Monday, August 3, 2009

Chapter 11: In at the Deep End

Launching the Cub was a two-man job. Note that the student (on the float) is dressed for the heat, while the instructor, hanging on to a rope to keep the aircraft from sliding down the ramp, is muffled up against the draughts which will batter him in the open rear cockpit.

It was sweltering hot in the front seat of the bright yellow J-3 Cub, a situation made bearable only by the gale of wind blowing through the space normally occupied by the side windows. There was a good reason for the missing windows. Under this cub hung a pair of Edo floats, rather than the conventional wheeled landing gear. Closed windows on a floatplane would present a problem in case of an accident. So they had been removed.
However, here I was, banking over the vastness of the Salton Sea in southern California. The aircraft was a 1939-vintage Cub. In this aircraft Steve Bertling was introducing me to the art of floatplane operation.

The Salton Sea had the distinction of lying some two hundred feet below sea level. On this cloudless California day the temperature was soaring towards three figures and I was sweating profusely. As I twisted round in my narrow seat, looking back over my left shoulder, I now checked my orientation relative to the spreading white V of the wake from my previous takeoff.
Immediately below us, the water was glassy calm. But away to the west I could see dust devils spinning across the fields bordering this man-made lake. To the east, stretching out to the hazy horizon, white-capped waves marched across the surface of the water. We were now some twenty miles away from our base at North Shore, having flown this far to seek calmer water for my initial baptism on floats. Here in the north-western sector of the lake we had finally discovered a stretch of smoother water.

A moment ago I had been heading downwind, but this was proving to be a day of erratic winds. As I checked, the ripples on the lake below indicated that the wind had shifted yet again. Over the clattering of the engine and the noise of the slipstream buffeting in through the open side windows, I strained to hear Steve’s shouted instructions from the rear seat.
“Remember to aim for the darker water. The ripples give better depth perception.”
I nodded my assent, eased back on the throttle and we drifted round onto final approach. Through the shimmer of the idling propeller I tried to read the water surface to ensure that we would in fact land into wind.

The Cub skimmed across the still-spreading ripples from our previous departure. There was a hiss as the floats kissed the surface, then the water grabbed at the floats and we splashed rapidly and noisily to a halt. Once at a standstill, I let the Cub weathercock into what little wind there was. This was almost becoming routine. During this momentary respite I reflected how quickly I was becoming accustomed to this new aspect of flying. In fact it was only a couple of hours previously as a complete neophyte that I had started to learn the art of operating an airplane on floats.

My initiation had begun with the prosaic but very necessary chore of pumping dry the floats of the Cub as it bobbed at the water’s edge at Salton Sea Air Service’s North Shore dock, the tails of the floats resting on the edge of a wooden ramp. Once I had successfully completed this task without falling into the water, I had climbed aboard through a veritable cat’s cradle of struts and bracing wires. Moving cautiously from the float, I had entered the cockpit by putting one leg over the high cockpit sill, fearful in case my sneakers should slip on the slick aluminum of the float and dump me ignominiously into the harbor in front of the onlookers. I slid into the seat and checked round the spartan cockpit. Just gauges for airspeed, altitude and the odd engine instrument together with a hefty rotary ignition switch. That was it. A stout cord ran along the top of the window. The purpose of this cord was unknown to me at that time.

The spartan cockpit of the Cub includes altimeter, airspeed and little else. The fuel tank is tucked away under the instrument panel. Transponder and radios are conspicuous by their absence.

Despite the warmth of the California day, Steve was muffled up against the anticipated draughts in the rear seat, and now padded forward to the nose of the right hand float to swing the prop. On his signal I clicked the left magneto to ON. Steve gave a deft flick of the tiny prop and the engine caught at once. The Cub started to move away from the ramp immediately. We puttered slowly away from the ramp and once clear of the structure Steve told me to pull the cord. So I tugged on the cord.
A second later the mystery of the cord was revealed. This lowered the water rudder mounted on the rear of the right float and gave more directional control for maneuvering in the confines of the harbor. Steve by now had clambered into the rear seat, and once he was safely aboard I clicked the other magneto to the ON position. As the engine revs increased I taxied cautiously out into the harbor.

I was kept busy trying to absorb Steve’s constant stream of instructions: watch the bow- wave to judge our speed through the water; assess the effect of ailerons and rudder; keep the stick hard back and keep an eagle eye out for the weekend boaters skimming round the harbor.
We chugged out of the harbor’s narrow entrance into the open water. Once in the clear, I closed the throttle and the Cub promptly lost steerage way. Raising the water rudder allowed the nose to come round into wind. As the nose steadied I opened the throttle and started the takeoff run.
“Keep the stick back until I tell you,” Steve shouted over the engine noise. Holding the stick hard back I glanced out at the right hand float as we built up speed, waiting for the appropriate moment to get the floatplane up on the step, riding on the forward part of the floats. As we accelerated the bow-wave was creeping back under the float until the fan of spray was level with my seat.
“Now.” The command nearly shattered my eardrums.

