

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Don set us up on a rafting trip down the Talkeetna River, a very fun experience!

As it turned out we completed the course much quicker in terms of number of days and number of flight hours than most so Don set us each up with another flight, this time more of a fun, flying adventure flight a few days later. After we spent some time hiking an abandoned, massive satellite dish phone site, rafting the river and exploring the region. Including catching only the smallest fish in the lake, the tiny bass that lived under the dock…

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Fishing from the dock early in the week…

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…and finally “fish,” more like the smallest fish in Alaska!

We made one more flight with Alaska Floats & Skies on 8/31:

Today we each went up for a sight seeing flight. We took off and headed towards Larson except this time when we rounded the hills Denali was out and looking magnificent as ever. Ester and I flew around looking at everything I can’t get over how beautiful it is up here. Coming back to Christiansen we landed in a tight turning channel that pointed right at Don’s house, it was a modified glassy water/ confined area approach. 

This 0.8 flight on the hobbs was incredible. I remember looking out at the wilderness below us thinking that it was possible no human had ever walked through that area because it was so sparkly populated and desolate. The landscapes were magnificent and Denali was staggeringly impressive, the largest mountain in North America did not disappoint. I only wish cameras were as good then as they are now… Throughout our visit on each flight prior, thanks to clouds we hadn’t been able to see Denali, this was one of the main reasons Don got us up flying on August 31st, the air was clear and crisp with unlimited visibility.

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Brett, me & Sean (Fitzy)

My time at Alaska Floats & Skies was a great way to celebrate the accomplishment of earning my flight instructor certificate. I’m so glad that I was able to share the experience with Brett and Sean, two people that I remain good friends with today, some ten years after our Alaskan seaplane adventures.

In a small part, thanks to my experience in Alaska and having seaplane pilot privileges, I had the honor of being the first Aviation Manager in “America’s Seaplane City,” Tavares, Florida and I was able to see so many pilots earn seaplane privileges there. Seaplane flying is special because it’s different, it’s unique. Whether you’re going south to Florida or North to Aslaka, I highly recommend doing a seaplane add-on to your pilot certificate.

You can learn more about learning to fly seaplanes in Florida with Jones Brothers Air & Seaplane Adventures in Tavares at: www.jonesairandsea.com

Or, if the Alaskan wilderness is more your speed, and I highly recommend the Alaska experience, Alaska Floats & Skies in Talkeetna is still there and Don is still quite the character from what I hear, you can learn more about them at: www.alaskafloats.com

-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9

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