Returning To Flying Seaplanes After 50 Years

Returning To Flying Seaplanes In Seattle After 50 Years – Whats Your “Plan B” ? 

Written by Tom Rolander – I was 5 years old when I had the first flight that I can remember. I was born in Kiomboi, Tanzania in 1948 and my family left Africa in 1953, flying from Nairobi to Cairo on an East African Airways DC-3. That flight made an impression on me that has lasted to this day. I love everything about the experience of flight and in particular I enjoy the views from an aircraft.

During my youth I spent many hours assembling model airplanes and reading stories by authors like Antoine de Saint-Exupery and Ernest Gann. As a senior at Ballard High School in Seattle, I noticed a posting on the part time job bulletin board for a ramp attendant at Lake Union Air Service (later acquired by Kenmore Air). I pulled the notice off the bulletin board and headed to Lake Union.

Don’t Pay Me – Teach Me How To Fly!

At Lake Union Air Service I met the owner Henry (Hank) Reverman. I introduced myself and announced to Hank that I wanted the job, that I didn’t want to get paid, but instead – that I wanted to learn how to fly! I was hired on the spot and I began working 8 hours on Saturday and again on Sunday, a total of 16 hours each week for one hour of dual in an Aeronca Chief on floats.

In my experience, flying has always been expensive. I have observed one particular “constant of the universe” with respect to the cost of flying. When I began flying it took 16 hours of working on the ramp, at roughly minimum wage to get one hour of dual instruction. That exact ratio is the same today for ramp wages, though the numbers are 10x higher. I soloed an Aeronca Chief on June 7, 1966 which was 4 days before I graduated from High School.

During the Summer I got a great paying job at the US Post Office so I quit working at Lake Union Air Service and moved my flight training to Kurtzer’s Flying Service on Lake Union. Lana Kurtzer was the “grand” seaplane flight instructor of the Pacific Northwest. He was well known for training countless Alaska bush pilots. Kurtzer instructed in a Taylor Craft on floats and I transitioned later to a Cessna 172 for my PPL ASES check ride on September 6, 1966.

Returning To Do It Again

I’ve recently returned from a week in Seattle. I spent many hours from June 2-6, retraining in a seaplane to accomplish my goal. I hadn’t flown a seaplane since 1969. What really struck me was the difference between flying at 18 years old and now at age 68. My reaction after my first hour of instruction was, “how the hell did I do this at age 18?!” At 18 I was basically fearless with the exuberance of youth and I eagerly developed the skill set needed to fly a seaplane. Now at 68 I had my brain in overdrive with “what if” scenarios. My instructor, James Young of Seaplane Scenic’s, brought out two issues, skill set and confidence. He was quick to point out that the worst combination is a low skill set and high confidence. Those persons often end up with Darwin Awards. But, the opposite situation, high skill set and low confidence, can also be a handicap.

Master Pilot Award – Thomas Rolander – June 7, 2016

We focused on confidence building which came with familiarity in operating an aircraft on the water: without brakes (no way to stop it); coupled with a 36′ wing span to strike “objects”; a friction-less water surface that continually wanted to point the seaplane (think of a weather vane) into the wind, regardless of which way you actually wanted to go; and unlike a wheel plane whose steerage is not affected by speed while taxiing, as a seaplane gets slower you have no steerage! I did 39 splash ‘n goes with most of the training hours spent practicing docking, ramping, beaching and sailing (yes, steering the seaplane backwards downwind with the engine off and the nose pointed into the wind).

The primary theme of my training from James was to always have a PLAN B. In most cases the plan B was an escape route, i.e. what to do if plan A fails! James regaled me with several stories about his own experiences and those teaching other students. My favorite was about a student who was approaching a dock downwind with too much speed. When the student realized that he was in trouble he shouted to James, “WHAT’S PLAN B?!”

Another huge discovery was the amount of watercraft on Lake Union, Lake Washington, and Lake Sammamish. The watercraft included: sailboats, runabouts, cruisers, kayaks, sculls, paddle boards, and worst of all … the jet skis. I had no idea that jet skis were capable of 50-60 mph, and more to the point, that they would linger at my 5 or 7 o’clock position waiting for me to initiate a takeoff, then initially accelerate much faster than me, whilst converging on my takeoff heading!

Of all of my instructors in 50 years of flying I am most indebted to James Young. He was as excited and determined for me to succeed as I was when he learned about my goal/dream of returning to Lake Union to solo on the day of the 50th anniversary of my first solo. I would not have succeeded without his encouragement, patience, humor and excellent instruction. The pride and joy James (middle) shared with me is clearly evident on his face as I climbed into N19752 for my momentous solo.

I flew solo on Lake Union in Seattle on June 7, 2016 which was the exact 50th Anniversary of my solo there on June 7th, 1966 !! I’ve logged a total of 2,232 hours, which is an average of 52 minutes per week for 50 years and loved (almost;) every minute of it.

The sand and gravel beach at the south end of Lake Union is at the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI), a bit south of the Kenmore Air dock. The beach is about 30 yards wide and has a concrete pier along the west side extending out into the lake. I’ll admit that I was emotionally exhausted after successfully making my solo flight on June 7, 2016. I had beached the aircraft at MOHAI, turned it around, and I climbed into the right seat. I wanted to be a passenger for James to fly the return trip to Lake Washington and the ramping at Renton.

Plan “B” In Action

James climbed in and was meticulous as usual in preparing for departure. After starting the engine he advanced the throttle to move off of the beach. What immediately ensued was as rapid swing of the aircraft to the west towards the pier. Apparently the left float had “stuck” on the gravel beach while the right float was freed, causing the aircraft to swing quickly to port. Before I could utter, “Whoa!”, James had pulled the mixture to kill the engine, turned off the mags and master, and was out the cabin door. He jumped to the beach and re-positioned the aircraft to launch again.

This was a truly impressive example of a Plan B in action … I was left with a combination of profound admiration for the skill which James demonstrated, and a sense of wonder about my own ability to have executed a Plan B in that situation. Now, when I am asked by a fellow pilot, “How would you compare flying a seaplane to a wheel plane?” My pulse quickens and I reply, “You have no idea how much more difficult it is to operate an aircraft on the water!”

Thomas A. Rolander holds a Private Single Engine Land & Sea as well as Instrument Rating.

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