Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Sea Change

Sea Change

noun
1. a striking change, as in appearance, often for the better.
2. any major transformation or alteration.
3. a transformation brought about by the sea.

For the purposes of this story, we will be concentrating on definitions 2 and 3.

Using even the most optimistic parameters, by any measure I am now fully into the second half of my life. At this point, I've accomplished pretty much everything I set out to do a half century ago, and it's nigh on time to start thinking about what I want to do with the rest of my time.

As I think about my priorities, there is one that is inarguable: I will no longer endure Ohio winters.

There are many possibles solutions to that, but in my neck of the woods the most common answer is to move to Florida. It is with that in mind that I started looking at properties on Realtor.com. Of course, there are thousands and thousands of homes for sale in Florida, so one needs to narrow the search. I did so by choosing a location that best fits my set of needs. Long story short, I focused on the Tampa area. I don't want to live in the city, though, so the search was primarily focused on the periphery.

An obvious requirement is access to an airport. But not just any airport - it has to be one amenable to the position an airport holds in my list of places I want to be for a goodly portion of my day. Through a great deal of Google map searching, I came up with a short list of places I wanted to visit. As it turns out, The Jackson Two had a family trip to Orlando coming up, so I selected that week as a good time to go, and Orlando as a good base for my operations.

Knowing that I couldn't fill a full week with driving around experiencing small towns, I thought I might be best served by finding some form of recreation to fill out the remainder of the stay. I remembered hearing/reading about a place down there that was considered the go-to place for getting a float plane rating, and as I still have a embarrassingly and unseemly high degree of lust to own a SeaRey.

"A what??"

Well, allow me to elucidate:



That is a SeaRey.

It didn't take long at all to coerce Google into ponying up the name and address of Jack Brown's Seaplane Base, and to learn that they were able to provide a float plane endorsement for LSA pilots for a pretty attractive price, and in a plane that I would be thrilled to fly. The course was scheduled to fit into two days - perfect to fit into my schedule. I would have four days there, so I scheduled it for the middle two so as to have a day in reserve in case of weather delays or any other unforeseen circumstances.

The Trip

As I would need a car while I was there and the cost of a rental would be significant, I decided to drive down. It looked to be a nominal fourteen hour drive, so I decided to split it across two days. I figured I was good for ten hours on the first day, so I scoped out an overnight stop just about that far down the road. That turned out to be Savannah, Georgia. I found a low-cost motel and booked the reservation.  I also found that by booking a couple of months in advance and foregoing the right to cancel, I was able to find a decent enough place in Orlando for just $47 a night.

The start was inauspicious as I found myself poking my way through thick fog down in southern Ohio and northern West Virginia. That's the cost of getting an early (0400) start, I guess.


The ten hour drive actually ended up at twelve and a half after a lunch stop and a number of frustrating traffic delays.  Right around 60 miles north of Savannah on I-95, I got into a weird kind of rolling traffic jam. We would sit for ten or so minutes, then break loose and get up to speed for five minutes, then stop again. I went through four or five of these cycles before deciding that I would rather be driving than sitting.

"Voice Command."

The Garmin GPS perked up its ears, eager to respond to my demands.

"Detour."

A quick recalculation determined that a detour away from the freeway would add 20 - 30 minutes to my ETA, but I already knew that the current ETA was only a guess anyway, what with the rolling dogpile I was currently festering in. We took the next exit.

It was great! The weather was nice, and the South Carolina scenery is beautiful.




I thought I had it made, until about 26 miles later when the GPS chirped up and said, "Turn left onto I-95 in half a mile."

"Whhhhaaaatttttt????"

Clearly I didn't understand Garmin's definition of "detour." I thought it would provide me with an alternate route all the way to the motel.

Nope.

All turned out well, though. We were far enough down the freeway at that point for it to have widened to three lanes. While hectic (70 mph speed limit apparently means you have to be doing 85 just to keep up), the remaining miles went by quickly.

Another 0400 departure had me driving past Orlando right around 0800.

"Past?"

