I was actually, literally, laughing out loud. Yet nothing was funny. I was laughing out loud with joy! How long had it been since I laughed for joy?
I was playing hookey in my new Challenger, C-FXSL, "Xray Sierra Lima", an amphibious ultralight. This fine Saturday eve I'd snuck away from the Muskoka Air Fair where XSL was on display. Time for my first water operations alone!
I head south until we come across a small lake, thoughtfully elongated into the wind. We glide down final, just above the tree tops, paralleling the hill, splashing onto the water, which is much softer than the paved runways I usually frequent. Pull back on the stick and the heels of the floats dig in, stopping us as fast as I wish.
I shut down the engine and we float in silence. I'm new enough at this that I'm still a little surprised when the airplane doesn't immediately sink. Wavelets lick the floats like a friendly dog. The breeze whispers sweet nothings. Sailing backwards, the wake burbles off the bows of the floats, leaving smooth water between the vees.
I start up and apply full throttle. Climb the bow wave until we're surfing on the step. Staccato tapping from the wavelets, ever faster as we accelerate.
Lift off and go around for a circuit. A family watches from their dock. Down the hill for another splash, then more circuits. Simulated glassy water approaches take more space, giving an excuse for some high speed taxiing and turns on the step, back to take-off position.
Eventually I move on, discovering a series of finger lakes. Some are narrow enough to be like canyons, with walls of rock or evergreens. Splash, splash, splash. Commune with fishing boats, with two teenagers in a canoe. Decide which fork to take, wonder what's around the bend.
Now the wind's dead calm, the glassy water no longer simulated. At dusk, the water's black, not bottomless but topless. It's impossible to detect the surface visually. Nose high, constant speed, constant rate of descent, an ILS in clear air, until the moment of contact, surprisingly soft with no flare.
I feast my eyes on one exquisite scene after another, sometimes returning for seconds, sometimes for thirds. Darkness deepens. It takes a supreme act of self-control to point the nose back towards the airport.
That famous Challenger magic was happening!
My next magic carpet ride is to Georgian Bay. From Collingwood's harbour we fly southeast to circumnavigate Nottawasaga Bay, at a handful of feet, just above the waves, just offshore from the beach. What a beach it is, thirty virtually uninterrupted miles of sand. The tourism office bills it as the world's longest freshwater sand beach.
It's amazing how many people wave as we go by. A year ago in my yellow aerobatic biplane, Two Whiskey Mike, when I rushed along this same beach the faces were a blur. This is a bit of a transition, going from competition aerobatics to an amphibious ultralight. From cruising at 135 miles an hour and performing at 180, to cruising at 75 and performing at 75.
Now those people are not blurred at all. I can clearly see their big grins and even have time to wave back. Now they, instead of being awed or intimidated by the sight of a fire-breathing dragon roaring by, see this delightful waterbird hum past and wish they were in the plane too.
Uh-oh! I hear the call of nature. There is no airport nearby, no container handy, no deserted section of beach. Now what? Lateral thinking is required. Aha! I land a discrete distance offshore, stand on the float, the downwind float, and raise the water level of Georgian Bay by several feet.
Then it's overland to Penetanguishene where I was told there is a worthwhile restaurant right on the water. I scout the harbour and spot it. There's a concrete ramp but it looks too abrupt to taxi up. This leaves the dock with its plethora of boats. I land and taxi in to take a closer look.
There appear to be two docking options, outer and inner. The outer is straightforward but would leave us exposed to boat wakes. The inner dock requires sailing backwards, engine off, into a protected U-shaped area. This is more than I want to attempt at this stage in my float career.
Bobbing in the water, I stare hungrily at the restaurant, at the sign "Famous Dock Lunch", at the attractive outdoor tables with shade umbrellas. Oh well, I could do to lose a few pounds.
Back in Barrie, I realize that I should have come aside the outer dock and walked the Challenger around to the protected inner dock. I resolve to be smarter in future. After four days of solid IMC, the sun finally drills a hole in the fog and, once a foothold has been gained, disperses it quickly.
I've arranged to see a waterfront home available to rent and decide to fly over rather than suffer the ten minute drive. I call the owner and get a description of the property so I can find it from the air.
This will no doubt require docking, an aspect of float flying I'm still a ways from being comfortable with. Landing and taking off on water? No problem. Waves and swells? No problem. Windy and gusty? No problem. Typhoons and tornadoes? No problem. Docking? Oh no, isn't there a beach here!
