Flying off the water is a completely different form of aviating that most of us will never experience. Down at Rose Bay, Sydney Seaplanes Global offered Paul Reynolds the chance to spend an exhilarating day on the water learning the nautical side of aviation.
One of the most exhilarating flying experiences of my life recently resulted in three flying "firsts" for me. One, I flew an aircraft in bare feet; two, I deliberately flew the closest to terrain I have ever done (aside from take-off or landing); and three, I flew as low as legally possible over the South Pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge at around 130 KTAS. Oh, and of course, I learnt to take-off and land a floatplane.
What connects all these? I spent a day flying a floatplane around Sydney with Adam Holt of Sydney Seaplanes Global.
And not just any floatplane – a 2007 Cessna T206H, with 310 smooth turbo-charged horsepower under the hood; a mere baby with only 400 hours or so on the Garmin G1000 clock.
To prepare for the eventful day, I hit the books to learn about flying off water. As likely most pilots who have wondered about the mysteries of mixing water with aviation, I knew something of terms like "on the step" and "glassy water", but no real appreciation of the finer points (to wit: "sister keelson" ... yes, that’s a thing). To me, there was something inherently challenging about coming to terms with operating an aircraft on water. Although excited, I was also pretty apprehensive.
On dry land
The aviation gods smiled sweetly that day – 8 OKTAS of clear sunny Sydney sky shone down as I made my way to Bankstown Airport to meet Adam. Hang on ... Floatplane? Bankstown Airport?
First, let’s start with some terminology. Put water and aircraft together and you get "flying boats" and "floatplanes" (or "seaplanes"). Whereas a flying boat uses its hull for buoyancy (think of those magnificent Shorts Sunderlands patrolling over the Bay of Biscay), floatplanes are generally conventional aircraft replacing wheeled undercarriage with floats. There is a further subset: aircraft with straight floats are confined to the water, while amphibions can operate from both land and water via their retractable undercarriage.
The Cessna 206 flown by Sydney Seaplanes is amphibious and hangered at Bankstown Airport, our meeting place.
First impressions of the aircraft out of the water are distinctive. Although not that much bigger than a 182 (with which I’m familiar), put the aircraft on floats (extending almost its entire length) and suddenly it takes on a new, much larger and higher dimension.
For a start, the cabin is high off the ground and you cannot reach it without clambering up onto the floats and although the extra height makes refuelling the aircraft more difficult, checking the underside of the aircraft is a breeze!
Whereas the floats add literal and visual mass to the aircraft, the amphibious wheeled undercarriage looks delicateby comparison. A single wheel just aft of the step on the float accompanied by a very spindly looking full-castoring nose wheel on each float does not engender confidence at first glance. However, as Wipline has been in the aircraft float building business for over 50 years, and make floats for aircraft all the way up to a Twin Otter, they’ve probably got the engineering for a smaller 206 down pat as well.
Despite impressive looks, Adam cautioned: “Given the extra weight and drag with a floatplane there are compromises. It performs well as neither an aircraft or a boat."
Meeting the mentors
I could not have picked a better organisation with which to go floatplane flying. As we walked up to the classroom for some theory, Adam told me a little about the company.
Operating out of the busiest waters (and arguably the most picturesque) in Australia for over 10 years, the company has both charter and training arms. Pilots with significant experience on floats from North America, the Pacific and Australia are able to whisk you away to lots of fantastic destinations that are mere short flights from Rose Bay (romantic lunch at a waterside restaurant, or how about a secluded beach picnic?).
Their training arm is equally impressive and offers initial float endorsements right up to an extended course of nearly 20 hours for those looking to make a career on floats. The company operates the sentimental favourite, the Beaver, but also offers training on the 206 and the mighty Caravan. “The 206 with its G1000 is really more than what you need for floatplane flying, but it offers a good transition into the Caravan, which is what a lot of our overseas training candidates are after,” said Adam. And speaking of overseas, Adam helped set up the first floatplane operation in Vietnam last year. I could not be in better hands.
Once in the classroom, I found out my tailwheel experience was likely to stand me in good stead. “There are a lot of similarities between seaplanes and tail wheels,” Adam said. “I generally recommend a floatplane candidate firstly spend a few hours flying a tailwheel aircraft to get used to using the rudders." This was to become clear to me later in the day.
We initially went through the three types of taxiing: displacement, plow and step. Powerpoint slides, diagrams and video all helped in explaining these different concepts.