Well, yeah. Check-in time was 1500, so I had a day to fill. I pressed on to the Tampa area. I won't bore you (further) with the details, but by mid-morning I had found the airport that I want to be based at: Tampa North (X39). With the notable exception of Ralph Lennen, who clearly has a narrower set of priorities than I do, people love the place.


Later that afternoon, I discovered something that I would deal with every day: it is always rush hour in Orlando, at least around the Sea World exit where my hotel was located and it rains every afternoon.



The SeaRey Factory

They build SeaReys just forty-five minutes from Orlando, so Kyle and I dropped in for a visit:














 I want one even more than I did before!

Flying: Day One

I made the 30 minute drive to Winter Haven and found a McDonald's open for breakfast. I became a regular there for three days.

I arrived at the seaplane base bright and early (as defined by most people – 0730 is more like mid-morning for me) to find that I was to be the only student. You wouldn’t guess it from the Orlando traffic, but this is something of an off-season, at least with regards to people looking for float plane ratings.






I filled out some simple paperwork and copies of my credentials (passport - TSA requirement these days, I guess) were made for placement in my permanent records, then met my instructor Todd. He would be doing both the ground school and flight training.

As it would be a class of one, I thought it would be different from almost every other class in that there would NOT be that one person that drags the whole class down with questions that added nothing of value other than to demonstrate what an idiot that guy is, or wanders off on lengthy digressions.

Seriously, it is a fundamental truth that there’s one in every class.

As it turns out, that is a fundamental truth because that person is apparently… me. It’s something of a tautology – there’s one in every class that I’m in, because that one is me. What can I say? I like to talk about airplanes, and there is still a lot of curiosity about the RV-12 in the flying community! In my defense (sort of), I didn't being it up - the decal on the back of the only non-employee car in the lot prompted the questions.


Despite my forays into unrelated anecdotes and questions that may have bordered on the arcane now and then, we managed to get through the entire 28 pages of material in a little less than three hours. Not surprisingly, the majority of the material in focused on ground (well… water) operations. Once you’re in the air, a float plane flies pretty much (but not exactly) like any other airplane with the notable difference of gliding like a cinder block with an anvil tied to it. The other difference, at least on the case of the Piper J3 Cub we were flying, is that it seems to have negative stability in turns. I was surprised to learn that once it is put into a bank to turn, it wants to steepen the bank. Most of the time I spent in turns was spent applying opposite aileron to keep it from completely dropping the inside wing.

As far as the abysmal glide performance, the floats themselves are probably the primary cause of that, but no small portion is also attributable to the birds nest of cables and struts that perform any number of functions. The Piper Cub itself has never been the dictionary picture of aerodynamic streamlining to start with, and adding 250 pounds of aluminum and rigging certainly doesn’t do anything to improve that situation.

I suspect the floats also were the cause of the negative roll stability. My theory is that the float on the outside of the turn is moving faster through the air than the inside float, and is therefore acting as another lifting surface that is raising the outside wing.

Just a guess, mind you. Having never flown a non-floated Cub, I have no basis of comparison.

There was quite a bit of content crammed into those 28 pages. It might seem that there isn’t that much to know; it’s just an airplane that floats, so what’s the big deal? Well, just as an example, consider that there are no brakes. One you start the engine, you had darn well better have a plan as to what to do next because the airplane is going to start moving whether you’re ready or not. Helpfully, it doesn’t move particularly fast, but it does move inexorably.

There’s also the wind to contend with. Yes, that is true of all flying, but the wind takes on a special meaning when your airplane doesn’t have tires and pavement tied together in an intimate bond of friction that will provide relatively solid control whilst on the ground. It can easily be the case that the wind is too strong to even get the plane turned around on the water due to the weathervaning effect of the wind on the tail.

