Float flying, flying ultralights on floats, flying ultralight aircraft on floats.

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Float flying information for pilots considering putting their ultralight aircraft on floats.

Ultralight Float flying - Flying ultralights on floats! I love flying on water. To me it is the only way to go! Especially in Ontario where lakes and rivers are so abundant.

I became addicted to float flying on an old single place MX, since then I have had a two place MX, 10 single place Buccaneer XA's, 9 Buccaneer SX's, 14 two place Buccaneers, 5 SeaReys, a Kitfox, an Avid Catalina, a Tierra, an Explorer, a Beaver RX 550, a Merlin, believe it or not a Murphy Renegade, a Coyote, a trike, several of my L'il Buzzards and L'il Hustler's on the water.

Quicsilver MX on floatsIt has been a love that has become an addiction - and an addiction that has nearly killed me twice. Mind you so has flying, but those are stories for another time.

Now remember just about any ultralight can be equipped with floats, or for that matter can be made amphibious. But there are a number of things that you must consider when adding floats to an ultralight. 

These deal with the floats, the plane, pilot and the "air(water)field".

The Plane:

There are basically two kinds of float planes - ones that are built to be float planes and those that have been adapted to handle floats and or amphibious gear.Maxair on Full Lotus Mono float

These also can be broken down into a center hull or float like the Buccaneer Amphibian or the Lotus Mono Hull and the two float system.

The Center Hull or  Mono-float systems - These craft land and take off on a center float, with two sponsors out on the wings for support in cross wind conditions.  On the "Mono-Float' system the pilot sits in his plane but above the float, and when on amphib gear he is "really" above the float. When landing this takes a bit of getting use to. When you land on water the plane "floats" on the center hull and can tip one way or the other depending on the wind. When landing on land the pilot has to get accustomed to the extra height required by the landing gear to allow the float to clear the ground.

While in the "amphibian" craft like the Buccaneer the pilot sits inside the "float" and literally lands with "seat of his pants" touching the water. Buccaneer XA ultralight AircraftBoth aircraft  present problems when trying to dock, for fuel, or to get in and out of the plane. 

With the sponsors out on the wing it is hard to get close to anything, and unlike dual floats when you try to exit the craft you do not have anything to step out onto. Thus these craft really need an area where you can drive them in an out of the water. Experience has shown that the "amphibian" style are not  as suited for lakes with high wind and rough water.

For "TRIKE" lovers there is the "flying boat" a unique unit that is now available from a couple of different manufacturers. In this application a boat, similar to what most people know as a "Kodiak boat' is attached to a Trike airframe. Giving you the best of both worlds.

The next type of plane is the land plane which has been adapted to handle floats Ultralight TRIKE boat- that is the two float system. For ultralights there are a couple of different styles of floats on the market, from several manufactures. We currently have available to us the Full Lotus float system, the Puddle Jumper fiber glass floats, and aluminum floats available from Zenair, Murphy and Aquafloat.

The Full Lotus two float system for ultralight is available in two sizes  to fit ultralight  aircraft weights up to 1260 lbs. Advantages of this system are they are strong, durable, easy to repair, light weight, easy to ship, are already built, and can be easily mounted on any ultralight. They are available as straight floats or amphibs.

Problems: Over the years Full Lotus has updated or revised their floats on several occasions. In 1999 they put out an update which changed the way the upper and lower sections of their float system are held together. This update is available to ALL Full Lotus owners free of charge. For more information click here!

The main problems reported by owners, of Full Lotus floats is "ruptured or leaky bladders." The ruptured airbags are usually a result of "stall landings," and or improper inflation. gfbuz.jpg (41768 bytes)

The loss of air in the bladders are usually a result of improper inflation which allows the bladders to move inside the float causing them to "pinch" and leak. 

WATER IN THE BLADDERS is another reported problem. I found it hard to believe that water could enter a bladder, when there was no loss of air, or signs of leaking.

Apparently there are a number of ways this can happen. 
*One the air used to fill the bladders from a compressor contains water. 
*When air is heated and cooled water forms.

Picture a float sitting on water on a cool summer night, then picture the same float at mid day and 90 degrees F. 
*Another way according to informed sources is "osmosis". Now I am not going to try to explain this one you'll have to look it up and draw your own conclusion.

While teaching on a Murphy Rebel equipped with Full Lotus 1650 floats, I removed over 15 gallons of water from the rear bladders! A gallon of water weighs approximately 8 lbs! It really got my attention when it moved to the rear of the floats during climb out.

The next type of Titan on Puddle Jumper Floatsfloat is the fiber glass float. Puddle Jumper is one manufacturer and their floats can be found around the country on Challengers, Rans, Titan aircraft etc. The floats come in about the same weight as the Full Lotus (roughly 150 lbs). They come prebuilt, ready for installation, and are available in also with amphib gear. These floats are favoured on some aircraft because of their lower drag, and I can say that on planes like the Challenger they do out perform the Full Lotus system for getting out the water. 

