There was a time when I would leave work, drive straight to the airport and pull out my airplane. But after 35 years of using my old airplane for work, travel,
a dozen and a half flights throughout the Caribbean and lots of nasty IFR; learning how to fly gliders; plus nearly 20 years of competition aerobatics, there just wasn’t much new to cause me to want to open the hangar door. Flying had stopped being fun, or even very interesting.
Then I decided to get my feet wet.
As I live in a desert valley, I decided my new craft needed to be amphibious rather than a straight-float flyer.
Lake Tahoe is the nearest water worth visiting and property with beachfront access is often inherited rather than available for purchase. (The waterside homes that are for sale are in the “If you have to ask” category.) There are no rentable floatplane storage areas, so I needed to be able to bring my aerial watercraft home after a day playing on the waves.
Of equal significance is that Lake Tahoe is the second largest alpine lake in the world, and the highest of its size in the United States. It’s a lofty 6,250 feet above sea level, with the en route pass at 7,200 feet—with density altitude on a hot day, this approaches 10,000 feet.
I knew floatplanes operated regularly at Tahoe, but was concerned that anything I could afford might not be up to the task of getting off of the water on a hot day or safely navigating around the mountainous area. Although it is essentially a 22-mile-long runway, reasonable takeoff run distance was an important consideration.
My grandson is a full-time companion, and moi belle femme du jour was a ready volunteer for fun flights, so a three- or four-seat plane seemed like a good idea.
I quickly found that amphibious Cessna 180-somethings were far beyond my means. Many had been harshly used in commercial service around the world, making some lower-priced ships the proverbial hole in the water that you pour money into; pristine aircraft were priced equivalent to a nice weekend home up at the lake—in other words, “If you have to ask.”
Neil Weaver, a local FBO owner and restorer par excellence, heard of my interest and steered me toward N18PA. This bright yellow amphibian is a 1967 PA-18-150 Super Cub that he rebuilt in 2002 from a pile of retired border patrol ships purchased at auction.
Not much was reused from the original except the fuselage and one wing spar. The rest was comprised of new PMA and STC materials, along with brand-new Wipline amphibious floats. (The current price for a set of Wipline 2100 amphibs is a little over $50,000, essentially doubling the cost of the aircraft.)
The airplane had a few local owners over the years, accumulating just 435 hours since its restoration when the current owner decided to cash it in for a new Carbon Cub. This was in 2010; the world was still reeling from the economic collapse, and special-use airplanes were suffering a distinct lack of market interest.
I made the owner an offer, which he refused—but three months later he rang me up and accepted. He had the Super Cub in a hangar at Sand Harbor, Idaho, not far from his summer home. I took Weaver’s recommendation and sent the money to the seller, sight unseen.
I was surprised by the relatively low insurance premium of only $3,000 per year. Two years later, insurance dropped to $2,000 per year. As I was not yet rated for water operations and had zero PA-18 time, this seemed generous. In truth, it probably hinted at the good manners of a Super Cub on floats more than faith in my flying skills. The insurance company’s only requirements were that I get a checkout prior to flying it home, and a few hours of dual before attempting water operations.
The Cub carries a total of 35 U.S. gallons, giving it perhaps four hours with reserve, but its slow speed required my companion and I carefully plan the route through the desert lest we run short of the widely-spread fuel stops. After only a single night’s delay due to weather, N18PA was put to bed at home in a rented hangar tall enough to accept its high tail.
Steering, speeds and stalls
Land operations are much the same as any small, slow-speed light aircraft, except for the lofty view. With freely castering nosewheels, one relies upon brakes for low-speed steering.
Unfortunately the heel brakes in a Super Cub are marginal, so it is necessary to taxi slowly and plan well ahead for turns. Any loss of brake fluid can dramatically reduce braking, so I carry the tools for maintenance.
I’ve also learned that the large amount of grease used to both lubricate and protect the wheel bearings from water can spread to the brake disks, so I regularly preflight this area for cleanliness.
It is tempting to describe the Cub as having one speed—60 mph—for all of its operations. This is the typical climb and approach speed (although it will lift off at 40 or less) and stall is more theoretical than achievable.
