Thursday, April 12, 2007
Phase II: Getting my water wings
As mentioned earlier, I've been a seaplane pilot since the 1990's, but had only accumulated about 20 hours seaplane time before last summer. After buying N8012D, I got checked out for land ops right away, but a series of glitches (hydraulic pressure, tachometer, etc.) combined with weather conspired to keep me from water ops training until winter came along.
When the ice around Chicago finally melted, I tried to schedule as much flight time as possible before leaving for Lakeathon, but managed only a single afternoon's worth of splashing around the Chain of Lakes. So ultimately, I decided to leave early for Lakeathon and spend time working on my checkout down here at Winter Haven, with Paul Furnée of Aircraft Innovation.
As most members of the Lake Amphib Flyers Club probably know, Paul (left) is one of the leading authorities on flying and maintaining Lakes. He used to live in New Hampshire and worked for Lake Aircraft, including helping to redesign the Buccaneer as the 4-6 place Renegade. More than that, he has thousands of hours flying and instructing in Lakes, and knows the pedigree and flight characteristics of virtually every Lake out there. I was amazed at the things he can tell me about my own plane.
When I originally contacted Paul for this trip, I had forgotten that I had met him back in 2003, when I first started to consider Lake ownership, and had gone for a familiarization flight with one of his instructors in one of his aircraft. (That had constituted all of my Lake time before buying N8012D.) I had also introduced myself (again, as it turns out) at Oshkosh last summer.
I arrived Tuesday, April 10 after an IFR flight from Tampa, with the airport at minimums for the VOR-DME A approach. After scrounging Paul from the hangar, we spent time with him looking over the plane and asking me about it. Within 10 minutes he had inflated my nose strut, and added nitrogen to my hydraulic accumulator, which improved the operation of the system immensely. He also had explained to me how the system works, and why it's so important to have a pre-charge of 350-400 psi in the accumulator to speed operation of the gear and flaps and reduce wear on the hydraulic pump.
As we talked, the weather improved, but never got terrific, with low scud and hazy visibilities. We took off anyway and spent a couple of hours flying into the numerous lakes surrounding the Winter Haven/Lakeland/Bowman area. (See day 1 flight, left).
Paul showed me numerous tricks for improving my water operations. Three in particular were very helpful:
I had always been nervous and uncomfortable doing step work, particularly step turns, because they feel so uncoordinated and unstable. He demonstrated for me how--if the speed is kept low, about 30 kts--the airplane can be trimmed to run on the step hands-off. He also showed me how the pitch angle on the step makes a huge difference in pitch stability (porpoising), and how you can use this to your advantage if you want to make a tight turn (putting the nose down carefully while on the step will tend to tighten the turn.)
After I was more comfortable on the step, he showed me a step-turn exercise where I made continuous figure-8's, crossing our own wake in the center with the wings level, and then turning to the opposite direction to do it again. This exercise has been very useful to me in getting comfortable with the plane on the water.
To get a flavor for the correct step-landing attitude and how power settings affect the approach, Paul had me choose a rather large lake, make a normal approach, and then fly literally inches over the surface indefinitely, finding the attitude and power setting that kept the aircraft just kissing the tops of the highest waves. The attitude and "picture" from the pilot's seat during this are those to look for when I'm doing a normal step landing, and the power setting is just a smidge (1-2" of manifold pressure) higher than the one to use when doing glassy water landings.
One lake that is excellent for practice in the area is Lake Mattie (N28 08.291 W81 46.924). No one lives on the lake, except on the south side of the inlet along the western shore. If you avoid flying over that house, you can practice to your heart's content without bothering anyone.
After a couple of hours, we headed back as noon approached. When we checked weather it was threatening for the entire afternoon, so Paul cut me loose and I got my rental car and checked into the Holiday Inn (Lakeathon Central) to unpack and catch a nap. (Remember, it'd been practically non-stop flying since Easter Sunday afternoon for me.)
The next morning, I headed back to the airport. We took off and headed north, splashing into numerous lakes along the way and practicing much of what I'd learned the day before. (See Day 2 map, below.) We also did some "high altitude" (high altitude in a seaplane is a relative term...maybe 3,000 feet) flying in which he demonstrated different flight characteristics of the aircraft.
Our plane doesn't have bat wings or vortex generators, so Paul demonstrated to me the pronounced "burble" that occurs power-on with flaps up at around 70-75 mph. It's not a stall, but it so disrupts the airflow over the wings that the airplane will neither climb nor accelerate in level flight. We also did some stalls and emergency procedures (extending the gear with zero hydraulic pressure, simulated engine failure with a turn back to the airport at 500', etc.)
[By the way, we found that if you lose your engine at 500' over the departure end of the runway (or in this case lake), you can execute a 180 degree turn back to the landing surface, but only if you dramatically lower the nose to build up speed to 80+ mph, and crank it around with 60 degrees of bank. The picture from the windshield is pretty dramatic (think diving sideways straight down for the shoreline), and you lose altitude like a wounded piano, but you do level out over the water with enough speed to be able level out and land. If you were trying to hit the runway you took off from I think you'd be in trouble. About the best you could do would be land in the grass parallel to it. In our case there wasn't enough altitude to execute the sidestep necessary to get back aligned with our original course. Fortunately, if you use a high bank angle, you don't move far laterally from your original course line.]
