Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Hydrodynamic | Part 2, Float Flying

Monday, May 8, 2023: A New Way to Fly

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
08 May 2023 PA-12S
Silver Lake - Long Lake - Duck Lake - Green Lake - Silver Lake 3.8 2621.3

Seaplane training with Tom (Traverse Air) was a casual experience. We conducted ground school at his kitchen counter, the airplane was parked in his back yard, and Silver Lake served as our runway. Conveniently located just outside Cherry Capital's delta airspace, seaplane training ensued without any ATC entanglements. Tom is an excellent instructor and a true gentleman. I really enjoyed learning from him and getting to know him. And his airplane is a lot of fun to fly.

The aircraft in question is a modified 1947 Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser. These airplanes are descended from the iconic Piper J-3, the same type that I flew for my tailwheel endorsement. In many ways, Super Cruisers are simply big Cubs. The model is best known for the historic 1947 flight around the world conducted in a pair of Super Cruisers, The City of Washington and The City of the Angels. The adventure marked the first time a flight of this type was made by light personal aircraft. Fittingly, The City of the Angels is on display at the Piper Museum in Lock Haven, PA and its companion Super Cruiser hangs in the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

Super Cruisers represent an evolution of the Piper J-3 Cub featuring more powerful engines (up to 100 horsepower), are soloed from the front seat rather than the back for much better visibility, and can accommodate three in a tandem configuration with the pilot in front and two passengers sitting on a wide back seat. The latter assumes reasonably slender passengers, of course.

Tom purchased this airplane 40 years ago and made numerous modifications to it over time. Exchanging wheels for a pair of straight EDO 2000 floats is the most significant and relevant modification. He replaced the original 100 hp engine with a 150 hp Lycoming O-320 (the low compression version of Warrior 481's powerplant). Tom correctly pointed out that he can run auto gas in his O-320 whereas I cannot in my higher compression variant. Addition of flaps, vortex generators, and a specialty propeller designed for seaplanes all make the airplane far more capable of pulling those draggy floats out of the water and into the air.

As Tom familiarized me with the aircraft, he pointed out the lack of additional ventral fin. Many production landplanes converted into seaplanes are modified with an extra ventral fin projecting below the empennage. This is done because floats are destabilizing in yaw while in flight. Extra vertical surface area acts as a keel to mitigate that instability. Tom's mechanic talked him out of installing the ventral fin because it can be easily damaged during docking. However, lacking the extra vertical surface area, Tom's aircraft requires assertive rudder use by the pilot to combat the resulting yaw instability.

A previous owner added a P-51 Mustang control stick complete with trigger to the Super Cruiser. Tom invited me to pull the trigger all I wanted; there were no guns to fire. This seems like a lost opportunity for dealing with jet skis.

The instrument panel is basic, but equipped with a radio (that we never used) and an electric starter. There are no gyroscopic instruments and, despite the presence of a turn coordinator, it is unpowered and apparently only installed for the inclinometer. The altimeter is simply zeroed to the surface of the lake before departure.

I loved flying Tom's seaplane. Not only did it reveal an entirely new universe of flight to me, it is a solid, honest airplane that is fun to fly. On top of that, you can't go wrong with blue and white.

As an add-on rating for an existing private pilot, training is focused on those elements of flying unique to seaplanes, mainly take-off, landing, and handling on the water. Tom was complimentary of my rudder use. "You're well coordinated with the rudder, usually I'm being swung around back here." I guess some of that tailwheel training with Damian actually stuck.

Another bit of positive skill transfer from tailwheel flying that I observed was taxiing with the water rudders down. Rudder inputs needed to be deliberately neutralized with opposite rudder in the floatplane much like when taxiing the Cub.

Seaplane on the step. From the FAA Seaplane, Skiplane, and Float/Ski Equipped Helicopter Operations Handbook, 2004 Edition.