Problems: The main problems reported from pilots using this system are, the strength and durability of the float -  with the floats report ably cracking at the step and where the two float halves are joined together. This normally results in an overturned plane. Another reported problem on the older systems using the amphib set up was with sticking real wheels and failed nose wheel supports.
Click here for more info on Puddle Jumper Floats.

The next type of float is the aluminum float. Several manufacAvid Flyer on aluminum floatsturers offer kits, including Zenair, Murphy, and Aqua Float. Aluminum floats were the main stay of the aircraft industry and have been around since the inception of flying. For ultralights most have to built from kits that take between 200 and 300 hours to build. They are light, very aerodynamic, and because they are kit built, are priced within the reach of most pilots. 

Problems: Most problems reported deal with the "durability" of the float, and with constant leaking. Many pilots report getting pin holes in their floats after beaching for short periods of time on sandy beaches. 
One way of helping to prevent "leaking" is to "slosh" the inside of the floats with a rubber sealant.
Click here for more information on Aluminum Floats .

If you are flying on floats ALWAYS check for water in the float and or bladder compartments. On the Full Lotus system a check 3 or 4 times a year is recommended. On fiberglass and aluminum floats check prior to EVERY take off! Many pilots install small electric bilge pumps like those used in boats. When mounted in the step area of the float it allows easy draining of the float. 
I believe a gallon of water weighs in at about 8 lbs - two gallons moving to the tail of the float on lift off can and has caused ultralights to crash and pilots to be injured or killed.

For plans for floats for ultralights click here.

Now I am not going to get into mounting your floats. But you need to make sure of several things ALL of which should be available from your manufacturer or the float supplier.

It is important that your floats mounting hardware is strong!!!! During take off and or  landing you can reach speeds close to 50 mph. When you consider you plane can weigh in at 1200 lbs - that is a lot of stress on everything. This would not be a good time for mounting hardware to fail!

The position of the float relative to the center of LIFT on the wing is critical, as is the position of the floats relative to the C of G of the plane! Another factor is the angle of incidence BETWEEN the floats and the wing. 

Floats mounted to far back will cause the nose of the plane to push up and possibly stall, too far forward and the plane will be nose heavy. If the angle is wrong between the float and the wing you may not be able to rotate, or produce excessive drag.

Your Plane: 
Okay you have decided what kind of float you want to go with  - now lets look at a your plane. Let's say you take an average float system set up you will be adding about 150 lbs to your plane. In most cases you will also add extra fuel capacity, and possibly an electric start and battery, if you have every flown on floats you'll understand why! If not picture yourself standing on a set of floats at the rear of an RX 550 Beaver pulling on a recoil rope, with a prop about 2 feet from you as your plane starts moving forward when the engine starts. You will also be flying during the summer months, which generally come with hot humid days, while some Full Lotus customers fly on floats all year round I wouldn't recommend it on fiberglass or aluminum floats. 

Imagine you have just increased your body weight by 35%, none of this being MUSCLE just weight, now try climbing a flight of stairs, on a 90 degree day with high humidity! That is what you are asking your plane to do. So BEFORE you decide to put floats on your plane think of what kind of performance you get out of it as a land plane, when it is loaded. If you get about 500 feet per minute climb and cruise at 65 mph - chop your climb rate in half and take about 10 mph off your cruise at the same power setting.

In most cases more power is recommended - BUT this also depends on whether your plane can take the additional power and extra weight of a larger engine. The only person that can tell you that is the AIRCRAFT manufacturer. Another factor you  MUST be aware of is your gross weight - many ultralights could be  OVER GROSS when equipped with floats - do the math.

Propeller: Your propeller is another thing you have to consider. If it does not have some kind of leading edge protection on it - after one take off you will be able to use it as a wall clock! A ground adjustable prop is a more worthwhile investment than a fixed pitch prop . On floats you can dial it in better for take off - and then redial it back when you switch back to wheels.

My preference is for composite props like the IVOPROP over wood propellers. I have found that wood props require more maintenance, rot, varnish peels off, expand and contract - which can effect the torque on your prop bolts. They also  goes out of balance more often. 

The Pilot:
A pilot flying on floats needs to realize that there is a difference in all  fazes of the flight operation. 

Preflight: A float plane is harder to preflight - you can't get at things the way you can on a land plane. BUT a thorough preflight IS required none the less! AND that preflight MUST include the floats - inside and out as well as the mounting hardware!

Boarding: NEVER ALLOW anyone to board OR exit your plane when the engine is RUNNING. Instruct passengers or crew on the proper way to enter and exit the craft PRIOR to boarding. ESPECIALLY deal with the emergency exit procedures and ensure adequate life jackets etc are on board and within reach or INSTALLED on the occupants. 

NOTE OF CAUTION: Personal experience has shown me that a standard life jacket can pose problems when exiting an overturned and submerging craft. The bulkiness and floatation can hinder a smooth exit. WEARING the type of vest that you can inflate once clear of the craft may be an option.