More formally:
Stronger winds may make turns from upwind to downwind more difficult. The plow turn is one technique for turning downwind when other methods are inadequate, but this maneuver is only effective in certain seaplanes. It takes advantage of the same factor that reduces a floatplane’s yaw stability in flight: the large vertical area of the floats forward of the center of gravity. In the plowing attitude, the front portion of each float comes out of the water, presenting a large vertical surface for the wind to act upon. This tends to neutralize the weathervaning force, allowing the turn to proceed. At the same time, the center of buoyancy shifts back. Since this is the axis around which the seaplane pivots while on the water, more of the fuselage is now forward of the axis and less is behind, further decreasing the weathervaning tendency. In some seaplanes, this change is so pronounced in the plowing attitude that they experience reverse weathervaning, and tend to turn downwind rather than into the wind.
Plow turns are useful only in very limited situations because they expose the pilot to a number of potential dangers. They should not be attempted in rough water or gusty conditions. Floatplanes are least stable when in the plowing attitude, and are very susceptible to capsizing. In spite of the nose-high attitude, the high power setting often results in spray damage to the propeller. (More)
I'll talk about more the "plow turn" a little later.

There are other weather situations that have specific techniques to deal with. Believe it or not, one of the most dangerous conditions for float plane takeoffs and landings is when there’s no wind at all!! The lack of wind on an interior lake can cause the water to be dead calm, or "glassy" in the parlance of seaplane operations.
Flat, calm, glassy water certainly looks inviting and may give the pilot a false sense of safety. By its nature, glassy water indicates no wind, so there are no concerns about which direction to land, no crosswind to consider, no weathervaning, and obviously no rough water. Unfortunately, both the visual and the physical characteristics of glassy water hold potential hazards for complacent pilots. Consequently, this surface condition is frequently more dangerous than it appears for a landing seaplane.

The visual aspects of glassy water make it difficult to judge the seaplane’s height above the water. The lack of surface features can make accurate depth perception very difficult, even for experienced seaplane pilots. Without adequate knowledge of the seaplane’s height above the surface, the pilot may flare too high or too low. Either case can lead to an upset. If the seaplane flares too high and stalls, it will pitch down, very likely hitting the water with the bows of the floats and flipping over. If the pilot flares too late or not at all, the seaplane may fly into the water at relatively high speed, landing on the float bows, driving them underwater and flipping the seaplane.

Besides the lack of surface features, the smooth, reflecting surface can lead to confusing illusions as clouds or shore features are reproduced in stunning detail and full color. When the water is crystal clear and glassy, the surface itself is invisible, and pilots may inadvertently judge height by using the bottom of the lake as a reference, rather than the water surface.

The lack of surface texture also presents a physical characteristic that adds slightly to the risk of glassy water landings. A nice smooth touchdown can result in faster deceleration than expected, for the same reason that the floats seem to stick to the surface during glassy water takeoffs: there is less turbulence and fewer air bubbles between the float bottoms and the water, which effectively increases the wetted surface area of the floats and causes higher drag forces. Naturally, this sudden extra drag at touchdown tends to pull the nose down, but if the pilot is expecting it and maintains the planing attitude with appropriate back pressure, the tendency is easily controlled and presents no problem. (More)
Again, more on this later.

The FAA is big on having pilots know the nomenclature of the hardware they fly, so there was even a discussion concerning the names of the various parts of the floats themselves. So are common to boats, so I was already passingly familiar with the keel, the chines, bulkheads, cleats, and rudders. (More)

New to me were the exotically name Sister Keelson, which sounds something like the name of a Soul singer.

Beyond the nomenclature of the floats, there was also an introduction to some of the regulations that the FAA has put on the design capabilities of them. For example, a float is required to have a minimum of four separate chambers, separated by bulkheads. The floats on the plane I would be flying have seven each. There is also a requirement that the floats still be able to float the airplane with two of the compartments in each individual float flooded. There isn’t a requirement for a single float to be able to support the entire airplane at gross weight, but it comes close: a single float has to be capable of supporting 90% of that weight. Both floats together must support 180% of the weight.

So, you gotta buy a lotta float, even for a light plane.

One of the traditional problems with doing ground school first is that it’s hard to visualize some of the more esoteric concepts without ever having been in an appropriate airplane. You can talk about the two primary ways of taxiing the plane (idle and step), and you can talk about the purposes of strange terms like plow turns and when they should be used and when they should not be used, but without any real world experience with these things, it can be a lot to try to comprehend and absorb.

Then there are the mnemonic memory aids. One that is used prior to landing is NTOWL, or “night owl.” That one stands for Noise Abatement, Towers Terrain and Traffic, Obstructions, Wind Water, and Lane.