Easing the stick forward, I got the Cub onto the step. But nothing much happened. This was puzzling. All the books said that once a floatplane was on the step, the drag was reduced significantly as most of the float was now out of the water. We were now bouncing and rattling across the waves, but acceleration was distinctly lacking.

“Watch the nose,” Steve shouted above the din. The stick jerked forward under my hand and the nose dropped down no more than an inch on the horizon. Acceleration was immediate as the tails of the floats came clear of the water and the drag decreased. It was a graphic demonstration of the fact that the pitch attitude was absolutely critical on takeoff. Maintaining an almost level attitude the Cub finally flew off the water.

During the climb it was a strange sensation to watch the altimeter wind up past zero, reminding me that the surface of the Salton Sea was almost two hundred feet below sea level. It was formed out here in the desert in 1905 when an irrigation scheme using water from the Colorado River got out of hand. In the 1950s the Douglas Skyray set the world airspeed record out here at low level. Now at low level there was little traffic in this airspace, although at high altitude Navy jets still practiced their air combat maneuvering over the Salton Sea.

In the climb it was noticeable that the floats were strongly destabilizing directionally. The use of rudder was mandatory during any maneuver, and was especially marked with any changes in power.
Once at altitude I assessed the stall behavior of the Cub. Stalls proved to be quite normal, with marked pre-stall buffeting and a slight wing drop at the stall. Still heading out across the lake in search of calmer water, we dropped down to three hundred feet and were well out of sight of base before we found our suitable stretch of water. Steve talked me down through the first landing. We took off again and I battled with the constantly changing wind during the ensuing series of take-offs, landings and touch -and- goes.

Eventually this irritating wind stopped shifting and Steve showed me the technique for a single-float takeoff, a trick to help the floatplane unstick from glassy water. This seemed a little like a circus stunt, but was very effective in breaking the suction on one float. During the take-off, as the ailerons became effective, Steve showed me how to heave the stick over and lift one float off the water, checking the bank before it became excessive and the wingtip got too close to the water.

Circling takeoffs came next. This was a proven technique for getting airborne from a confined stretch of water. It seemed inappropriate to be doing this while the nearest land to us was a blur on the horizon. But further north in the western US they fly anything and everything on floats. I was later to fly into Vancouver and watch Otters, Beavers and a horde of Cessnas all operating happily out of Vancouver harbor. Anecdotes abound where floatplanes operate. Getting a heavily-laden Beech 18 off the surface of a small lake in Canada needed all the expertise a pilot could muster. I met some Alaskan bush pilots. More stories. They were all expert pilots, but all started on Cubs or Cessnas.

We flew hither and thither in our search for sheltered water as the wind shifted erratically. We tried flying in the lee of the lakeside. But this day even the shoreline was ill-defined, with stretches of marsh, trees and even power poles punctuating the surface some hundreds of yards from the shoreline.

After a succession of torrential winter storms, the Salton Sea was well above its normal level. Roads ended abruptly at the water’s edge; houses had been inundated. Even the airstrip back at North Shore was unusable, with half of the runway under water.
So I took off with the tops of telegraph poles marking my horizon, or roared along with clumps of grass sliding past the wingtip while ducks skittered away from the floats.

We had been out nearly two hours and the rod of the fuel gauge was dropping down into the filler cap on the cowling in front of me. To finish off our session, Steve taught me the art of glassy-water landings. On flat-calm days it was impossible for the pilot to judge his height above the water. More than one floatplane had been lost by flying into the water prematurely. The trick was to keep a gentle and constant rate of descent while maintaining a precise approach airspeed. So now I learned to hold that attitude exactly and keep things stabilized until the floats touched ever so gently and we found ourselves on the water.

Our fuel was getting low and it was time to point the nose of the Cub towards North Shore. It was a picturesque return which would have gladdened the heart of any Audubon fan as we threaded our way between skeins of geese overhead and pelicans flapping across the surface below. Landing in the lee of the North Shore breakwater, I taxied carefully back into the harbor.

The Cub is carefully taxied back into the harbor, with the pilot anxiously aiming for the ramp just at the bottom right corner of the photo. The approved way to get back onto the ramp was to carefully line up with the ramp, then go to full throttle which would give enough thrust to get the Cub up the ramp and out of the water.

The next bit was tricky. I had to point the Cub at the sloping wooden ramp and take it ashore with a burst of power. Despite Steve’s assurances I could visualize the Cub doing a ski-jump off the ramp and ending up in the office building just behind. But we were not there yet. Judging the drift on the water was difficult enough. Followings Steve’s directions I leaned out of the cabin and lined up the right hand float with the ramp. As the Cub drifted closer, I pulled on the cord to raised the water-rudder then, before the nose could drift off -line, I said a quick prayer and shoved the throttle fully forward. Amid a blare of noise the Cub blasted out of the water and slid up the ramp to a nose-high stop, clear of the water. I breathed a sigh of relief, switched off and climbed shakily out of the cockpit.
That was the end of flying for the day.

The Cub was refueled from a tank in the back of a pick-up truck, hosed down thoroughly to remove all traces of salt water, then lashed securely to the ramp to guard against overnight squalls. As an orange sun dropped westwards through the tops of the gently rustling palms, I realized that this day had been more than simply a transition to another aircraft. Other pilots had told me that flying a seaplane was a unique experience. So it was proving to be.

