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Glassy Water

May 7, 2009

When the Amtrak I was riding passed over the Hackensack River, mid-way between Newark, NJ and the tunnel into New York’s Penn Station I looked out, as I always do, to see the condition of the water and check the wind. It was dead calm.

Today I was on a train, but for many years I used to commute each week from PA to the City, first in a Lake Amphib and later a Super Cub, landing on the Hackensack and tying up either at Lambros or Little Ferry SPB.

I thought I knew all about glassy water technique – slow down, trim the plane for a slightly nose high attitude and let it fly itself onto the water. But most of my experiences with slick water had been in float planes. On this particular morning I vaguely remember trying to shorten the amount of real estate I was covering with the Lake by easing the power back just a little and probably letting off back pressure. When the hull made contact with the water it was as if the bow was determined to burying itself, followed by a sudden swerve to the right. I pulled off the remaining few inches of power, hauled back on the controls, and kicked opposite rudder. Fortunately, the bow came up and the Lake settled into the water, still right side up.

This part of the small river is pretty narrow and in front of me was a marina full of big white plastic hulls. Bad as it was, at least the wheels were up. My initial reaction was that I was having my first gear down landing on the water. Glad to say I haven’t done that – yet.

I was fairly new to the Lake and I like to think I learned two things that day – well maybe three. Don’t try to cheat on a glassy water landing and single hulled seaplanes will shoot to the side, if you bury the front of the hull and don’t keep the wings level. It’s called ‘boating effect’ – kinda like standing in the bow of a small boat and trying to paddle on one side of the hull.

Twin float aircraft aren’t as susceptible to this problem because one float tends to cancel out these forces on the other. But float planes often end up on their backs when you land them on the forward part of the bows. A possible exception is the Single Otter, but that’s another story.

I’m sure most of you have experienced the point at which the on- coming water travels forward on the hull bottoms, rather than moving back under the float, creating a lot of downward suction. A little back pressure usually takes care of the problem. One instructor, I remember overhearing, told his student that the first quarter of a float should only be allowed to sink into the water when you are slow taxiing.

What’s the third thing? Trim. If you trim for the right attitude, feed in just enough power for an acceptable rate of descent, keep the wings level and be patient, an airplane will do a better job landing itself than many pilots. The airlines call it Cat III but seldom use it on the water. Well not until recently that is.

Odd to be thinking about these things so many years later but perhaps that’s the point. If you survive your mistakes, it’s important not to forget what you learn. Thirty-five years later, glassy water landings still get my complete attention.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 31, 2009 8:56 pm

    Hi Robert

    I’m an aviation buff with enough knowledge to be dangerous. I enjoyed your blog and a thought occurred to me. Could an automotive backup transponder be adapted to acquire the surface, emitting audible warning?

    Herb Walfoort aka H Wells Walfoort.
    Member SPA and MnSPA.

  2. Bob permalink
    May 25, 2010 1:44 pm

    Thanks, I needed this re-enforcement that glassy water landings are difficult even for the experienced. I just had 5 hours in a cub on floats and after not really understanding the concept of glassy water landing decided that I needed more time before a check ride. I’ve had time to think about the instruction and reason some of the procedures. I understand that these seaplane procedures have evolved over the last 100 years and been passed on for my benefit. One just hopes that our mistakes are small enough to let us live and learn,and pass on the knowledge. I think I now understand what I was told about the glassy water landing: 1. pitch, 2.power, 3.patience
    Bob Russell

    • Robert Murray permalink
      May 26, 2010 7:13 am

      Glad you found my comments useful Bob. Your e-mail reminded me that right after I got my seaplane rating I went back for some instruction in beaching and mooring, which were not part of the check ride. Flying seaplanes may be the most fun you can have with an airplane but it is also more complicated than land flying. Well with the possible exception of ‘off airport’ landings and flying on skiis. Both of which are easier to do if you have seaplane experience. Best, Rob Murray

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