When my editor texted me in Israel about a ride with the Phillips 66 Aerostars on Thursday at SUN ‘n FUN, she didn’t ask if I wanted the ride, she asked if I’d be back in time for it. Even if being at the Media Center at 7:30 a.m. required mainlining caffeine, I was all in.
Photographer Matt Genuardi loaned his GoPro. So, jet-lag gave way to Extra 300L thrills.
Alicia Herron, who writes for the AOPA Air Safety Institute, and Josh Flowers, who runs YouTube Channel Aviation 101, were revved about flying with the Aerostars. Josh had a case full of cameras to document his ride. The fourth rider was Jamie Allison, Brand Director for Phillips 66 Lubricants.
Jamie was the only non-pilot in the mix. None of us flinched at signing the liability waiver. No one backed out after Pilot Jerry ‘Fossil’ Molidor’s safety briefing that included a warning about the red ejection levers on the $25,000 canopy. But there’s something about getting strapped into a parachute that solidifies the risks of high-speed formation flying.
Jamie followed Pilot Harvey ‘Boss’ Meek to the number 1 plane. Josh and Pilot Paul ‘Rocket’ Hornick headed to plane 2. Alicia climbed into plane number 3 with Pilot David ‘Cupid’ Monroe. Pilot Gerry ‘Fossil’ Molidor secured me into plane 4 tighter than Dolly Parton’s bra.
The pilots fired up their engines and I fired up the GoPro. We taxied from the NOAA hangar to runway 090 and rocketed off the runway in pairs, heading east and south before moving into a snug diamond formation. I wouldn’t taxi that close to another plane, but there we were diving, then pulling up into a loop close enough to three other aircraft to elicit prayer and gasps of awe. Was that three or four Gs in the loop? I looked to my right and saw Alicia in plane 3 smiling like a kid at Disney.
My grip on the GoPro turned my fingers white. It was the only thing in the plane not secured in a 7-point harness or bolted down. Once a passenger lost a cell phone in one of the Aerostar’s planes and the seat had to be removed.
We banked left and perhaps we did a barrel roll. I was watching the silly GoPro screen instead of looking through the canopy. Watching is not the same as experiencing. Returning attention to the experience, I felt more steep turns. Then plane 1 cut sharply left. The other planes snapped left, following one by one.
The aerial dance continued as the planes aligned at the same altitude as if posing for a photo. We then landed one by one, taxied to the NOAA building, and parked in number order.
I can’t wait to share the video with my husband, who envied me for getting to ride along. Of course, watching the ride is akin to seeing photos of the Grand Canyon. The images don’t really compare to the in-person experience. Thank you, Phillips 66 Aerostars!
A mere six percent of the licensed pilots in America are female. As one of them, I often hear men complain, “I can’t get my wife to fly with me.” Okay, guys, let me explain something. Some of the tactics you use to attract your loved one into aviation have driven her away from it.
SEE HOW SAFE IT IS?
My husband asked me that at 4,000 feet after throttling back the engine. He thought that demonstrating his skill at handling a simulated emergency would instill confidence. I was not a pilot then so the maneuver felt like a real emergency that instilled terror, followed by fury. This stunt has been repeated by males all over the country. If you want your wife to fly with you then never, ever take her for a thrill ride to show her how well you handle the plane. How impressed would you be if your pilot on a commercial flight demonstrated a roll? A method that works: invite her on a short flight in gorgeous weather and give her a smooth, uneventful ride. Instead of acting like a race car driver behave like a limo driver.
I’M GOING WITH OR WITHOUT YOU
This is another dangerous tactic. It dares the one left behind to find her own fun things to do without you. Why make the airplane an object of scorn and jealousy? Trust me when I say that bullying, nagging, and harassing women will not achieve positive long-term results. Sure, it takes time to discuss and address her concerns about flying. Perhaps her hesitation to take your offer of a four-hour flight means she has a three-hour bladder. For you flying may have been love at first flight while she needs a longer courtship. One enterprising pilot lured his wife into a deep love of aviation with this deal—for every dollar he spent on flying he gave her a dollar. When I met this couple during the Cayman Caravan she, adorned with stunning jewelry, gushed about how much she adored flying.
YOU SHOULD WANT TO
Yes, yes, you enjoy flying and you expect that because you do she should, too. And when, exactly, did you take up cross-stitch to share her appreciation of it? For some couples, the ideal arrangement is for the woman to ride along. If she doesn’t want to take lessons, she might enjoy reading the checklist, setting the radio and transponder codes or helping in other ways as an educated passenger. If you can convince her to take the 10-hour Pinch-Hitter’s course then it would give her the chance to try out aviation without a long-term commitment. This course demystifies the purpose of all those whiz-bang toys on the panel. I took the course because my husband wanted to buy a plane. During that brief course, I discovered the fun. It can happen.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU WANT TO FLY?