I have no interest in exploring the spin characteristics of a plane with amphibious floats, but efforts to get a clean stall break generally end in boredom rather than something more distinct. Its slow-speed skills help when circling in thermals to speed the climb up to Spooner Pass (7,200 feet MSL) en route to Lake Tahoe.
Will, one of Neil Weavers’s ex-partners in N18PA, held the necessary credentials and agreed to get me signed off for the practical. (There is no written test.) We made five or six flights to the surrounding lakes, but none to Tahoe.
Will is about my size, meaning something north of 200 pounds and 6 feet, 2 inches tall. The two of us in the Super Cub gave real meaning to the term “gross weight!”
It was summer, so fuel loads were carefully managed in response to the Wipaire float manual that cautions “with floats installed, typical loadings may exceed the gross weight limitations of the aircraft.” Words to live by.
Instruction and first impressions
Most of the instruction time was focused on life as a boat captain rather than a pilot. Once clear of the water, a plane with amphibious floats is just another airplane—with twice the options in the event of an engine failure.
I was taught how to beach, dock, fetch life preserver rings from the middle of the lake, sail the unpowered plane backward and sideways by manipulating the rudder and ailerons, and appreciate the dire results from attempting a water landing with the wheels extended. (Videos on the internet offered plenty of convincing encouragement to avoid trying this experiment.)
N18PA has green and blue gear indicator lights (blue is for water); visual confirmation via a telltale built into the floats; and an alluring feminine voice—“Bitching Betty,” we called her—that coos “gear down for runway landing” if the round parts are protruding and the airspeed falls below 65 mph.
Betty also warns “gear up for water landing” if the wheels are stowed at slow speed, but the results of putting it down on a hard surface with the gear up would likely be more embarrassing than catastrophic, given the reinforced keel of the floats.General lessons
Takeoff and landing reminded me of learning to fly a tailwheel aircraft. The need for positive control of yaw was ever-present, but there is no centerline painted on the water or the sorts of convenient clues regarding drift one gets when passing over the ground.
Typically, a seaplane always lands and takes off directly into the wind, although rivers can impose some compromises. During one of my early landings I had not yet perfected my sense of drift, and at touchdown we dodged sideways as one might in a poorly-corrected crosswind landing. It was enough of a surprise to flip on my sensitivity for drift, and has not been repeated.
Otherwise, a water landing is only slightly different from using a hard surface. First, one should reconnoiter the intended landing area to be sure there are no floating logs, alligators, barrels of toxic waste, inebriated fisherpersons or other impediments that would damage the floats.
As it is preferred to land near the shore to shorten any unintended swim, a close look for shallow rocks or buoys is wise, although we usually added a little distance from the beach just to be sure. Patterns are flown at 500 feet awl (above water level) to help with spotting last-minute floating obstructions.
Checks for gear and water rudder up are critical, as making a water landing with the latter extended will result in damage, and the former in the loss of the aircraft.
Just above the water, a high pitch attitude is maintained with a little power. The combination of slight power and water effect allow us to hold off and touch down with a minimum rate of descent. We do not intend a full stall, rather just sliding into the water with the nose well up.
At this point, flaps are retracted and we have the choice of maintaining some power for a step taxi, or cutting the power while pulling the stick fully back, settling almost instantly into the water for a slow-speed taxi.
Landing on Lake Tahoe
Typically, I will keep the Cub’s speed up in a step taxi until entering the slow speed zone at our point of arrival. This is sometimes a marina, dock or beach area. At Lake Tahoe we are required to maintain less than five knots within 600 feet of the shore—the same as motor boats.
The cumulative spray damage on the propeller’s leading edges argues for a dead-slow taxi when not up on the step, even to the point of switching to a single magneto to get another 50 rpm drop.
Lake Tahoe is predominately surrounded by a rocky shoreline, but there are several white, sandy beaches. With a little careful navigation between the submerged boulders, it is a simple matter to approach the shore, cutting the power when perhaps five to 10 feet remaining, sliding the float keels up onto the sand. This avails us of several remote beaches not so packed with tourists. The airplane always attracts a crowd, leading to new friends and playmates for my grandson.