Each method of taxi has its place, although you generally only use displacement or step taxiing, as Adam explained. “Step taxiing is for when you have a large distance to travel, and displacement is where you are manoeuvring in tight areas. Plow is only really used when you have a long distance to taxi but you can’t step taxi – perhaps because the water is too rough – having the centre of water pressure to the rear of the floats helps in smoothing out the waves."
Whatever method, what is critical is constant vigilance on the water, as there are plenty of ways to get yourself into trouble. The dangers are compounded especially since you, of course, have no brakes.
Aside from the general hazards of simply being on the water, Adam emphasised every water landing is essentially an off-airport landing, and you may be landing on water which has never seen an aircraft before. Consequently there may be dangers, such as shallows, obstructions in the water, and especially wires, lurking to ruin your day.
Most importantly, we covered the checks to ensure the undercarriage would be in the appropriate position for whatever landing we were doing. Critical is to prevent a wheels-down water landing, which always has the aircraft somersaulting violently onto its back, with casualties highly likely.
A search on YouTube quickly reveals the consequences. This model 206 has (and most likely all recently built or retrofitted floatplanes have) several warning and check systems to ensure the worst case does not eventuate. On top of visual cues, a female voice informs you if your wheels are up, and a male voice if they are down. A push-to-cancel switch is in right in front of you to further help the message sink in. Although the concept is pretty clear, it may trap some pilots used to flying land retractable-undercarriage aircraft. Adam made the salient observation: "Landing on water is the only time you will land deliberately with the gear up."
Well, theory is no substitute for the real thing, so Adam and I bid adieu to the classroom and strapped ourselves into the 206.
Although this was my first experience with a turbo-charged engine, the starting procedure was as if I were in a normally-aspirated, fuel injected 182. With the big Lycoming flawlessly turning the McCauley and the G1000 coming to life, it was time to learn how to taxi (on land) a floatplane with fully castoring nose wheels. I found as long as I properly anticipated stopping the turn with opposite brake and kept my speed under control, it was relatively straightforward – not dissimilar to a tailwheel. One big advantage was the higher seating position – akin to driving a big 4WD overlooking everyone else.
After the run up was completed, we entered Bankstown’s 29R. Being careful not to exceed the maximum boost of 39 inches, we smoothly and rapidly accelerated. Given the extra drag from the floats, the aircraft doesn’t rotate like a wheeled aircraft; but simply lifts off once flying speed is achieved.
Everyone says once in the air a floatplane is just like any other aircraft and you can’t tell you’ve got several hundred pounds of highly machined, and expensive, marine grade aluminium hanging below you. That was certainly the case after I got over my "how cool, I’m flying a floatplane" feeling, but I did notice myself over-controlling the aircraft initially. If there was one thing I could say about the handling was that it certainly felt more stable than what I was used to in the smaller 182.
Our mission saw us heading to the Hawkesbury via Parramatta and the VFR lane. As well as the site of many regular destinations for fare-paying passengers, the Hawkesbury and surrounds is also ideal for floatplane training. As we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on descent at 26 inches and 2300 RPM, the narrow waterways and steep terrain revealed themselves starkly, and left me wondering how I was going to perform.
After Adam discounted the first area around Brooklyn due to too much water traffic, we headed further west to a more secluded area near Bar Point and Milsons Passage.
This is when one secret of floatplane flying revealed itself to me. If you’re a pilot who is comfortable only with wide circuits and long three-mile finals over flat ground, this type of flying may not be for you. Due to the close terrain and narrow waterways – our circuits were little more than 600 m wide – Adam emphasised the need to use as much of the flying room as you possibly could. In practice, this meant skirting as close to the surrounding hills as possible. And, because our circuit height was low level, we were often flying below the tops of the surrounding terrain. Consequently, for a lot of the time during the cross and downwind legs, we were only seconds away from an avgas fuelled grisly end.
This resulted in some pretty exciting flying, and I remember feeling incredibly exhilarated. Keeping your eyes out of the cockpit was imperative, with only quick glances inside to confirm flap, power, undercarriage and water rudder settings as rocks and trees rushed past. Reducing power and setting 10 degrees of flap on late downwind, 45 degree angle of bank on base at 90 knots, and then set up for the touchdown. Final was flown at 90 kts, 20 inches and 2200 RPM, with flaps 40 on short final.
The secret to a smooth touchdown was slowly transitioning to a level attitude just above the water, locking the correct attitude (slightly nose high), and then waiting, using imperceptibly small power corrections to vary height if necessary. Once water contact is made (at the step of the floats), power is immediately reduced to idle and the yoke smoothly but fairly rapidly pulled all the way aft. The anaemic blaring of the stall horn marked the transition from flying aircraft to boat, and the "water roll" a fraction of that on land. What was really also interesting was how the aircraft behaved during this change – as the nose came down, it paused momentarily just above the horizontal, and then settled fully on the water, gracefully like a swan.
