TAK­ING WING

A BE­LATED RE­TURN TO JACK BROWN’S SEA­PLANE BASE

Flying - - CONTENTS - By Sam Weigel

A be­lated re­turn to Jack Brown’s sea­plane base

It’s a warm, sticky Au­gust morn­ing in Florida, and even the stiff breeze swirling in through the Cub’s open door fails to re­fresh. I wipe my brow and ad­just my ball cap, then peer in­tently at the lake we’re ap­proach­ing. It’s not just the cli­mate mak­ing me sweat; I’ve been work­ing hard, and things just aren’t click­ing, though this is my 18th or 19th land­ing of the flight. “OK, Sam,” says my young in­struc­tor, Chris Tay­lor, from the front seat, “go ahead and set up for a glassy water land­ing.” It’s an apt choice; the con­di­tions won’t be sim­u­lated this time, for the wind has very nearly died. Be­sides, my land­ings have been pretty ugly with depth per­cep­tion. Per­haps I’ll do bet­ter with­out it.

I go through the “WLNOT” check­list, not­ing the wind (or lack thereof), pre­ferred lane, noise-abate­ment path, water ob­struc­tions and prox­i­mate tow­ers and traf­fic. The last vis­ual ref­er­ence point, or LVR, is a low reedy penin­sula jut­ting out into the lake. Abeam the LVR, I select carb heat on, clear the area, con­firm the water rud­ders are re­tracted and re­tard the throt­tle. A steep cir­cling ap­proach brings us down to about 20 feet ap­proach­ing the edge of the reeds, then I pitch to land­ing at­ti­tude, ad­vance the throt­tle to 1,800 rpm and hold it. The Cub very slowly set­tles over the lake at about 40 mph; I re­sist the urge to pitch up as my pe­riph­eral vi­sion de­tects a few small rip­ples ris­ing to meet the floats. When we touch down, the im­pact is soft enough — but the plane gives a pro­nounced lurch for­ward and both Chris and I im­me­di­ately haul back on our re­spec­tive sticks to avoid por­pois­ing or, worse yet, a nose-over. Damn! Too flat, once again. This is just em­bar­rass­ing. Chris seems to sense my frus­tra­tion and tells me to head back to Lake Jessie. It’s time to take a break and clear my head.

My last trip to Jack Brown’s Sea­plane Base two years ago was an

un­planned lark on a lay­over, and I had a ton of fun (Tak­ing Wing, Oc­to­ber 2016). I’ve been mean­ing to come back to fin­ish my sin­gle-en­gine sea rat­ing ever since; my res­o­lu­tion to do as much GA fly­ing as pos­si­ble this busy sum­mer fi­nally mo­ti­vated me to sign up. The school was flex­i­ble about sched­ul­ing around a work trip with two long Orlando lay­overs.

Jack Brown’s is best known for its two-day sea­plane rat­ing course. The school has churned out more floatplane pilots than any other out­fit in the coun­try, aided by good Florida weather, a plethora of fine train­ing lakes around Win­ter Haven and a sim­ple, sturdy trainer in the Piper J-3C Cub with 100 hp con­ver­sion and Aqua 1500 floats. The $1,400 course in­cludes five hours of dual in­struc­tion, check ride and ex­am­iner’s fee. The con­sen­sus among ex­pe­ri­enced sea­plane pilots seems to be that five hours is enough to earn the rat­ing but not enough to be pro­fi­cient in re­al­world op­er­a­tions. Con­sid­er­ing the high check­out min­i­mums for the few sea­planes avail­able to rent, I’d guess in­sur­ance com­pa­nies feel the same way. That said, I would also ar­gue that a freshly minted pri­vate pi­lot isn’t truly qual­i­fied to im­me­di­ately ex­plore the full priv­i­leges of their cer­tifi­cate. Like famed Min­nesota pi­lot ex­am­iner Bill Maven­camp told me when he handed over my new PPL, it’s a li­cense to learn. I’m treat­ing the sea­plane rat­ing the same way.

Back at the base, Chris and I go to lunch. Over sub sand­wiches, we chat about GA fly­ing and avi­a­tion ca­reers. At 25 years old, Chris is a busy guy hold­ing down three jobs flight in­struct­ing and cor­po­rate fly­ing. “I re­ally love fly­ing floats. It’s my pas­sion,” he tells me. “I bugged these guys for months look­ing for a job, but they didn’t need any more in­struc­tors. Then, four months ago, a po­si­tion opened up. I feel lucky to be able to teach here.” Chris’ en­thu­si­asm is in­fec­tious, and soon I’m ready to head

“I RE­ALLY LOVE FLY­ING FLOATS. IT’S MY PAS­SION,” CHRIS TELLS ME. “I BUGGED THESE GUYS FOR MONTHS LOOK­ING FOR A JOB, BUT THEY DIDN’T NEED ANY MORE IN­STRUC­TORS. I FEEL LUCKY TO BE ABLE TO TEACH HERE.”

back to the lake and see if I learned any­thing on that first flight.