For lunch we landed in a lake and went to a restaurant called Gator Joe's (left, N29 02.412 W81 55.712; could be a fun fly-out destination this weekend). The food was interesting...I had the "Gator Philly" sandwich, sort of a Philly cheese steak sandwich made with deep fried alligator meat. (I thought it tasted more like fish than chicken.)
There's enough room on the beach for a few Lakes, and a ramp directly to the right (east) that could accommodate up to 3, if they reposition the old sailboat that's adjacent, as we suggested during our stop.
After lunch, we headed back to GIF, splashing into numerous lakes along the way.
After a couple of hour break, we saddled up again and this time headed east, to the lakes south of Orlando and Kissimmee, FL. There are some fairly large lakes over that way, many of which are connected by a series of canals maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. The canals are virtually deserted (an occasional fisherman was all I saw), and reportedly connect all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. They are dead straight for miles, wide enough to land on, and full of wildlife (including scores of real live gators!) They make an excellent practice are for river (constrained area) and crosswind operations. Plus you can watch in fascination as the gators swirl into the water from the bank as you step taxi along for mile after mile.
The three lakes we flew in (and the canals that connect them) are Lake Hatchineha (N28 01.417 W81 22.166,) Cypress Lake (N28 04.748 W81 19.531,) and Lake Tohopekaliga (N28 10.057 W81 22.048.) The two canals were the Hatchineha Canal (N28 02.806 W81 20.558) and the South Port Canal (N28 06.400 W81 20.837.) Be careful with the latter--there is a lock/dam at the northern end, with wires across it, and a radio tower with hard-to-see guy wires adjacent. Give it a wide berth.
On our way back, we also dropped into Lake Russel (N28 08.056 W81 25.005), a cypress-lined lake that is virtually impossible to access except by air. There is a nice sand beach on the eastern shore partially hidden behind the weeds. There, Paul demonstrated to me a technique for turning the aircraft around without effort:
If the bottom is relatively flat and sandy, drive up on to the sand, wheels-up, in displacement taxi, until the keel is firmly anchored on the bottom. Then just give it about half to 3/4 throttle while holding full rudder (left seems to work well). The aircraft can't move because it's anchored, and the airflow over the rudder will pivot you around on a dime! When you're ready to depart, just give it a blast of throttle and you're off!
Paul also demonstrated how you can taxi through weeds like an airboat. After all there's no water prop to foul!
When we got back to GIF, Paul suggested that the next day I take my time and come in when I felt like it.
I slept in a bit, therefore, on Thursday, and got to the airport about 10:30. I helped Paul with his website, and then he said to me, "What you need to do is go flying by yourself."
Yesss! It felt a lot like 33 years ago when my instructor stepped out to let me fly my first solo. Paul suggested a lunch stop in downtown Winter Haven at the Harbor Side restaurant. On the map, it looked a little scary, smaller in diameter than the length of the GIF runway, but he assured me I'd be fine.
I took off, and flew over to Lake Mattie for a while, to brush up on all I'd learned: step taxiing, glassy water landings, flying one inch over the surface, power off landings, full-stall landings, etc. When I felt ready, I headed south to Lake Shipp (N28 00.208 W81 44.505). After circling twice to get the full picture, I set up for a landing, came in over the canal north to Lake May, and landed, no sweat.
I taxied over to the beach adjacent to the Harbor Side (N27 59.907 W81 44.279), and tied up to a picnic table. The lake bottom is fairly steep there, and the light wind was blowing on shore. I didn't pay too much attention, but when I came out from lunch, I found that the aircraft had pivoted in the wind until the left wing was nearly against another picnic table. As Paul told me, "I'll learn a lot in the next hundred hours." Mental note: make sure there are no adjacent obstructions in case the aircraft moves in the wind...
After lunch I taxied out, and--given my nervousness about the lake size--decided on a step-turn takeoff to minimize space needed. Turns out I had plenty of room anyway, but it gave me good practice, and I was on my way.
I headed back east to play in and around the canals again, and spent probably an hour just puttering around doing takeoffs, landings, frog-hops over fishermen in boats, and looking for gators (see right, below). I got in some actual glassy water work on one lake--wow, can that be deceiving--and kept working on my step technique. I'm coming to appreciate how much a Lake is an attitude-sensitive airplane. If you get the landing attitude right, all's well, but if you land a little nose high (too slow) or nose low (too fast) you're in for a little excitement. One landing had 3 or 4 ever-increasing bounces until I transitioned to a full-stall landing to let it settle down.
Turns out you can get a cell signal out there on the canals (at least on Verizon), so I sent a couple of messages with photos to Barb.
Paul says that it'd be good to get some heavy-water work in if we can; other than that I'm pretty much good to go. The weather for Sunday's looking a little wild and woolly, so we may do some flying then. In the meantime, it's time for Phase III: Lakeathon!
PS -- The one thing that Paul impressed upon me is there's only one REALLY, REALLY important rule. Don't land in the water with your gear down. Everything else you can survive, but that's a real killer.
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