Saturday, November 21, 2009

"Don't take anything you don't want to end up at the bottom of the lake."

Those were the words of wisdom my seaplane instructor passed on as we walked down the dock to the Piper PA-18 Super Cub on floats for my first lesson. I put my hand in my pants pocket and cradled my iPhone, car keys, and wallet. "Fine time to be telling me" I thought, it was a long walk back to the car by now. I figured I'd take the chance this time since, as we approached the airplane, I realized there was a bigger threat of ME ending up at the bottom of the lake.

The airplane was bobbing gently in the water, right side tied loosely to the dock, with the occasional squeal of the metal float rubbing on the tires attached to the side of the dock. I stood back from the airplane a little, assessing the situation. Seaplane floats always seemed big and beefy to me, but standing there with the realization that I'd be walking along it, dodging wing struts, cables, foot steps, and doing a preflight made it look like a tightrope. I thought, if I can get through a preflight on this thing without falling in the water, it'll be a successful lesson. The right wing was hanging over the dock, high enough for me to occasionally forget that it's there, but still low enough for me to smack my head into it if I wasn't careful as it bobbed up and down in the wakes created by other floatplanes and boats passing by. I wondered how I was going to preflight the LEFT side of the airplane, but I couldn't concern myself with such details at the moment. Every plane I'd ever flown never moved when it was tied down to the ramp. This particular plane seemed like it was exempt from the laws of physics.

"The checklist is in there, go ahead and start the preflight" was the instruction. I hunched down a bit to get clear of the wing and stepped onto the float. Yowza! I could've sworn it felt like it was going to sink when I put my weight on it, now it's bobbing even more than before. I learned later that each one of the floats is required by FAR to provide 90% of the buoyancy of the max gross weight of the airplane, so there's a LOT of margin there. But that knowledge wouldn't have helped. My primitive illogical brain was trying to determine how this could possibly be safe if it reacted that much to me just stepping onto the float, and I'm by no means a big guy. I found the checklist, did all the cockpit set up items, grabbed the fuel sampler, and slid aft along the float so that I could grab the bilge pump out of the aft baggage compartment.

I stepped back onto the dock and crouched down by the aft end of the float where the water rudders are, one on each float. Seaweed, lots of it. It was caught on the rudders and the control cables and springs. "This time of year we get really bad weeds here. Make sure you clear that stuff off, otherwise it's going to jam the rudders." I pulled off every last bit of the crud and wiped my hands on my pants, wishing I had changed out of my work clothes.

Next, I had to pump out each of the watertight compartments in the float using the bilge pump, which looks like a bicycle pump, and requires more effort to work. The floats aren't perfectly watertight, and you'd expect to get some amount of water in there every day. For obvious reasons you want as little water in them as possible. I pumped each compartment until the pump spit out air, which for the most part didn't take very long, until I got to the one in the middle. I pumped, and pumped, and pumped, and pumped. Water kept coming out. I stopped to take a breath, and asked how much water was too much? "Depends how often you pump it. If you're getting that much after every 2 hr flight, that's probably too much. But I don't think that one's been pumped in a while." Good enough, I pumped a few more times and it finally emptied. I finished the rest of the compartments, and the rest of the right side of the airplane including the engine oil and fuel sampling. Nothing spectacular there. "Okay, let's turn it around so you can do the other side." This should be interesting.

There was a light breeze from the southwest, and the airplane was pointed roughly south on the dock. "Get a good grip on the elevator and just walk it along the dock, turning it. Make sure you're holding onto the frame so your hand doesn't punch through the fabric." This should be very interesting. Once the airplane was untied it got a mind of its own. Weathervaning tendency doesn't just occur when you're taxiing, or on a takeoff or landing roll. It's there all the time. And when an airplane is sitting free in water, it'll weathervane in the lightest breeze. Once it was untied, I could immediately feel it wanting to turn into the wind and drift away from the dock. I started pulling and turning but I was fighting nature, and losing. "Pull it back a little and pin the aft bulkhead of the float against one of the tires, then turn it around the float." I stopped for a second so my brain could process this instruction. I eyed the aft end of the float and how it met the tires hanging off the dock, constructing and then solving the geometry problem in my head. My high school geometry teacher would've been proud. I pulled the plane aft so the back end of the float stuck firmly on the edge of one of the tires, then I pulled the tail to the right, keeping aft pressure to keep the float pinned against the tire. The airplane pivoted fairly easily around the point where it touched the tire. Once it got going in the right direction, it was fairly easy to keep it going around, even with the breeze fighting me. Once I got it turned 90 degrees, I reluctantly let go of the right elevator, walked over to the left one, and continued turning it. For a brief moment, the plane was on its own, drifting in the water with nobody to guide it. I asked, "So, has anyone ever lost their grip on the airplane and let it drift out into the middle of the lake?" The answer: "Nope, and please don't be the first." Okay, no pressure. Once I had it swung around 180 degrees, I was shown how to tie it on a cleat, finished the preflight, and turned it back around. I had to be shown how to tie to a cleat again. I practiced it a couple times to try to drill it into my head. The only knots I know how to tie are my shoelaces and my tie, neither of which were appropriate for a seaplane. These were the first of many new skills I had to learn that bore no resemblance whatsoever to any piloting skills I'd learned in my previous 10 years of flying.

"This first time, go ahead and get strapped in, and I'll do the undocking so you can see how it's done." Okay, I thought, but how hard could that be? Famous last words...

to be continued

Saturday, November 7, 2009

More coming...

Took a long break from posting, but more coming again soon. I have a good excuse though! I've been busy getting rated in the 747-400, getting a seaplane rating, doing a little 737 flying, and a whole lot of C208B flying. Lots of stories over the past year to come. Stay tuned...