During take-off, seaplane flying is a far more sensory experience than flying land planes. At full power with aft stick, the seaplane's nose rises as the airplane enters the plowing position. With additional speed, the deck angle increases even further due to hydrodynamic lift causing the floats to partially rise out of the water. After this second rise of the nose, forward stick brings the aircraft onto the step and lifts the aft portions of the floats completely out of the water (see the figure above from the FAA's seaplane operations handbook for an example). Being on the step reduces drag and allows the seaplane to accelerate more effectively for take-off. The pilot experiments with pitch to find the optimal position on the step, a sweet spot discernable by palpable acceleration. That sensation is incredibly rewarding, a product of physics conspiring with the airplane to signal "good job!" to the pilot. I had a goofy grin on my face every single time I found the sweet spot.

"Keep looking for that sweet spot," Tom would coach once I found it. "As you accelerate, it will change. Never assume you're still there." 

Take-off usually follows shortly after getting onto the step. In glassy water conditions, when it is more challenging to break the floats free from the water's surface tension, slight deflection of the stick to the side lifts the opposite float out of the water, thus halving the drag and facilitating take-off. I found myself using this technique whenever the airplane seemed hesitant to depart the water. When I did, Tom would comment, "There you go! And it's fun, too." He was right. It was.

We flew three times on the first day totaling just under four hours while hopping from Silver Lake to Duck, Long, and Green Lakes. (The latter being where the Interlochen Center for the Arts is located.) We did various types of turns in the water and drilled on different landing and take-off techniques tailored to fit various water surface conditions. I particularly enjoyed rough water take-offs that are the seaplane equivalent of soft field take-offs. In Tom's plane, these are performed with full flaps (40°) and an aggressive pull at 30 mph that launches the aircraft skyward. Between the upgraded engine, prop, vortex generators, and flaps, Tom's modified Super Cruiser performs beautifully during this maneuver.

As we flew, Tom shared a number of stories. My favorite was how, as an enthusiastic twenty-something new Super Cruiser owner, he wrote to famed Piper aircraft engineer Walter Jamouneau (the man who put the "J" in J-3) and received a multipage reply.

Bureaucratic Woes

Tom had a student from Cincinnati scheduled for her check ride on my first day of training. He did a review flight with her while I found lunch at Bubba's Burgers and Bar in Traverse City. I had the Haystack Burger that was probably incredibly unhealthy for me, but really, really good. Tom and I planned to fly again while the examiner conducted the oral exam with the other student, intending to return soon enough with the airplane that she could fly her check ride.

Before I could crank the engine, the examiner ran out on the dock and informed Tom that the student only had a copy of her medical certificate, not the official document. Without her medical certificate, the examiner could not begin the test. To his credit, he did everything he could for her, including calling other examiners in search of a solution as well as the FAA medical branch in Oklahoma City to request an official copy by email. The FAA refused to email a copy, which struck me as odd because they have emailed my medical certificates to me in the past. Sadly, the student had to return home to Cincinnati without taking her check ride or earning her seaplane rating. How disappointing!

Once she departed, Tom wanted to see my medical certificate. For some reason, he was not content to merely take my word that I had it. 

That night, after a wonderful dinner of fish and chips with a nut brown ale at North Peak Brewing Company, I settled in with the FAA's IACRA website (Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application) for the first time since 2013 to submit my application for the seaplane rating. Once again, huge kudos to the developer of MyFlightbook for his inclusion of an 8710 function that tallies up all the key flight experiences in all the odd combinations required by IACRA.

Tuesday, May 9, 2023: Wrap Up and Check Ride

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
09 May 2023PA-12S
Silver Lake - Long Lake - Duck Lake - Green Lake - Silver Lake2.92624.2

The next day, Tom and I flew twice to polish everything up. I was on track to meet with the examiner at 1:00 for my check ride.