What are you gonna do if your wife really does enjoy flying enough to get her license? Be honest. When you and your wife climb into the car do you ALWAYS drive? If so, then she knows in her heart that she shouldn’t bother to get her license. The famous flying couple of John and Martha King operate King Schools, a flight training company, in San Diego. John explains the problem he’s witnessed over and over after a woman earns her license, “the men absolutely, flat-out, totally fail to relinquish any authority or power to the woman and after all, she may as well be in the back seat because there’s nothing in it for her. That is as universal as the fact that the man always rides up front on a Harley. What happens is that even when the woman is flying she’s nothing more than a voice-activated autopilot and that is absolutely no fun.”
I’M ONLY TRYING TO HELP
These few words sound oh, so lame after you’ve switched radio frequencies on your wife without telling her and she calls Asheville approach Greensboro. Pilot-in-command (PIC) is authority women may have to enforce with rope and duct tape, if necessary. Husbands, be warned, mysterious changes in power, radio frequencies or altimeter setting pose a threat to your safety if your wife is PIC. If you wouldn’t touch the controls when another man is PIC then don’t do so when a woman is PIC. One time, with my mother-in-law in the back seat, I had to tell my co-pilot husband to get his hands off my knobs. It worked.
Flight Instructor John King advises couples to behave like commercial pilots when they share the cockpit. To men in the co-pilot’s seat, he advises “and you don’t make wild comments, as the co-pilot, in giving your opinion about this or that. All you can do is present facts. So you can say ‘sink is one thousand.’ That’s okay. ‘You’re too low and darn it you’re descending too fast’ is not correct, because it’s an opinion.”
FLY LIKE ME
It is unreasonable and unfair to expect a low-time pilot to fly like a high-time pilot. If you have a thousand hours and your wife has two hundred hours then it will take her longer to notice a two-degree course drift. Wait and watch. If the course drift becomes dangerous then state the facts. Hold the sarcasm. Remove any inflection or word choice that could be interpreted as disappointment or criticism. Imagine you are coaching your child to ride a two-wheeler. Allow for that awkward learning period. Be encouraging. Accept differences in style and timing.
JUST LIKE ONE OF THE GUYS
In 500 hours of flying I’ve landed safely after gear malfunctions, a blown cylinder and an electrical failure. Okay, I squealed like a girl when the gear motor failed, but I used the hand crank and landed safely. Even though women might reek of Avgas, hold umpteen ratings and fly like one of the guys, we will never be one of the guys. For example: I became one of 12,229 private pilots to earn an instrument rating in 2000. Upon return from my flight exam, the usual gathering of male pilots filled chairs in front of the terminal. After I said I had passed my instrument flight exam they congratulated me and offered to cut out my shirt. The front, of course. The dears.
So, gentlemen, since you hold 94% of the licenses, it’s up to you to make aviation inviting to women. You can do it and I hope this helps.
This article first appeared in the premiere edition of Carolinas Aviator magazine.
Earning my pilot’s license was the boldest thing I have done since kissing Steve Gadow in seventh grade. Kissing Steve put me in the majority of girls in seventh grade, but earning my pilot’s license put me in a minority. An underwhelming six percent of the pilot’s licenses are held by women.
Why do so few women fly?
I’ll tell you.
The first reason that some women don’t fly is because of how they are introduced to aviation. When my husband earned his license he took me up for a ride. Being a guy, he thought like a guy and believed in his heart that demonstrating a simulated engine failure and recovery would instill confidence in his plane-handling abilities. Being a woman, I thought it was a ride in Hell’s theme park. I’ve met a dozen other women who were similarly introduced to aviation and most stayed away afterward.
It took months for me to get near another small airplane. Hubby intended to buy a plane and so eventually, I’d be a passenger again. I vowed not to be a helpless one ever again. I hired an instructor to teach me how to radio for help and land the plane. Dear Instructor Don Kohler walked me through radio work, reading the instruments for heading and altitude, and landings. Lots of landings. He demystified the panel of blinking instruments, knobs, and do-dads. His patience gradually built up my confidence and knowledge.
I confided in Don that aviation seemed an all-male club, so he introduced me to the legendary Betty Skelton, an aerobatic pilot whose Pitts Special airplane rests in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space collection. Back when women were expected to become teachers, wives, nurses, or secretaries, and mothers, Betty became an aerobatic pilot. Elegant, stylish, and bold, Betty’s passion for flying inspired me. Her plane’s N-number tells how she felt about aerobatic flying–22EZ. I decided to obtain my pilot’s license.
I told Hubby my intention. Well, I hadn’t seen him that excited—with his clothes on, anyway—in years. Who would’ve thought 110 low lead fuel would be an aphrodisiac?
A second large obstacle for women who want to learn to fly is resources. Flying is expensive and it costs time. Women tend to carry the heavier loads of parenting in terms of time. So to take lessons, certain factors had to converge in perfect synchronicity: the availability of the rental plane, good weather, my daughter’s presence at school, and the availability of the instructor.
After six months, I passed the written and practical examinations. Later, after being stranded in Claxton, Georgia due to cloud cover, I trained for and earned my instrument rating. Free to punch through clouds, I embraced flying. Now Handsome tends to work the fact that I’m a pilot into conversations. It always gets a double-take response and raised eyebrows. Never mind that I bore him a daughter and worked at a bank to support us through his grad school years. He brags that I’m a pilot? Men. Go figure.
