A Course in Decision Making: Learning to Fly Floats

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Flying floats is one of the most exciting forms of flying, and it might just be the closest to barnstorming that a pilot can get in today's world.

May 2015-

Earning your Single Engine–Sea rating can be as simple as training at a quiet lake in Florida, or as challenging as finding the most demanding location in Alaska where you'll need to combine float flying and mountain flying skills to successfully complete your training.

In my 50-plus years of experience, it's a combination of where you train and how you train that really counts. After observing, teaching and examining an almost countless number of pilots, I believe that pilots don't simply rise to the occasion; they rise to their level of training and practice.

Refresh your memory
Float training allows you to be introduced to new skills and techniques. You'll also get a good refresher on skills you already learned, but may have forgotten.

For example, when is the last time you asked, "Where's the wind?" "What's the effect?" Maybe back when you did your fourth or fifth pre-solo hours doing ground reference maneuvers? After that, ATIS or the tower likely advised you about wind speed, direction and the runway to land on. As a floatplane pilot, though, once again the answers to those questions will be completely up to you.

Flying Floats, the course I developed in Moose Pass, Alaska, is really a course in decision making. In the process of learning to fly floats, your situational awareness will be honed to a much higher level.

A quick syllabus
Learning proper engine starting procedures while departing the dock, or to prevent yourself from careening into trees and brush as you float downstream in a rapid running river (probably for the first time!), can make you very aware of the delicate mixture needed to get your engine running.
Once you have your craft started and are at idle away from the beach or dock, you will be introduced to the three types of water taxi techniques: slow (or idle) taxi, plough taxi (along with its warnings and concerns) and step taxi, which requires understanding of Newton's laws of motion.

Water taxiing and sailing procedures require specialized knowledge and practice. Students should spend a good amount of time on this part of the course.
Then we progress to the floatplane takeoff. (This is the exercise that will improve your landplane landings and takeoffs exponentially!) First, you must integrate into your thinking the four parts of a floatplane takeoff.
Once you get it on the "step," you must fine-tune the pitch attitude to achieve the least drag during this "planning and acceleration" phase of the takeoff. You must memorize—that is, lock into your brain—the exact pitch attitude, the relationship with your cowling, and the horizon.

On landing, this pitch attitude is where you will need to be. Too low, and you will instantly go swimming; too high, well... you will look pretty bad skipping or porpoising across the lake. Just right, and you're a floatplane expert!

Other concepts
Concepts like center of buoyancy (COB) and the four phases of takeoff (displacement; hump; planning and acceleration; liftoff) should also be well covered in your instruction.
In addition, a new floatplane student will also need to locate seaplane bases on a chart and/or directory, know how to find a base's operating restrictions, demonstrate knowledge about right-of-way, steering and sailing rules and be able to identify marine navaids (buoys, beacons, lights, etc.)

Once you're off and climbing, floatplane flying can be a lot like any other landplane—well, until it's time to read the water for a landing. Then you can expect to get instruction on power settings, approach attitudes, crosswind and glassy water landing techniques, as well as anchoring, docking, mooring and beaching the aircraft. (For more resources on safe and effective floatplane operation and regulations and other considerations, see the sidebars that accompany this article. —Ed.)

Adding the coveted "SES" to your pilot certificate—whether you're a private pilot or an ATP—will give you a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that will last a lifetime. Plus, flying floats combines the exhilaration and pleasures of sailing, boating and flying.
If you're looking for a new experience that will challenge you and improve your flying skills like never before, the Single Engine–Sea rating is for you.

Vern Kingsford is a DPE and CFI that has been teaching flying on floats for 51 years. He is passionate about teaching pilots how to safely operate on and off the water. His company, Alaska Float Ratings, offers students of all skill levels a variety of courses on seaplane and mountain flying techniques. Kingsford divides his time between Moose Pass, Alaska, and the Philippines. Send questions or comments to .

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