The Cub is on the ramp, washed down, refueled and ready for the next day's flying.

Without the constant pressure of flying in the high-density traffic system of the LA basin, I was finding that seaplane flying was an undertaking which demanded a genuine mind shift, reflecting a more leisurely outlook on life, in a way more akin to boating.

At eight o’clock the next morning we were already flying our little yellow machine. In the center of the lake I drifted down to a gentle landing on the glassy water. Once the floats had stopped cutting their wakes through the water I killed the engine. So there we were, miles from land, sitting in the center of a spreading circle of ripples. But we were there for a purpose. Steve had chosen this setting to have me practice sailing backwards towards an imaginary dock, using only the effects of the breeze against deflected ailerons and rudder to determine our direction of movement. Once I had mastered the technique in unobstructed waters, we could go and try it with a real dock.

That was the intention, but by now the breeze had dropped to a flat calm. So we sat and talked while the sun blazed down. Our voices were lost in the silence pressing down on this vast expanse of water. Every so often a cats’ paw of wind would set the Cub rocking uneasily, and the silence was broken by the soft gurgling of water under the floats.

Eventually the breeze returned. Leaning out and looking back past the tail, working stick and rudder hard to make the ailerons and rudder flop out into the breeze, I made the Cub slowly tack to left and right across the surface of the Lake as I aimed for this imaginary dock. Eventually Steve nodded his approval. It was time to put into practice the techniques I had learned so far.

Firing up the engine I took off, flying south-west to the shoreline, and then following the coast south until we were overhead Salton City. This grandiose title belonged to a scattered collection of houses lost in an immensity of parched desert. As I circled, Steve pointed out a short stretch of canal leading from the south side of town and ending in the Salton Sea. This was to be our landing site.

I turned onto final approach for the canal. Something seemed wrong. Then I realized that out here over the desert I was very aware of the floats underneath us. A week ago I was uncomfortable flying over water. How my perceptions were changing. This uncomfortable feeling persisted until we were over the water again. The canal seemed terribly narrow after all those landings on the vastness of the lake. It felt like threading the eye of the needle on approach, but there was ample room between the banks and our wingtips and the landing itself went off perfectly.

As the water in the canal was glass-smooth, take-off was going to require the use of a little bit of expertise to get us airborne. So that single-float take-off I had practised was not just an academic exercise. Once I opened the throttle and the Cub was moving briskly through the water I rocked the Cub onto the left float with aileron, using rudder to keep straight as we skimmed past fishermen and children playing at the water’s edge. As advertised, we broke cleanly from the water and went zipping along the canal.
This was proving to be fun.
I got a few more canal landings under my belt before flying a few miles further down the coast. Here a sandy beach bordering a sinuous inlet was the site where Steve wanted me to practice beaching the Cub.

We landed and I gently drove the Cub ashore until the nose of one float was just on the edge of the beach. As I swung out of the cockpit, Steve enlivened the moment by warning me not to forget to hang onto the mooring rope. He drily assured me that this latter occurrence was not unknown as the pilot’s attention was invariably focused on jumping from float to beach without falling into the water. With an empty-handed pilot, this inevitably resulted in a dramatic situation with the pilot left on the beach and the floatplane drifting inexorably away from land…
I eventually managed to accomplish this single-handed operation successfully, thankful that I had actually managed to beach and moor the Cub without running us aground, falling in or letting the Cub drift away.

After passing the time of day with the locals who had magically materialized out of the desert to watch the fun, we climbed aboard to return to North Shore. Taking off from the inlet in a flat calm was a good time for me to put that curving take-off technique into practice. Sure enough we were well round the bend of the inlet before the floats could be persuaded to leave the water. Eventually we unstuck, climbed to an awe-inspiring height of fifty feet and bored across the twenty miles or so of Salton Sea which separated us from North Shore.

Back at base we refueled both the Cub and the crew. After lunch I had to take my test for the FAA rating. Brad Bertling, the other half of Salton Sea Air Service, was my examiner and he occupied the rear seat while I took the Cub out of the harbor. Once outside the breakwater, I found that the wind had risen since my morning flight and the use of rough-water techniques was for real. Take-off seemed to take an eternity as the Cub’s floats butted into the waves. As the floats hit each wave with a teeth-jarring thump, sheets of spray flew in all directions. It was a relief to get airborne, and we quickly found a slightly more sheltered patch of water to demonstrate to Brad that I was capable of operating an aircraft in this new environment. All went well and it seemed only a few minutes before I was bringing the Cub back into the harbor for the last time, confidently running the Cub up the ramp and killing the ignition as it slid to a halt.

Brad signed me off for the single-engine seaplane rating in the tiny office. All that remained was for Steve and Brad to wish me well with my flying. Both Brad and Steve had previously taught flying in the crowded skies over the L.A. Basin, but had decided to set up business out here, preferring the solitude of the desert way of life to the bustle of urban living.
As I set off for the three-hour drive back to the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, I mused that as a way of life it had certain advantages. There was undeniably a magic associated with floatplane flying.

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