Starting the engine: Remember when you start the engine YOU have NO brakes. So make sure NO ONE or NO THING is in your path - remembering that the path is about 35 fee wide! Consider the wind, speed, and direction BEFORE you start your engine. If the engine starts and you move out onto the lake and then it quits - where are you going to end UP! PADDLES for both pilot and passenger are recommended! A tow rope is also handy - that way you can through it to a boat to tow you in - to shore so someone can help - or you can jump into the water and with the rope attached to the plane act as an anchor to prevent it from going into the rocks etc.

Taxiing: While water rudders do aid in steering your plane (most ultralights I have flown do not have them) they are not as positive especially in a wind as when you taxi on land.

When taxiing DOWNWIND be very careful - especially on aircraft like the MX with a high wing and tail. I have watched several times as pilot's have throttled up while going downwind - and watched as the tail lifts up and the craft somersaults forward.

When you have to turn cross wind on the water try to make your initial  turn into the wind rather than with the wind pushing you. And use your ailerons to keep the wing that is into the wind down! ( Practice in a large vacant section of the lake - using short blasts from the throttle to help compensate for the wind.) On amphibians like the Buccaneer be careful turning - waves will fill your hull with water. THIS WATER must be pumped out prior to take-off. Again a small bilge pump running while you taxi will come in handy.

Take Off: When considering how much room you will need to take off and climb out. Visualize what you would need for a normal take off on wheels. NOW at least double it! Whether you know the lake or not - taxi the full course up and back. Look for things like rocks, or other obstacles, something like a log that might have drifted in. By taxiing the complete length of your "runway" you do one other thing - you have just checked for BOAT wakes. NOW before you take off look to make sure NO boats have crossed your "runway." Hitting the wake from a large cabin cruiser at 45 mph - just as you are about to lift off will really get your attention! You will lift off STALL and hit the water like a rock!

When taking off - take off INTO the wind - and remember that on calm glassy water, with little or no wind it is MUCH harder and will take longer to break free from the water.

Your next problem is that you have now taxied your engine for probably 10 minutes it is cold! You need to bring the temps up to operating temperature - hard to do with no brakes. To do this bring you plane up on to the step and taxi along a bit. Then apply your power slowly until the plane lifts off. DO NOT use abrupt power inputs. This will help prevent COLD SEIZURE!

Flying: Some things you will notice while flying on float vs. land is that your climb rate is not as good. Thus you need to consider that boat house or 100 ft tree at the end of the lake. I once stood helplessly on shore while a friend took off on floats. He took too long to get airborne, when he did he couldn't clear the bull rushes at the end of the lake. It took us nearly 4 hours to pull him out. BEFORE you take off mentally make an "abort" mark on your "strip." This spot has to allow you to back down on power and stop long before you are in trouble. With me that would be about the halfway mark. Use something on the shoreline for a reference point.

In most cases you will need to use a higher throttle setting to maintain the cruise speed you are accustomed to. This will usually mean a higher fuel burn so make sure keep track of your fuel. Where you use to be able to fly for 2 hours you may now only be able to fly for an hour and a half.

Turns will probably feel a little "mushy" - due to the added drag and extra weight. REMEMBER that the addition of floats and the added things that go with them WILL increase you stall speed AND cut down on your glide ratio. Most float planes glide like a rock! 

Landing: Like taking off on water landing also requires a couple of additional checks and considerations. First when landing and taking off - try to take off as close to shore as possible without causing danger to those in the surrounding area. Try to take off and land while someone is WATCHING. Take off and land where possible within  50 feet of the shore and preferably with  fisherman in the area! Why - because when you sink he will see you and hopefully come to your rescue.

Landing close to shore gives your mind a perspective of where the water is - in the middle of the lake your brain will find this hard to compute - because it has nothing to refer to. 

Use your circuit to look for boaters, swimmers, obstructions, wave height, wind direction etc. Especially look for boaters that MIGHT be getting ready to head out. Someone getting ready to pull up a water skier for example.

Another recommendation is to OPEN or at least unlatch your doors where possible. When a plane crashes into the water things have a tendency to bend. A bent door frame or a sliding canopy guide rail can trap you inside, then prevent you from opening the door or canopy.

If you have a passenger instruct them once again on HOW to exit the plane remembering that in all likely hood they will be upside down with water rushing in and pushing against the doors. Your body weight will be pressing against the seat belt. A sharp pocket knife is something I now carry with me when float flying.

Of course water condition also plays a part in accidents. Too calm and you CAN'T see the water. Too rough and you risk float damage, and or upsetting. That is another reason for landing close to shore and picking a calmer section of the lake, even if it means a long taxi back to where you want to go.

Remember there are only two kinds of float plane pilots - those that have gotten wet and those that are GOING to get wet. As you can probably guess from the above I fit into the first category - several times.

U.B. Judge

The late Jim Bears of Oak Ridges Ontario flying his
The late Jim Bears of Oak Ridges Ontario flying his
Buccaneer Amphibian XA over Lake Simcoe.

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