Yes, I know, that would actually be NATTTOWWL.

Let it go.

Another, much simpler one, is CARS. That one is Carb heat, Area clear, water Rudder, and Stick.

The ‘Stick’ part refers primarily to takeoff, in which it is expanded to Stick Full Back. It really has no purpose in landing, so Stick in Hand is used just for completeness.

Yes, I know, that seems silly.

Again, let it go.

One of the most interesting yet hardest to visualize topics was the discussion around how to look at a body of water and read the wind direction and strength. It became very clear once in the air, but seeing it drawn on a whiteboard didn’t fully convey the utility and subtlety of it. I was fortunate to have fairly high winds the first day (high enough that I would not have flown the RV-12 in them) which made the indicators very easy to see, although I did manage to get it completely backwards on one occasion. That could be dangerous; landing downwind in a floatplane is risky. To understand why, we need to briefly circle back to the subject of the floats.

In essence, the floats are hulls. Hulls have a limitation called ‘hull speed.’ This is the speed at which the hull can move no faster through the water, no matter how much motive force is applied. With the particular floats we would be flying with, that limitation is 60 mph. Landing downwind on a windy day could conceivably result in a faster touchdown (splash down?) speed than that. If the floats are pushed past their hull speed, the force that can’t be applied to more speed has to go somewhere. Where it goes is into a great deal of drag that can cause the plane to flip completely over if the floats dig in.

That’s considered bad form.

As with “normal” flying, there are also different types of takeoffs and landings, each being suited to various conditions. There are normal takeoffs, rough water takeoffs, crosswind takeoffs, confined area takeoffs, and glassy water takeoffs. There are symmetrical landing techniques to each of those, with the exception of the confined area technique. We went through the purposes and processes for each of those.

As the float plane is primarily a boat when it’s on the water, we also talked about how to anchor it, how to moor it, how to dock it, how to beach it (deliberately), and how to get it off the water and onto a ramp. We also talked about other boat-like things, such as right-of-way with other planes (opposite from normal flying, the plane taking off has right-of-way over a plane landing), right of way with boats (the plane either has none by law, or that’s the de facto way it’s done because boaters are not taught how to deal with airplanes on the water and it’s simply more expedient to give way to every other vessel – I don’t know which), and how to determine which bodies of water are legal to land on and which aren’t.

It was a long but very informative morning. We were finally ready to fly.

It started to rain.  At least for the time that I was there, a mid-afternoon rain is as regular as heavy traffic around the Sea World exit.

After the rain tapered off, we went out to do the preflight. It’s not a great deal different than preflighting any other plane – there are just a lot more nuts and bolts to look at. There is one unique aspect though: the various compartments of the floats have to be pumped out. It seems that they leak a little bit. There are a total of fourteen compartments to be pumped out, but not all of them had water in them. It’s not hard to do, but it does take a little time.

I imagine you get used to it.

When we finally climbed aboard, I went into the back seat. A Piper Cub is flown solo from the rear seat, so that was appropriate. I did notice while I was climbing in that the control stick was quite tall – I am used to the much shorter stick in the RV-12. I estimate that the Piper Cub measures in at Very High on the Stimpmeter scale of awkwardness.

I soon learned why the stick has such incongruous length: the control forces in flight are surprisingly heavy for such a light plane. You need the extra leverage to fly it. I’m not kidding. My right arm is still sore from the exertion. The thing has the flight qualities of a concrete mixer. As I mentioned before, when you put it into a turn it immediately wants to go deeper into the turn, which I’m here to tell you is somewhat disconcerting until you get used to it.

And remember ‘stick full back?’ It’s how Olympic weight lifters train. As I like to blame everything on the floats, my theory on this aspect is that you are not only lifting a Continental C-85 engine, you're also "pushing" that back ends of those very effective floats down into the water. That's a fairly heavy lift.

The normal takeoff sounds fairly straightforward when described as a series if steps, but there are aspects of it that are very subtle and will take a number of repetitions to get the appropriate feel for. In order, you yank the stick all the way back into your lap, you advance the throttle to full, and the nose immediately climbs up in front of you and renders you blind to where you’re headed. This, by the way, is why a float plane taking off has right of way over one landing – the guy taking off can’t see a darn thing.

