Thursday, September 18, 2008

It's Also a Boat

The next phase of our journey is a little different. We're not meeting Lite Flyer's Fredericton family here. We're going to them. I have her mark the location on the chart, because it's not a registered aerodrome.

I don't want to delay airline operations, or have to take off with any wake turbulence concerns, so I check what the CRJ is doing. Jazz has called the premium customers for boarding, but they still have to board the rest of the cabin, brief them, and run checklists. We have time to get out ahead of them. And this way we can make them even greener with envy. We start up and I call the FSS to tell them we're taxiing out to land on the river a mile west of here. Heh. It's funny to land at a non-registered aerodrome inside the confines of a mandatory frequency area. I've done it before, but I think I haven't done a flight from the land aerodrome to the immediately adjacent water like this. It's sort of like getting taxi clearance from the controlled apron to the uncontrolled apron, except that I get to fly there.

I was kind of hoping the flight service specialist would say "you're going to do what?" and I'd get to elaborate, but she takes this proposed destination in stride. We taxi for an intersection departure and stay at 500' as we turn westbound. We retract the gear and leave the flaps down as we start up the river at low power. Now where is this house?

We've gone past the mark on the chart and there are wires and a bridge coming up ahead, plus the FSS is asking me our intentions. I tell them to stand by. Lite Flyer says the house is past the bridge that's ahead and then I get a little short with her because that will bring us into the built up area of the city, where off-airport landings are not permitted, and I'm not about to buzz this bridge. I only realize now, as I write this, that because I was insisting we stay over the river and because she was sitting on the left, she didn't have much of a chance to see the place, even if it wasn't the first time she'd been asked to find it from the air. I get back to the FSS and tell them, "We're remaining low level on the river, west of the aerodrome. I can't believe I'm looking for an address from an airplane."

Lite Flyer insists that the place we're looking for is not in the built up area of the city and then she spots it. On the correct side of the bridge. We turn around and overfly the landing area. It's clear of snags, debris and boats, has very little current and looks to have very light winds. Lite Flyer does this landing too, another beautiful one, but she doesn't pull the power back as we touch down, so the little airplane skips like a stone. The second touchdown is nice too, and with the power pulled back it taxies nicely. I didn't try taxiing during the checkout, just take-off and landing on the water, so it's good to see that it handles well. We come past the beach and wildly waving, camera toting relatives to inspect our potential landing sites. We've been told that lowering the gear and taxiing up a boat ramp is an acceptable beaching technique, but I nix an under-construction boat ramp, as it seems to consist of oddly angled concrete slabs that might hit the hull before the wheels. Lite Flyer says the river bank is free of stones and there's an area that looks appropriate for beaching, so I head towards there. At idle the taxi speed on the water is higher than I want to hit an unknown beach, so I reach over and turn off all the electrical switches then tell Lite Flyer, "mags off." (This airplane has no mixture control, the engine automatically meters fuel, so to cut the engine you just switch the magnetos off. It takes some getting used to, but they're on Lite Flyer's side, so it's her job, and she doesn't know any differently). She doesn't switch them off right away and I now realize why.

Flashback: Like any instructor with a student I've been gradually giving her less instruction and more responsibility at each phase of flight, so I graduated from reciting the checklist to her as a series of instructions, to asking her to do the prestart checklist, to saying "okay, start her up." When I got to the last, she put in the key and motored the starter, with no checklist, no mags, no nothing. That's a pretty normal phase in student pilot progress, actually a good sign of building confidence and a good opportunity to cement checklist use. Of course the airplane wouldn't start. At that time I read her the riot act, using my 'mean' instructor voice that starting the airplane means using the start checklist.

And now I've just told her to shut off the mags, and she was looking for the checklist to do it properly. Damnit Lite Flyer, read my mind. Today I just want the mags off. I think I reached over and did it myself, letting the momentum carry us to the bank. I needn't really have worried as the bank is very soft and silty and the airplane has so little momentum that it stops drifting much sooner than I expected. Perhaps it softly wedged itself on the bottom as soon as the mags went off.

Meanwhile there's a woman on shore saying something like "Don't get out! Don't get out! I've got Daisy Leaner coming!"

Lite Flyer turns to me. "That's my sister. She's called the media." The Daily Gleaner is the local newspaper. Lite Flyer can stay in the airplane for the publicity shots, but I won't let the airplane drift randomly. I pull off my shoes and socks and jump in the river to hold the airplane and wade up the bank, and apparently Lite Flyer can do without her fifteen minutes of fame, as she does the same. We borrow a boat rope to tether the airplane to a big stump, and enlist the aid of family to haul the airplane far enough onto the beach so as to be secure from any waves.