A few of the more commercial areas are served by docks and/or buoy fields. Docks are available primarily in the cooler months, as they tend to be monopolized by boats when the warmer season (also called the “drinking season”) is upon us. Approaching these docks is quite risky, as they float and are secured in place by very tall, unforgiving poles.
The trick is to approach the intended docking area at about 45 degrees, cutting the power while well away from
the dock, coasting to a stop just as it is reached.
After shutting down, I leap out onto the right-side float in order to intercept the hard dockside with my foot, jumping onto it with a mooring rope in hand to further direct and secure the aircraft. A passenger on board can steer to parallel alongside the dock just as speed is dissipated, making sure that the wingtip pivots between the tall posts while I tend to the rope and mooring.
Takeoff is anti-intuitive. The wind direction is established by raising the rudders and letting the ship weathercock into the wind. After ensuring that the gear is up (and double-checking for water rudder retraction), the flaps are set as desired; and confirming the area is clear, full power is applied.
While maintaining directional control, full aft stick is applied. Over the next few seconds the nose will gradually rise to a surprising height, at which point the stick is pushed smartly forward to its full extent and held there. I often grab one of the tubular braces in the front screen to pull myself up, helping to hold the stick full on its forward stop, while also shifting my weight as near the front as possible.
Depending upon the wind and temperature, after a while the Cub will gain speed and begin lowering its nose as the center of pressure on the hull bottom moves aft toward the step in the bottom of the float. On hotter, smoother days, I will leave the flaps retracted until achieving the nose-down “step,” as the flaps create a strong pitch-up moment.
As the top of the cowling nears the horizon, the stick is pulled back to its midpoint while feeling for the sweet spot on the keel. This position generates the least water drag, allowing the aircraft to continue accelerating to something above 40 mph, at which point it will come free of the water with a sudden surge of acceleration. Remaining in “water effect,” airspeed is increased, climb is established, and the flaps retracted for a normal climb.
Will and I worked on glassy water landings which are, I was told, the most dangerous procedure that can be attempted in a seaplane. However, we never had any actual glassy water conditions, so Will cautioned me to believe what I was being told. A whispering voice in my head kept asking, Now, just how hard can it be to see the surface of the water? I was later presented an opportunity to find out.
The problem is not so much that the surface is smooth; the challenge comes from it being reflective. Thus, whatever is on the horizon is duplicated in the water, eliminating any contrast between the sky and liquid. With no ripples to give a near reference point, and no distant horizon, it is like descending into a bottomless, multi-chromatic bowl.
The technique is to pick a feature along a shore, such as a tree, that gives a height reference. By flying the approach along the shoreline and crossing abeam of the tree, one has at least some sense of how much distance remains to the surface.
From there on, the pilot establishes a very gradual descent rate of perhaps 75 to 125 fpm by keeping in some power and the nose in landing attitude, and waiting until the hoped-for gentle bump arrives.
This sounds easy, and in theory, it is. However, I attempted a landing in a smallish lake that was certainly big enough for my Cub. Big enough until you calculate just how much distance is consumed while descending at 75 fpm. There was a moment of consternation as I realized I might not have go-around room and hadn’t yet touched down—but it was at just that moment that we arrived. (Phew!)
Since my checkride I have accumulated a little over 100 hours, most of it back and forth to Lake Tahoe, but I’ve also been exploring a few other welcoming wet spots. As with the private pilot certificate often referred to as a “license to learn,” becoming proficient in a seaplane is a matter of getting away with one’s mistakes in a manner that allows for reflection and contrition.
On my second visit to Tahoe, we used the Hyatt Hotel boat buoy mooring field to tie up en route to breakfast. This in itself is not terribly hard, but requires shutting down the engine and jumping onto the pontoon while the aircraft is still moving to grab the buoy before it is passed by.
As we enjoyed our lunch on the patio, a friend asked what I intended to do when the wind kicked up as it does every afternoon. Huh? I looked at the water and saw our plane and all the moored boats tossing and turning, with white caps in all directions.