I take off, raise the wheels and head over to Little Lake for some practice at Barrie Flight Centre's dock. My first attempt is a non-event - I chicken out. The steel support poles at either end of the dock are just too intimidating. I imagine what they'd look like poking through the wing. Tail between legs, I leave.
Airborne however, my courage returns. Actually it isn't courage, it's the realization that, unless I get a handle on this, I'm doomed to sail the seven seas forever, a lost soul, never coming into port, never again to step upon dry land, never again to walk with humans. Never to have lunch at a delightful waterside spot.
Taxiing timidly towards the dock I shut down the engine to see what the wind will do. Okay, the wind is pretty much on the nose, no weather vaning issues to worry about. Fire up and in we go.
Closer, closer, aiming for the center, giving the steel poles a wide berth. When I'm sure the inertia will carry us to the dock I shut down and step out onto the float. We're a wee bit fast but my leg doubles as a shock absorber. The tires cleverly hung over the edge of the dock as bumpers soak up the rest of our momentum. We're alongside! I climb onto the dock, a conquering hero, wishing I had a flag to plant.
Let's try that again! Another circuit, approach the dock, shut down the engine. Oops! We're too fast! I imagine the floats sticking in the side of the dock like twin darts, and the Challenger continuing on, legless, over the top to mate with the Cessna moored on the other side.
Jump out, leg to brace position. Here it comes, I wince in anticipation. The nasty dock knocks me back onto my stern. Xray Sierra Lima, energy spent, nuzzles coyly up to the tires. I try to look dignified, sitting on the float, one leg in the water.
Guffaw, guffaw, guffaw! I thought the place was deserted? From out of the woodwork come hordes of expert analysts, no doubt on vacation from their careers as bush pilots in the Bronx. They fill the air with witticisms about my technique. They proffer useful hints and tips, like throwing out an anchor, popping a drag chute, or firing retro-rockets. Ha, ha, ha! Isn't it nice when you brighten up someone's dreary existence?
I head over to Shanty Bay and fly along the shore, looking for the house for rent. This one looks promising! I land for a closer look and motor slowly past, twice. This house has two dormers and I seem to remember the owner saying three. There are no signs of life. Surely they would have heard me and come out. There's a perfect beach to go ashore but it's got a prominent "No Trespassing" sign.
Best to make sure, what are cell phones for! "Jim, do you have a plane floating around in front of your house?" "No." says Jim. I describe my surroundings. "Bryan, where are you relative to the Russian mansion?" "Just south." "Aha! You should be just north."
"Okay, go outdoors and wave like blazes when I fly past." Actually, that's not going to help, most everyone waves.
I take off and reposition a bit north. There it is! Three dormers and Jim waving like blazes. One inspection circuit and I land. This will be entertaining. The dock is solid steel, has no bumpers whatsoever, there's a large boat moored at it, and a foot from where my right wing will come to rest lurks a large Challenger-eating winch.
I take the time to think through the next few moves. Docking is like chess! A three-sixty for positioning and I head in. I'm too far out so I abort, circle again and head back in. It's fish or cut bait: leave an escape route, in which case I can't get close enough, or make a commitment, in which case I've got to make it work. Of course it didn't occur to me to use the paddle.
I commit. Picture perfect! Where are the Bronx bullies now! Everything comes together, I don't even sink the boat. I must confess I don't report my rookie status to my host. Is that a bit of a swagger in my walk?
After a pleasant time at the house it takes nearly two hours to cover the five miles back to the airport. I go splashing around locally, practising docking, chatting with boat people, getting out at a beach for a stroll, just having a good time.
Well Xray Sierra Lima, we now have twenty-four hours together, in the air and on the water. I'm getting to know you, though not, as yet, every little thing about you.
Getting to know useful little tricks, like how much ailerons can help when sailing on the water. Like using the shoreline or shallow water to ease the impact of wind and waves.
Getting to know when you're talking to me, sometimes in a small voice so I have to be attentive. Like on a glassy water landing, when I can't see the water but you signal that you can feel the ground effect cushion. Like on a glassy water take-off, when the surface tension releases the floats and you surge skyward, like a bird being released from a giant hand.
Getting to know you by experiencing wonderful little moments together. Like flying formation with two blue herons. We can't go quite that slow but we can make a flypass last for a long time. Then we do a three-sixty for another pass and we're wingtip to wingtip again, like three odd-sized Snowbirds.
I'm even getting to know that your call sign is Xray Sierra Lima, not Two Whiskey Mike. How many times in these first few hours did I mess that one up!
You're a relaxing machine instead.
(Click on the picture above to switch from pilot's licence to poet's licence!)
To learn and see more order our comprehensive information package and video!