Here’s where the subtlety comes in. While nose is pointing up so far that you feel like you must be dragging the tail, you’re waiting for it to go up even more! But it’s not going to go up dramatically more, it’s only going to go up a tiny bit more. Blink and you’ll miss it. If you’re sharp enough to detect it, it’s your signal to ease the stick forward to let the nose come back down. If you time it correctly, the floats will be “on the step,” which is another similarity with boats. Once on the step, only a small portion of the float is actually in contact with the water, so drag is substantially reduced and the plane can being to accelerate to flying speed. (More)

But… you can’t let all of the stick force off. If you do, the floats will experience increased drag, which will pitch the nose down. That will cause the nose to start moving up and down in what is called “porpoising.” It sounds cute, but it’s a bad thing.

So, once on the step you ease the stick back again, but only enough to keep the nose from digging in. Naturally, there’s all kinds of cacophonous mayhem going on, especially if the water is rough, so it takes a bit of self-discipline to not try to yank the plane off of the water. You just have to give it time to do its thing – eventually it just flies off the water of its own accord.


 This is an 85 horsepower Continental C-85, but has had its displacement increased with the use of O-200 pistons/cylinders, bringing up to a much needed 100 hp.




The view before the instructor gets in. 

 The view I got.

That red and white water tower was a useful landmark if for some reason I had to find my way back to the base alone. Another landmark was a huge landfill that they had nicknamed "Mt. Trashmore." 

 Being down low and having the door open makes for a lot of sightseeing.





We took a lap around Kermit Weeks' now closed (except for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I think) museum:







We went through two hours of this. We didn’t have to simulate the rough water takeoffs and landings because for the second hour, rough water was all there was. I think we went to at least five or six other lakes and practiced all of the variations of the operations. I completely lost count of how many times we were up and down. I did finally memorize NTOWL, though, so there is that. But it was tiring!

(I just checked my log book - across the entire course, we did 51 takeoffs and landings.)

During this first flight, we went through all of the different permutations of takeoffs and landings.

In the event, the plow turn is one that I didn't especially enjoy. The process is to find a landmark 90 degrees to the left. These types of things are typically done to the left because the torque of the engine/prop assist in that direction.

The first step is to ensure that the water rudders are down.
Most floatplanes are equipped with retractable water rudders at the rear tip of each float. The water rudders are connected by cables and springs to the rudder pedals in the cockpit. While they are very useful in maneuvering on the water surface, they are quite susceptible to damage. The water rudders should be retracted whenever the seaplane is in shallow water or where they might hit objects under the water surface. They are also retracted during takeoff and landing, when dynamic water forces could cause damage.
I will note here that the up/down management of the water rudders was, at times, one of my weak points. Specifically, it ended up being fairly common for us to roll out of a plow turn and immediately go right into a step taxi (this means accelerating just as you would while taking off, but reducing the power before lifting off - this is very much like being in a speed boat, and is great fun!) at which point I would forget to raise the water rudders.

In the plow turn, the stick is held full back to prevent the floats from getting up on the step. You then apply full left rudder to start the turn, and as the plow turn is usually only needed if your're heading into the wind, you have to apply right aileron to keep the wind from lifting the right wing as you turn across the wind. When you have completed enough of the turn you be looking at your landmark, you have to shift the ailerons to a left roll position.

This is hard to remember.

I also noticed that as we worked our way through other scenarios that require relatively precise RPM management in the 1,500 - 1,800 RPM range that the throttle required very little movement to make large changes in that region. In other words, it was very difficult to manage a precise RPM just when I needed it most. This was also the case in the glassy water landings, where the process involves setting the airplane in a landing pitch and setting the throttle for a slight descent. The idea is to choose a Last Visual Reference (LVR) to use to get the plane to a known altitude a few feet off the water and allow it to eventually drop onto the water. Managing that descent with small RPM changes was a challenge.

Conversely, the idea of a step taxi is to be right on the verge of lifting off the water but managing to not do so by reducing power. That took a great deal more movement of the throttle before any noticeable change occurred, often resulting in getting it done later than the CFI would have liked.