Now I'm a little out of my element and am trying to fade into the background as her family come up to see and congratulate. I'm stressed out again, Maybe because we've got an airplane sitting on a beach, with one more leg to go, and this one includes overwater stretches--over water not suitable for forced landings. I duck out of the gathering to talk to a weather briefer. We'll be good to go tonight, but the weather will be poor tomorrow, so I veto the idea of staying overnight. We do stay for a fabulously delicious lunch with freshly barbecued chicken sandwiches and fruit. I tell Lite Flyer that we have to leave at 3:15, and that means pushing off the beach at 3:15, not starting a prolonged round of goodbyes then. I have actually left some leeway in this time, because I don't expect my admonition to be entirely effective, but Lite Flyer understands about weather and schedules, and she is at the airplane at the appointed time, even though someone who got lost on the way has barely arrived.

A float plane is completely unnavigable and uncontrollable until the engine is started and it is underway, and even then directional control at low speeds is not excellent. We need a good plan to transition from the beach to the water, leaving lots of room for things to go wrong. I recruit someone willing to get his feet wet for an assistance role. We push the airplane down the beach enough that it can be pushed off once we board. I untie the mooring rope and then thread it through the anchor eye on the hull so you have to hold both ends to keep it from running through. I ask our launching assistant to push the airplane back off the beach and then turn it so it's facing sideways to the beach. "Don't let go of the rope until Lite Flyer gives you the thumbs up." Worst case scenario here starts with being set adrift and being unable to start the engine. The current is almost non existent, but it would still be inconvenient, and this will be the first time Lite Flyer has done a beach launch. The flight instruction principle called primacy asks me to do it correctly the first time a student sees it, so she will remember it that way. I hope the lesson she does take from this is the fact that in launching a seaplane, you can't trust bystanders and you have to be prepared for the unexpected.

I try to radio the FSS whose airspace we will be lifting into but I am unsuccessful down here on the water. I'll call them airborne. We get pushed off the beach, but facing butt first, which isn't going to work because we have no reverse. Our launching assistant fixes that and then Lite Flyer runs the prestart checklist. The starter motor has just started turning when I see the painter running free. Inside my head I grit my teeth and ask, "what part of 'don't let go until she says so' do you not understand?" but fortunately the engine starts successfully first time as it has every single time with the sole exception of Maine, where we needed extra primer. We have enough directional control to get away from the boat ramp into the main channel. The plan is to go upriver to get set up and then turn downriver for the takeoff slide. I ask Lite Flyer to read the Water pre-takeoff checklist. "Flaps set 20, Gear up and indicating, Fuel pump on, Approach speed 65 knots ..."

What? That's the prelanding checklist. It's not her fault: the checklists provided by the manufacturer are a little difficult to navigate and keep getting out of order on the keyring. But you can't put on the brakes and sort things out on the water. We want to take off in front of the spectators and we want to get off here, not further down the water where there are birds and boats. I set a bad example and just go. Flaps and gear are set, pump is on, power partway up, temperatures look good, full power. Climb onto the step, then stick neutral to accelerate, and then back slightly to lift off. I call the FSS immediately to make sure we're not going to pop up into someone else's flightpath. She gives us the all clear and we climb, after most likely terrifying the people on the sailboats. Awesome fun.

We're on the very last leg of our trip. If we complete this flight as filed, we're home. If we don't, at least we're in Canada.


Matt said...

All I can say is I'm so jealous...

majroj said...

Murphy's Law of groundlings...damn things won't hold still unles you need 'em to come out and help.
I bet LF waved goodbye and someone decided that was the signal. Next time have a folding fluorescent green card which reads "LET GO NOW!!!" to hold up.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering...did you brief the launch assistant to expect that you'd be starting the engine before you'd give the 'let go' signal?

Sarah said...

I was wondering if you had tried out the water on the trip. Sounds like fun!

Although, a picture is interesting.

Looks like it sits pretty low in the water at MGW. Not something to land on water with any wave action?

I'm a little sad the adventure is almost over, but glad it all went so well (so far).

Head in the Clouds said...

So do you have a seaplane rating, too? Or is it somehow not required?

Aviatrix said...

Anonymous: I probably did not make it clear that we would start up before casting off. I suspect you are correct that he thought the fact that the airplane was making noise meant that he was done.

Sarah: You think it looks low in the picture, you should feel how it is when it's your butt that is lower than the water.

Head in the Clouds: Yes, I have a seaplane rating. They're pretty common in Canada. I'm not sure if it's required or not for the ultralight.