Kevin conducted the oral exam at the picnic table in Tom's back yard placed within feet of the water. The oral went well and in no time, we were climbing into the Super Cruiser. He had me do a confined area take off from Silver Lake and we flew over to Long Lake for additional take-offs and landings. While surveying Long Lake and discussing wind direction and where to land, Kevin pulled the power to simulate an engine failure and I performed a flawless dead stick landing. Everything seemed to be progressing well until he had me demonstrate a rough water landing. I flared too high and Kevin had to goose the throttle to keep us from coming down too hard.

DAMMIT! (Actual internal dialogue.)

"Let's talk through that a moment," Kevin said as we idled in the middle of the lake. Because he had to intervene, I would not pass the check ride that day. Obviously, I am not thrilled to recount this part of the story; failing what should have been the easiest check ride in history. But in keeping with the warts-and-all philosophy of this site, there it is. It happened.

Kevin offered me a choice. If I was too rattled by the failure, we could stop the test and return to Tom's. Or I could continue the test and demonstrate the remaining items on Kevin's list. If I completed the other areas of emphasis satisfactorily, the retake would involve demonstrating a single rough water landing and nothing else. I pulled myself together, opted to continue, and satisfactorily completed the remaining objectives including a good docking at Tom's back on Silver Lake.

Tom was baffled. "What happened? Your landings have been consistently good." I couldn't explain it. Somehow, I had grossly misjudged my height above the surface. In hindsight, the best explanation I can offer is test anxiety. I do well with written and oral tests, but the moment I have someone evaluating the way I do something, anxiety really kicks in and almost always affects my performance.

Kevin and Tom put their heads together to figure out how to quickly schedule some additional training and a retest. Tom planned to work with a multiengine student the following morning, but was available in the afternoon. Kevin could meet at 4:00 pm the next day with the caveat that he would be working in Cadillac, MI. Tom and I agreed to fly the Super Cruiser to Lake Missaukee (a 25 minute flight one way), meet Kevin on the public beach at the east end of the lake, and I would demonstrate a successful (in principle) rough water landing for him to wrap up my certification.


Tuesday, May 9, 2023: College Connections

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
09 May 2023N21481TVC (Traverse City, MI) - MKG (Muskegon, MI) - TVC2.42626.6

To put it mildly, I was incredibly angry with myself. Fortunately, I was already scheduled to meet Chris, a former college housemate, in Muskegon that night for dinner. Muskegon was an hour flight southwest of Traverse City and the realignment of my mental resources to focus on that flight in the Warrior was exactly the right therapy for me in the moment.

Departure from Cherry Capital looking west over Boardman Lake (left) and the west branch of Grand Traverse Bay.

Within forty minutes of departing Tom's, I launched from Cherry Capital's runway 36 in the Warrior and turned southwest direct to Muskegon.

Traverse City's Cherry Capital Airport with the east branch of Grand Traverse Bay visible.

Silver Lake.

Departing Cherry Capital’s delta airspace to the southwest, I flew directly over Silver Lake, easily recognizing it from the many landings I made there in the seaplane over the past two days.

Duck Lake (center) and Green Lake (right of frame).

The air was not kind to me that afternoon. Under that beautiful blue sky, the atmosphere was so choppy and rough that I reduced power to minimize strain on the airframe.

Objects in Windscreen Are Larger Than They Appear

Partway to Muskegon at 4,500 feet, I observed a small dot in the distance that moved from right to left in my windscreen. Suddenly, its relative motion ceased and it began to increase in size. It was another aircraft at the same altitude coming right at me. Normally, it would be appropriate to break right, but the other airplane appeared to be turning slightly in that direction already and I did not want to turn into it.  Likewise, I did not want to turn to the left in case the other pilot actually saw me and broke to his right the way he was supposed to. Instead, I chopped the power and dove. The other airplane zoomed directly over me, close enough to discern that it was a large Piper twin. Looking out the back window, I saw it continue on toward the Lake Michigan shore, its trajectory unchanged and its pilot apparently oblivious to my presence. I glanced down at the traffic display to see if I could get a tail number, but no target appeared there. Was its transponder off? Sketchy.