We also did a number of confined area takeoffs - these are used when the lake isn't long enough to allow for a full-length straight-into-the-wind takeoff. These are started by putting the wind off to the left side of the plane, then accelerating up onto the step, then gently turning into the wind. The plane will lift off soon thereafter, and as you were holding left aileron into the turn, the plane will immediately enter a left turn. A couple of full 360 degree left turns later, you have presumably climbed over the obstructions around the lake.

The are similar to a plow turn in some ways, but have critical differences.

We finally had to stop because we were at our fuel limits, and I was just fine with that. We were going to have lunch and go fly again, but the weather really went bad and we had to postpone. I was actually okay with that – I was starting to feel diminishing returns. In other words, I had reached my capacity to learn any more. I thought a night to think it all over and internalize some of what I had learned would be beneficial, so we agreed to take up where we left off early the next morning.
Just to help you visualize a small portion of what we did:

 

Flying: Day Two

I was scheduled to do three flights on the second day, the first being the hour and a half we weren't able to do on day one, and the second being another hour and a half of more advanced instruction. These were to be followed by a half hour oral exam and a half hour check ride with the examiner that would sign off my endorsement.

It was pretty grueling.

There's a lot of difference between this kind of flying and the flying I've been doing for 30-some years and it is a lot to try to learn in such a brief period. Combined with that, the Piper Cub is actually quite a bit of physical work to fly. Control forces are very high as compared to the modern planes that I've always flown. The right side door is left open, so it's also quite noisy and breezy. On top of all that, flying at only 500' above the ground is definitely not in my comfort zone.

I typically pass through 500' before I'm even at the end of the runway after takeoff, and see it again moments before landing. I consider it to be a ridiculously low cruising altitude.

The two instructional flights went well - I was finally able to translate the book learning into actual airplane operations without having to think so much about it; this was no small thing as the way of doings things is in many cases the diametrical opposite of how things are done in the 'normal' plane.

One of the things that takes a great deal of getting used to is that in addition to the low altitude they fly, they have abysmal glide performance.

This propensity to drop like a lead fruitcake means that landing patterns are typically flown very tight in to the landing surface, as opposed to the half mile or so that I typically keep from the runway. It also means that if the engine quits, you have to make a very quick decision as to where you're going to land. We had actually practiced that once during the first flight of the morning and it ended up being a simple matter of just landing on the lake conveniently located right next to us. Had there not been a lake there, well, I guess I would say that you really want to have a reliable engine on a float plane.

The fundamental point the instructor made was to not dally around - point the nose down to keep the airspeed up and find water. As we will see, this should not be conflated with "jump on the first thing that pops into your head."

Most of the day, though, was spent practicing takeoffs and landings from 'glassy' surfaces. You'll see examples of this kind of thing in pictures of mountain lakes where the water is so smooth and calm that it acts as a perfect mirror. When trying to land on water like that, there are no visual references to use to gauge altitude. This makes smooth water landings the most dangerous operation in a float plane, so while only about 15% of landings are performed under these conditions, it is a huge part of the training.

There is a well defined process for making a glassy water landing, but it is somewhat complex. It takes a while to understand the timing and purpose of the steps involved, and it's even harder to translate that into actual flying. If I had to guess, I would have to say that this particular type of landing might be the number one cause of failing a checkride. Once the pitch is set and you're past the LVR, any change in the pitch attitude ruins the landing. It takes (at least it did for me) a lot of patience, self-discipline, and concentration to hold the exact same attitude.  Even the set-up is an area that's just ripe for mistakes.

After the second flight, it was time to shake hands and say goodbye to Todd. It was time for Eric, the examiner, to take over. We started with the oral exam, during which he asked precisely three of the questions I had reviewed with Todd. The remainder were questions that attempted to determine whether or not I could figure things out based on the principles learned through the rote phase. It was pretty interesting, although in the cases where I had to guess, I ended up being wrong each and every time.

I passed; apparently the three correct rote answers were enough. To be honest, I would have nailed the rote questions anyway, so the deeper-thought questions ended up being more like advanced ground training. It was actually kind of fun, and any extra learning was well worth it.

