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View from the Right Seat of an Otter

May 23, 2008
Each time I travel on business or pleasure, I seem to always try and find something to do for fun that involves airplanes. A trip to Seattle recently was no exception.

As I stood on the Marriott Residence Inn's balcony overlooking scenic Lake Union, a unmistakable sound began reverberating across the marinas below. What made me grin widely was the wonderful sound of a large radial engine pulling a beautiful yellow and white De Havilland Beaver seaplane off the lake. To me, it was like going to the symphony.

The seaplane airline - Kenmore Air - offers one of the finest views of Seattle, Victoria and the San Juans you can find. Their sightseeing flights fill up, so when I called, I told them I was a pilot/writer and was eager to take my first seaplane ride and then write about the experience here. Kenmore's Lake Union Supervisor found a way to accommodate me by slipping me into the right cockpit seat of their afternoon multi-stop run from their busy Lake Union Terminal to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island and then on to Deer Harbor and West Sound on Orcas Island. It was one of the most awesome trips I have made by air ever...a "media ridealong" I will never, ever forget.

I had my pre-conceived notions about flight in a seaplane, and all were proven incorrect. Pre-conceived notion #1 was obliterated when I assumed the pilot, Chuck Perry would prefer to be called "Captain", but determined quickly that "captains" drove tugboats, and Alaskans that fly off the water in planes equipped with floats are really just like the rest of us aviators.

Pre-conceived notion #2 came when Chuck lit up the 750-shp PT6 hanging on the Otter's nose. Blindfolded, Perry could have done this maneuver quickly, since it appeared he had done it about ten millions time before. Calmly, he brought up the power, pointed the nose to the middle of the lake where there were no sailboats, and sent the throttle to the forward stop. With just three passengers and no luggage on board, we were off the water in well under half the distance I expected, wiping out my expectation that seaplanes took forever to launch.

Seattle is a very beautiful city from the air. The Lake Union departure takes you a little west of north out over Puget Sound, and everywhere you look, there is something really great to see. Level at 2,000, I watch Whidbey Island slip by under the right wing before we head out over the Straight of Juan de Fuca.

Soon, I see Chuck start pulling back power, and a look at the Garmin 430 tells me Friday Harbor - our first stop - is coming up on the left. Our winds are light and from about seven o'clock, so Chuck drives the Otter straight at the gut of Friday Harbor, trims for 80 knots, and floats in for what I thought to be a greaser arrival...is it even possible to grease landings on the ocean?

Here is the drill for parking a turbine Otter at a dock by yourself: Keep up enough speed through the water to allow authority to the water rudders. Lose that, Chuck warns, and the gigantic tail of the Otter will catch even a tiny amount of wind and weathervane the plane possibly out of control. As you near the dock on the left side, kick in lots of right rudder while pulling the prop to reverse pitch. This puts the plane into sort of a powerslide towards the dock, but wait...the fun is only just beginning.

At this point, Chuck pops open the left pilot's door and vanishes down the side of the plane in a graceful move that if all goes well, will end with his feet planted firmly on the dock. At this point - for about two seconds - the Otter is free of any control, gliding along the dock, pilotless. I soon find out what those long ropes hanging from the wings are for...they're what Chuck grabs as the Otter's wing moves over his head. Like he has done so many times before, he reins the Otter in, firmly tugging it back to the dock. A blur of his experienced hands wraps a tiedown rope to the float...and we have arrived.

After loading souls and Samsonites into the Otter, the short flight over to Deer Harbor was a non-event. But as we s-l-o-w-l-y taxied in, a sailboat was attempting to sail somewhere, directly at our twelve o'clock. The trouble was that Chuck wasn't sure where they were going to aim their bow. Would they sail right into our path, or drift left? As the Otter crept closer, Chuck was verbally making up "plan B", which was to swing wide right of them, then hook it back left and then hard right to begin the docking dance.

Now with all the seats full and the aft baggage hold full, Chuck and the Otter must work a bit harder to get on the step and in the air as we head back to Seattle. With full power, our pilot yanks back on the yoke, but must hold it there maybe four seconds in order for the Otter to get up on the floats. Once the step is assured, Chuck moves the yoke forward, but wrestles with the Otter a bit coaxing both floats to leave the water simultaneously. He throws in full and HARD left aileron to correct whatever he was feeling wasn't right with the floats. I am amazed at how keen this pilot's seat-of-pants flying must be, and can only imagine the rodeo this max gross weight takeoff might be in choppy water and vicious winds.

We sneak up on Seattle, and I pick out Lake Union, which looks small from 20 NM out and appears to be sandwiched right in the middle of town. Chuck pulls power and follows the I-5 freeway down to final, landing a little south of east. As we descend, I remember thinking the lake is really NOT getting any bigger. Chuck scans the water for boats, and picks out a nice fat corridor between any floating traffic to set down the Otter. Without a splash, we arrive, the sun's last remaining rays teasing us as they reflect off the high-rises of downtown and the Space Needle.
About the Author
Author and private pilot Dan Pimentel owns a creative studio in Oregon and frequently writes about interesting aviation businesses and topics. He also publishes daily at his aviation blog, World of Flying.
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