This time, things start to click. My depth per­cep­tion im­proves and I start flar­ing at the cor­rect height (un­usu­ally for an air­line pi­lot, I was flar­ing late the pre­vi­ous flight, which is an ex­cel­lent way to frighten a sea­plane in­struc­tor). My pitch con­trol is con­sid­er­ably re­fined, and I’m mak­ing ad­just­ments with fin­ger­tip pres­sure. I talk my way through ev­ery­thing, and Chris scales back the point­ers and cor­rec­tions. He at­tempts to trick me into mak­ing a down­wind-to-up­wind turn while step-taxi­ing (a big no-no), but this time my guard is up and I refuse. We go through nor­mal, rough-water, glassy-water and cross­wind take­offs and land­ings, as well as my fa­vorite, out­ra­geously fun ma­neu­ver: the cir­cling con­fined-area take­off. We prac­tice dock­ing, moor­ing and sail­ing. We beach the plane at a lo­cal park. All along the way, Chris con­tin­u­ally dis­tracts me and then pulls the throt­tle to idle at the worst pos­si­ble mo­ment, and by now, I’m wary enough to con­tin­u­ally keep my­self in a po­si­tion to make an up­wind or cross­wind dead-stick land­ing on the near­est body of water. By the end of the sec­ond flight, I’m thor­oughly ex­hausted, but pleased by my progress. Chris signs my logbook, and I head back to Orlando In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

Three days and an 8,000-mile Am­s­ter­dam round trip later, I’m back for day two of the course. The morn­ing flight is es­sen­tially a mock check ride; Chris says very lit­tle as I go through the re­quired take­offs, land­ings and ma­neu­vers. At the end of the les­son, he pro­nounces my fly­ing good, and we head to the base’s screened-in porch over­look­ing Lake Jessie to do a prac­tice oral exam. That com­plete, Chris signs me off and I’m di­rected to Jon Brown’s of­fice to be­gin the check ride, just like that! I’m struck with a sud­den flut­ter of jit­ters, un­usual for me. As an air­line pi­lot, I’m ba­si­cally a pro­fes­sional check-ride taker. At last count, I have 41 suc­cess­ful rides un­der my belt, and no pink slips. But there’s al­ways a first, and any­one can have a bad day. Two years af­ter I started my train­ing, I’m back to fin­ish up my sin­gle-en­gine sea­plane rat­ing in the Cub.

BY THE END OF THE SEC­OND FLIGHT, I’M THOR­OUGHLY EX­HAUSTED, BUT PLEASED BY MY PROGRESS. CHRIS SIGNS MY LOGBOOK AND I HEAD BACK TO ORLANDO IN­TER­NA­TIONAL AIR­PORT.

Jon Brown is Jack’s old­est son, the school’s cur­rent owner and one of two ex­am­in­ers on staff. Chris warned me that he has a bit of a rep­u­ta­tion as a hard-nose, but he is fair and puts a strong em­pha­sis on prac­ti­cal op­er­a­tions. I find that as­sess­ment spot-on. Af­ter some pre­lim­i­nary chitchat, Jon ex­plains the ground rules for the check ride, asks if I have any ques­tions and launches into the oral exam. Rather than ask me to merely re­gur­gi­tate the rote in­for­ma­tion con­tained in the course packet, he poses a se­ries of ques­tions us­ing real-world sit­u­a­tions and stress­ing the role of keen judg­ment and con­ser­va­tive de­ci­sion-mak­ing in floatplane fly­ing. The fly­ing por­tion of the check ride, like­wise, is prac­ti­cally fo­cused. “OK, if you looked down at that lake and saw white­caps start­ing about halfway across the lake and ex­tend­ing to the north­west, show me how you’d land,” he says. I pick a south­east­erly land­ing lane start­ing part­way across the lake and ex­tend­ing into the lee of some tall trees and ex­e­cute a rough-water land­ing, splash­ing down with a lit­tle power at min­i­mum airspeed just as the open door starts to lev­i­tate (the Cub’s ver­sion of a stall in­di­ca­tor).

The check ride isn’t per­fect. I ac­ci­den­tally start a down­wind-toup­wind step turn to avoid boat traf­fic, and there’s just enough wind work­ing with cen­trifu­gal force that the floats get a lit­tle loosey-goosey. I curse my id­iocy, pull the throt­tle to idle and put the stick in my lap, abort­ing the step taxi. But Jon is ap­par­ently sat­is­fied that I rec­og­nized my mis­take and took ap­pro­pri­ate ac­tion, and the check ride con­tin­ues. Back at the base, he shakes my hand and con­grat­u­lates me on a job well done. Af­ter de­brief­ing and some pa­per­work, I’m handed my new tem­po­rary cer­tifi­cate with “Com­mer­cial Pi­lot Priv­i­leges, Air­plane Sin­gle En­gine Sea” ap­pended to my other rat­ings. It’s my first new cer­tifi­cate, other than type rat­ings, in more than a decade.

I’m not sure when or if I’ll get to use my new sea­plane rat­ing. I’ve missed a few neat ex­pe­ri­ences in the past be­cause I didn’t have one, and I sus­pect hav­ing the ticket will yield some in­ter­est­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties in the fu­ture.

Re­gard­less, sim­ply go­ing through the train­ing process was worth the price of ad­mis­sion. In avi­a­tion it is all too easy to get stuck in a rut; the sub­lime be­comes rou­tine, and bore­dom even­tu­ally sets in. Earn­ing a new rat­ing is a great way to shake off the cob­webs, chal­lenge your­self and dis­cover a com­pletely new facet of the wide world of fly­ing. I’ve al­ready de­cided I need to do an­other add-on rat­ing next sum­mer. There’s re­ally just one ques­tion: com­mer­cial pi­lot­glider or ATP mul­ti­engine sea?

My last trip to Jack Brown’s Sea­plane Base in 2016.

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