After three solid hours of challenging flying and the nervous stress of the oral exam, the last thing I wanted to do was go out and preflight the plane again, especially as the plane was no longer on the ramp; when the plane is on the water and you are limited to what you can reach while walking on the floats, the Stimpmeter of awkwardness can't even measure high enough.

Once in the air, we need a few landings. Then came the glassy water landing.

I think I aced it.

What a relief!!

I followed that by botching the following Confined Area takeoff. I did the entry as if it were a plow turn, which is to say I gave it a boot load of left rudder rather than the gentle turn that would normally be used, and I got the aileron direction backwards. Eric had me abort the takeoff to give me time to think through what I had done wrong.

I made another mistake a little later, but this one I fully expected: I left the water rudders down during a step taxi.

I was getting pretty tired at this point - the old brain had had enough for the day.

It would soon get worse.

While moving on to another lake (they don't like to stay too long at any one lake lest the neighbors complain) we had just passed over a large lake separated from a smaller lake by a narrow spit of land. This is when the examiner decided to pull the throttle back for a simulated engine failure. I immediately pushed the nose down and headed for the lake in front of us.

Bad choice.

The examiner said the lake was too small and we would never be able to get back out of it, if we were even able to land and get stopped before beaching the plane on the far end. He explained that I should have done a 180 degree back to the much larger lake behind us. Doing so would have gone against every grain of my decades of experience in being told never to try to make a 180 turn back to the runway if your engine quits on takeoff (the only time I'm ever at the vulnerable altitude of 500'), so I never even considered it. And to tell the truth, even after he demonstrated it, I still wouldn't try it. My view is that in an actual situation, I would take my chances with beaching the plane over turning around into a stand of mature trees.

It's not a debate that I had any hope of winning.

I could also say that it was an extremely inappropriate test for someone with an entire five hours of experience in this type of flying, but he could also correctly say that a failing engine isn't going to worry about whether or not it's a convenient time to fail. He also (again, correctly) pointed out that I wouldn't have needed to make the same amount of turn that I would have to make if trying to get back to a runway; 180 degrees would be enough.

Fair enough.

We eventually headed back to the home lake and I was setting us up to land by overflying the lake to look for any possible obstructions and to choose my ground references for another glassy water landing. We were between half and two-thirds of the way down the lake when he pulled the throttle again.

He was giving me a second chance at an emergency power off landing!

I'll bet you can guess what I did.

I racked the plane into a 180 degree turn to land back on the longer side of the lake behind us. I strongly suspect that's exactly what he thought I would do.  With the first failure being so front-of-mind, it was the first thing that popped into my mind.

He was right: I again did precisely the wrong thing. By the time I got turned around, we again didn't have enough water in front of us to make a safe landing.

What I should have done was to make a 90 degree turn towards the far shoreline to give the plane enough room to descend to a more suitable height, then make a downwind landing.

Insult to injury, that would hypothetically let us get to shore rather than be stranded our in the middle of the lake.

I have no one to blame for that one but myself. In fact, this one still bothers me - these are the types of bad decisions that get people killed. It was a valuable lesson.

So, I nailed the glassy water landing, but failed the check ride.

I have to confess: this hit me pretty hard. I could count on one hand the number of tests I've ever failed in my life (scored a 98 on the instrument written, fer cryin' out loud) and I've never even come close to busting a check ride. I took a pretty bad mood back to the hotel, and it was only exacerbated by the miserable traffic. I got to the room and made the mistake of checking my email, where I found a request for me to do something that I really don't want to do, and replied to it with the level of terseness that would border on the rude if it hadn't already obliterated any such border. I was in no mood to fight the crowds and traffic (Orlando is where people go to stand in lines) to go out for dinner, so I ate the leftover half of a sandwich that had spent the hot afternoon steeping in my car.

The 0200 - 0300 anxiety hour, when any little thing that has been bothering me blossoms into a full-blown catastrophe, was a real bear. I remember thinking that I might just not go back.

At least it wasn't a huge logistical problem, though - I had deliberately built an extra day into my stay in case of just this kind of thing. I'd just have to suck it up and go back the next morning and fly for half an hour with yet another instructor, then re-do that part of the check ride with Eric. The only down side is that Kyle and I had planned on touring the Kennedy Space Center that day.