From boat to plane
After demonstrating the three taxi phases, Adam then handed over to me for my first water take-off. Notwithstanding this was my first time, I found over the course of the day during take-off with all 310 horses alive it is more a matter of persuading the aircraft to do something than forcing it (the same with any aircraft – I wish I had this appreciation during my ham-fisted days learning to fly!).
With full power applied and the stick fully aft, the nose immediately rises. What is really interesting is that the nose then dips slightly, then markedly rises more steeply – like a stallion pawing at the ground. This is the sign to push the stick slowly forward to coax the nose down. As speed gradually increases, hydrodynamic drag increases rapidly, reaching a peak at around 30 kts, and then almost as rapidly decreasing (the ‘hump’). Gentle and increasing back pressure is required as speed increases to keep the attitude level.
As the wings generate greater lift from the increasing speed, weight is transferred from the floats and the aircraft lifts onto the "step". Patience (and space) is then needed to allow the aircraft to reach flying speed and break from the water. The transition from boat to aircraft is complete.
My first landing was pretty much textbook – which in my experience is generally down to luck. It was difficult to get a picture of how high we were above the water, and initially I felt we were higher than we were. The touch-down is remarkably smooth, helped enormously by the calm sheltered waters onto which we were landing. For my second landing, I tried to finesse the height too much by both adding power and adjusting my attitude– a few gentle words from Adam to lock the attitude and adjust only power got me back on track.
Although lots of things were happening at once, I never felt behind the aircraft, perhaps due to Adam’s relaxed but thorough instructing style. He has a very good way of explaining what he is doing, and why, then letting me try. He also must have had nerves of steel to trust me after such a short time with his beautiful aircraft!
In all I did about four circuits, each as exciting as the last. Adam had promised me a beach lunch, so we took off East and after a short flight landed near Dangar Island, taxiing serenely towards the most perfect secluded beach. Adam looked at me and grinned: “Take your shoes and socks off – this is where you get your feet wet.”
Again revealing how starkly different flying floatplanes is, I found myself clambering along the floats, hanging onto struts, and jumping into the water to help drag the aircraft up onto the beach. Dreams of flying in pressurised comfort in my personal jet amongst the flight levels were worlds away as I attempted to manhandle the 206 against the gentle swell in knee deep water.
After a brief lunch on the beach, we got knee deep in water again as we pushed the aircraft out. With feet wet in the cabin, putting socks and shoes on was not an option – so we simply flew in bare feet! This was another first, and although incredibly unusual, it somehow felt completely normal in the nautical atmosphere.
Return to base
The planned route was to turn right at Barrenjoey Head and transit south along Victor 1. Cruising at about 130 kts, 500 feet, beautiful blue sky, bare feet, world class views along the coast – truly remarkable. Adam wanted to show me operations out of their base at Rose Bay. As non-rated pilots are not permitted to land in Sydney Harbour, Adam took the controls. Once again, his skill and experience came through as the harbour was busy with all manner of water craft as to make a lesser pilot tremble with fear. I was just happy to sit back and relax as Adam took the aircraft for a couple of circuits around Shark Island and expensive yachts as prestige waterfront property rushed past.
Finally, with the day extending into the late afternoon, it was time to head back to Bankstown. Assuming control from Adam after take-off, I had the privilege of flying over the south pylon of the Harbour Bridge at 500 feet as we made our way west along the lane reserved for helicopter and floatplanes. Short final into Bankstown, the aircraft rock steady, and the gruff male voice confirming the gear was down for a runway landing. My day was made complete as I handled a cheeky crosswind from the right with aplomb – or maybe it was beginner’s luck again.
Just the beginning
Floatplane flying is like no other flying I have experienced. It is a subtle combination of willingness to literally get your feet wet, handling the aircraft deftly and being prepared to think way beyond a perfectly symmetrical big circuit with nice sharp corners. If you’re really not comfortable flying an aircraft intuitively and look to engage the autopilot in the climb straight after take-off, this might not be for you. But if you want challenging flying in places a wheeled undercarriage pilot will only see from thousands of feet in the air, then consider heading down to your local floatplane training outfit. And while you’re at it, there is no more beautiful, or exhilarating, place to do it than in Sydney.
Me? As soon as I’ve finished typing, I’m meeting up with Adam to finish my training. I’ll see you there.