I took a moment to catch my breath and allow my heart rate to lessen before contacting Great Lakes Approach for the arrival at Muskegon.

Muskegon Lake with Lake Michigan in the distance.

Muskegon was the towered airport included on the long solo cross country flight that I flew as a student pilot. Arriving there was my only truly negative experience during primary training. Not because I did not know how to handle the airplane. In fact, I specifically remember that the landing was glorious. But when I landed there twenty-one years ago, I lacked adequate training on radio and towered airport procedures. I was verbally all thumbs on the radio, could not process all the information thrown at me on take-off, and drew the ire of the departure controller. I was affected deeply by this and my current level of radio acumen developed as a direct reaction to the Muskegon incident. It seemed a cruel coincidence to return there on the same day as busting a check ride and nearly perishing in a midair collision. At least my radio work with Muskegon was flawless this time.

A Long Way from Branch Road

Me and Chris. Photo by Heath.

Chris was craving hibachi, so we zoomed off to Kazumi once he picked me up at Executive Air. We were joined by his colleague Heath who was interested in learning to fly and was looking for a new brain to pick on the subject. Dinner was good, though I declined the squirt bottle of sake aimed at my face by the hibachi chef because I still needed to fly back to Traverse City that night.

"It's pretty watered down," Chris offered. I passed anyway.

It was good to catch up with Chris. We spent part of the time trying to decide exactly how long it had been since our last meeting and concluded that it was sometime before The Bear was born. We actually avoided the trap of only reminiscing about old times, though we shared the famous wicked butter incident from Toronto with Heath. Otherwise, so much had happened to both of us in the years since we last met that there was a lot to talk about.

The RENK America building in Muskegon, MI photographed 12 May 2023.

Chris is an automotive engineer currently employed by RENK America. The facility was originally a Continental Motors factory that built aircraft engines during World War II. That 1940s Continental crate that I saw in Tuskegee, AL in 2021? It came from the facility where Chris currently works.

Continental Motors crate from Muskegon, MI on display at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, photographed 13 August 2021.

After dinner, Chris and I returned to the Muskegon airport and parted company on the ramp as the sun was beginning to set.

Ready at Muskegon's runway 24.

Muskegon Lake.

With the onset of night, the air finally calmed and the flight back to Traverse City was significantly more pleasant than the southbound flight had been. Lack of a near midair collision added to the soothing vibe of the return flight.

Returning to Cherry Capital Airport nearly an hour after sunset, I was pointed directly at a large mass of undifferentiated lights and unable to distinguish runways from the surrounding city. I was about to activate an instrument approach for guidance when Minneapolis Center passed me to Traverse City Tower.

Tower instructed me to continue inbound for runway 36 and thoughtfully brightened the runway lights for a moment to help me locate the airport. With the runway in sight, I lined up to land. However, on final approach, I could not remember if I had actually been cleared to land or not.

"Traverse City Tower, can you verify that Cherokee Four Eight One is cleared to land 36?" Tower affirmed that I was. Forgetting whether I had received a clearance to land or not was a moment of clarity revealing how incredibly tired I was. 

After all, it had been quite a day.

Parked on the AvFlight ramp at Cherry Capital Airport.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023: Second Chances and Silver Linings

I slept in to almost 8:00 am the next morning, which is rare for me. My original plan for Wednesday was an exploration of a few selected Upper Peninsula airports and an aerial tour of Pictured Rocks on the south shore of Lake Superior. Those things obviously did not happen given the need for a retest.

Instead, I cleaned up my logbooks, filled out a new IACRA application with updated flight and training times, read a book, and went for a walk. 

Boardwalk along Boardman Lake.