Flying: The Mulligan

It didn't start out well - the weather conditions when I arrived at the seaplane base were awful. The humidity and calm air conspired to complicate matters with a thick dense fog. Nothing to do but wait. It started thinning out within the hour, so I took it upon myself to go preflight the airplane before the instructor found me. The purpose was threefold: I wanted to get this done quickly as Kyle and I had plans for the afternoon, I wanted to impress the instructor with my take-charge initiative, and I wanted to do it without witnesses since I had failed to bring the preflight checklist with me.


Luke, the instructor this time around, was a much younger fellow and was quite interested in the RV-12. It's pretty hard to hide the fact that I have such a thing when mine is the only the non-employee car in the lot that early in the day and it is also emblazoned with that big decal.

We chatted over what went wrong yesterday, then climbed into the plane (which still scores a 9 on the Stimp Awkwardness Measure, even after all doing it any number of times) and took off. With nothing planned other than concentrating on emergency landings, and with me not being anywhere near as tired as I had been the previous afternoon, we were able to do much more effective learning on the subject.

We did five different scenarios, and while he had critical input on things I could have done slightly better, all five were acceptable. 

It was another beautiful day to fly, and I was kicking myself for not bringing the camera (it would have seemed frivolous given the situation) because even at 500' we were flying over patchy low clouds. We were only in the air for half an hour, but the winds had picked up by the time we got back to the base. That's a good thing in float plane flying because it makes it much easier to determine the wind direction from the air.

I managed to botch the ramping (driving the plane off of the water up onto the landing ramp) by over correcting at the last second and ended up parking the plane on the ramp crooked. The guy that meets the planes at the ramp tied it down anyway, and as I was debarking, I commented that this was "my best yet!" That got a nice laugh.

The examiner (Eric again) arrived a few minutes later. We talked a little bit about what had happened the day before, and I told him that I'm still not sure that I would have done anything differently than that first attempt had it been an actual emergency landing, but that I also understand the difference between real world and training. I also told him that I fully understand what I did wrong on the second one, and confessed that I probably would have done just fine if the extremely recent failure in the first case hadn't still been front of mind. He said that he had figured as much.

We took off, he pulled the power at the edge of the first lake we passed, I turned left towards it, told him I was going to make a crosswind landing as there was insufficient room to land into the wind, and made what I think was a very good crosswind landing. He thought so too, and actually commented that it was better than the one I did yesterday. That's not surprising - we actually had a real crosswind to deal with, as opposed to having nothing but a light breeze yesterday.

We took off again and headed back to the base. He said we would just set up for and perform a normal landing. I told him that I didn't believe that for a second!  Sure enough, he pulled the throttle just short of the lake, so the only real difference was that we didn't fly a pattern around the lake. Basically we just ended up being on final, so it was trivial.

If he had given me these two scenarios yesterday, we wouldn't have had to go through this, but other than the additional expense incurred, I'm glad we did. I learned a ton from Luke, and it was very, very good practice.

After that, it was all over but the paperwork.


I can't say enough good things about the entire experience. Jack Brown's has been doing this for a very long time, and this is evidenced on a daily basis by the efficiency with which the operation is run. From my very first interactions with Pat, who helped me get scheduled, to all of the employees who went about their jobs efficiently while still being very hospitable, to the well-maintained planes, and to the deep expertise on display from each of the instructors that I flew with, this is a top-notch business.

If you ever find yourself looking for a very challenging and extremely fun way to spend a few days in Florida, this is it!

The Kennedy Space Center

Kyle and I still had time to get out to the Space Center. Fascinating place!  I'm just going to share pictures.





 We were a little concerned about boarding NASA Bus 13. Jim Lovell wasn't driving, though.











 These are the exact consoles that were used in the early days.






 Of all of NASA's moon vehicles, I think the Lunar Lander is the most fun looking to fly.

The rover looks like fun too.











The Return Trip

Another 0400 departure, but there were only a couple of traffic stops, and they were short. I drove right on by my scheduled stop and was home by 1830.