Making my second bad decision of the day, we dashed to the plane and attempted to depart. After a 30-plus minute taxi toward a bay with a windward shore hoping for some improvement in the chop, we set the power and tried to go.
I abandoned five takeoff runs prior to getting off the water. During each attempt, a rogue wave would arrive, causing the forward tips of our floats to dive into the water, bringing our motion to a sudden stop. On the sixth try, with zero airspeed showing, we ramped off of the top of a good-sized wave and the old girl held onto the air.
She is equipped with vortex generators, and as I’ve learned, will fly with no movement from the airspeed indicator if conditions are right. I promised never, ever to do that again. Never, never, ever.
The next time was on a second date with a particularly fetching lass. We stayed on the deserted beach longer than we should have (don’t ask), and although the waves were not quite as bad as above, it was midsummer and the density altitude would have been near 10,000 feet.
After 40 minutes of dashing back and forth with no success, I told her over the intercom, “Sorry, but you’ve got to get out.” Not a good end to a promising second date.
As the lady was a law enforcement officer for the U.S. Forest Service, she had a key to the castle, and arranged to have her on-duty law enforcement partner pick her up and fetch her home. (We continued to date for a while, but this and other events undermined our enthusiasm.)
Operating costs and maintenance
The O-320 burns 6.3 gph in cruise at the local altitudes, and about 10.9 gph during climbout. Fuel is around $6.50 a gallon, so an hour of lake hopping costs about $52.
There are no landing or other operational fees, and the lake is a public property open to all. In fact, mostly any lake that allows motor boats will allow seaplanes—although it pays to check. One sheriff grew weary of responding to crashed airplane reports only to find a happy couple pulled up and camping on the beach, so now we call ahead.
Maintenance is typical for a Super Cub, meaning very slight. The few systems generally operate by cable and pulley instead of motor or hydraulics and nearly everything is visible to a preflight inspection.
The exception is the amphibious Wipline floats. The gear is operated by an electrohydraulic power pack located behind the baggage area. It is wise to confirm the supply of hydraulic fluid regularly, as its loss would result in a gear-up landing. There is a hand pump that should work if the main power pack is empty, but a sudden loss of fluid may well indicate a failed cylinder in the retraction system.
After 500 total hours on the floats I had to replace the suspension biscuits, as they had sagged with age. I have since been advised to put the floats up on wooden blocks during the winter to slow down their compression.
The only annoying maintenance is the need to frequently lubricate the wheel bearings via the installed zerk fittings, lest the bearings corrode and fail from immersion in the water. It is relatively common to lower the gear into the water in order to taxi up onto a firm or rocky beach.
The floats are comprised of eight sealed bays, each with a plug to allow pumping clear after the flight. They will provide acceptable takeoff and landing performance with two bays completely flooded. Slight leaks are a matter of routine; I have learned to expect a certain amount from each bay in line with that day’s degree of water roughness. I now look for an increase that might indicate something has sprung.
N18PA was converted to an L-21 window configuration during its restoration, giving an unrestricted view from well behind the rear passenger; a transparent roof completes the sense of openness. (The L-21 light liaison aircraft was based on the Super Cub and used by the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force. —Ed.) Asking my 11-year-old grandson if he wants to go up to the lake always gets a quick “yeah!”
When we pull up onto the sand at one of the many lakeside restaurants, he disembarks like an old pro and struts down the float jumping onto the beach. Here, he tells the gathering crowd of gape-jawed young boys “Yep, it’s my airplane,” and offers them guided tours. And with that, flying is fun again.
Don Peterson grew up in North Texas during the Cold War years, and every boy from that era wanted to fly. In July of 1978 Peterson stumbled upon the EAA event in Oshkosh, and six months later, barely 28 years old, he had a private pilot certificate—and a wounded American Express card—in his pocket. Peterson flew as a member of the U.S. Advanced Aerobatic team and is most proud of
winning three consecutive Coupe d’Anjou aerobatic competitions for Stampe aircraft. Send questions or comments to .