To clear my head, I walked the Boardman Lake Trail, a 4 mile path around the lake that varied from the pictured boardwalk to paths traversing neighborhoods and wooded areas. I already knew that I had gotten lucky with the weather for seaplane flying, but Wednesday was the most glorious day of the week with a high near 80°F, clear skies, and light wind. I even lost some of my winter pallor during the walk around Boardman Lake.

At lunch, I received instructions from Tom to return at 2:00 pm.

New Seaplane Pilot!
(Spoiler Alert)

DateAircraftRoute of FlightTime (hrs)Total (hrs)
10 May 2023PA-12S
Silver Lake - Lake Missaukee - Silver Lake2.62628.8

Tom and I launched from Silver Lake shortly after 2:00 and I performed a couple of perfectly satisfactory landings there. With Tom navigating by iPhone, I flew the plane to Lake Missaukee in Lake City east of Cadillac, MI. This was a cross country flight unlike any that I have undertaken recently. Low, slow, radio silent, and without any navigation in the panel beyond a jittery wet compass. Once Tom got me pointed in the correct direction, I chose a point in the distance and tracked to it, a navigation technique that I have not depended on in years. Due to yaw instability from the floats, I continued to actively work the rudders in cruise. Tom's airplane is fun to fly, but it is tiring as a cross country machine. My right knee ached when the day was done.

We located Lake Missaukee and the beach where Kevin wanted to meet. With some time to spare, we practiced six more landings. At least half of them were pure poetry, smoothly sliding the floats onto the water, cutting the throttle, and gently riding out the bow wave created by our landing. Only one was a little rough. "Don't do one like that with Kevin," Tom suggested.

I landed near shore, cut the engine, and we gently glided across the water to beach the Super Cruiser while a pair of kids playing on shore watched us with great suspicion.

On the beach at Lake Missaukee.

Kevin arrived on time, we hopped back into the airplane, and Tom shoved us off. Because the wind was calm, much of the lake surface was glassy, so Kevin and I explored the opposite end of the lake where some surface texture was visible to help gauge landing. I brought the airplane in for a passable rough water landing.

"OK. Take off again and let's get you your seaplane rating," Kevin prompted.

No more than 50 feet above the water, Kevin said, "My airplane." I surrendered the controls, made some flap and trim adjustments at Kevin's request, and we blasted across the deserted lake at full speed just tens of feet above the water. "I wouldn't expect you to fly this way," Kevin commented. "But it will get us back to the beach quicker and it's a lot more fun." He was definitely correct on both counts.

Newly certificated seaplane pilot. Photo by Tom.

Kevin completed his approval in IACRA and sent me an electronic copy of my temporary airman certificate by text. Lacking a printer on the beach, I would need to print it later. Just like that, I was a newly-rated airman again! As we parted company, I thanked him for all that he taught me.

Tom and I enjoyed another nice cross country flight back to Silver Lake with easy conversation about our past flight experiences. My landing near Tom's dock was perfection now that test anxiety was no longer a factor. I put the seaplane on a trajectory to intercept the dock, pulled the mixture to stop the engine, and we glided in silently.

As our momentum carried us to the dock, I shared with Tom that I genuinely enjoyed the extra time flying the Super Cruiser as well as the unplanned cross country flight. It was a silver lining to the previous day's failure. Tom chuckled and noted that he had past students threaten to fail intentionally so that they could spend more time flying the seaplane. While I completely understood that, I would have much preferred to pass the first time around.

We chatted in his kitchen for a while longer. As conversation dwindled, I thanked Tom for an excellent experience, said goodbye, and drove back to Traverse City. I celebrated with Thai food for dinner and enjoyed the most restful night's sleep of the entire week.

Mission Accomplished!

Since earning the rating, many have asked if I plan to buy a seaplane or put the Warrior on floats. The answer to both is no. Like earning the tailwheel endorsement, I came looking for a unique experience, an opportunity to do some fun flying in a different aircraft, a broadening of my skill set, and a means to satisfy a flight review without making another perfunctory flight with a CFI in the Warrior. Mission accomplished in every aspect!

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