We enjoy life at 8,000 feet. We’ve flown from central Florida as far south as the Cayman Islands; as far east as Crooked Island in the Bahamas; as far west as Las Cruces, New Mexico; and as far north as Mackinac Island, Michigan. We’ve flown to see the Balloon Festival in Albuquerque. We’ve visited Big Bend National Park, and Carlsbad Caverns because we could fly to them. We fly up to North Carolina to enjoy cool summertime weather and brilliant autumn foliage. We take turns to prevent a wrestling match for the left seat, which is where the pilot-in-command sits.
The largest obstacle for women in aviation to overcome is fear.
I have lost friends in airplane accidents. When traveling at 175 knots, 8,000 above the ground and things go wrong, fear can destroy judgment. Firefighters, police, Special Forces soldiers, and fighter pilots all say that the single greatest way to overcome fear and panic is through training, practice, and knowledge, because when an emergency happens—and it will—people revert to their training. Training is what enables us to shove emotion into the backseat.
I’ve experienced a few attention-grabbing events. Don taught me simple aerobatics: loops, rolls, and spins. In a spin you have to do the exact opposite of what instinct dictates to safely recover from the spin. It takes many practices to overcome the urge to follow instinct. Near Muskegon, Michigan the hydraulic line to the gear motor broke, so I hand-cranked the gear down and we landed safely for repairs. I’ve had a cylinder fail, and software go haywire, and watched a gyro tumble, but through it all, training trumped emotion. What began as boldness—to learn this new skill set and become licensed—has grown into steady confidence.
Being bold enough to learn to fly has been deeply rewarding. In 2004, I flew to Marathon in the Florida Keys to resupply friends who had lost power and food after a hurricane. In 2005, I brought my pastor to Pascagoula, Mississippi, so he could inspect the relief efforts of a smaller church post-Katrina to determine whether or not our larger church should send funds. Though I looked out of place among the military pilots and the jet pilots ferrying in FEMA representatives and supplies, I felt at home.
Flying has enhanced my marriage, not just because we can travel farther by taking turns at the controls, but because we are doing something we both enjoy. The world of aviation is still male-dominated, but I have to say everyone has treated me very well.
Being bold has paid off handsomely for me personally and professionally. We have a choice. We can live boldly or look back and wish we had.
This article previously appeared in Skirt! Magazine, their BOLD issue, August 2016.
Congratulations to Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Florida, for 40 years of flight training in Piper aircraft. It’s likely that Brown’s Seaplane Base has trained more people to fly seaplanes than any other flight school in the world, at 500 students a year.
Students train for their SES rating using three, 85-hp J-3 Cubs on Aqua 1500 floats and for their MES in a Nomad/Piper Aztec Pa-23-250 on Edo 4930 floats. The SES training costs $850 for five hours and includes the check ride in a J-3 Cub. The MES course in the Piper Aztec costs $400 per hour for dual instruction until proficiency is reached. Amphibs can land at Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field (GIF, 123.05) and back-taxi to runway 11 to Brown’s or land on Lake Jesse. For the landlubbers, Brown’s rents out a Cessna 150 and a fixed-gear Cessna 182.
The Orlando Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) gave Brown’s an award in 2002 for promoting the (safety education) Seawings program in the United States. Obie S. Young, Safety Program Manager with the Orlando FSDO, said, “I know that every year Jon is somewhere around 50 percent of the Seawings issued compared to the rest of the country.” Young earned his seaplane rating from Jack Brown. He described the base as a family business conducted with southern hospitality. “It’s like walking back into history.”
Jack Brown established the seaplane base in 1963 and flew an estimated 24,000 hours in his beloved seaplanes. In 1975 Jack was ferrying a Seabee to North Carolina when he experienced a fatal loss of elevator control.
Jack’s sons, Jon and Chuck, continue the family business. Jon has over 15,650 hours in seaplanes while Chuck has 5,900 hours. Chuck has another job as a commercial pilot. Unlike many seaplane flight schools, Brown’s has two examiners on staff. Representing the third generation of Browns on the base are Travis Gaines and Emily Brown. Travis has his private pilot’s license and does fabric work on the J-3 Cubs. Emily has recently begun her flight training.
Of course, it helps Brown’s popularity to be strategically situated in central Florida with over 100 freshwater lakes in a 5-mile radius. It serves as a hub of year-round seaplane training with the busiest season running from January to May. Pilots who plan to get their seaplane rating during the April EAA Sun ‘N Fun Fly-In sign up in November to reserve a training spot.
Brown’s attracts top-notch instructors like John M. Rennie, an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) with over 5,700 hours flying seaplanes, who wrote Step Up To Floats: Airplane Single Engine Seaplane Training Manual. Instructor Ron Trostle was furloughed from United Airlines after three years and chose to return to teach at Brown’s. Trostle has 1,550 hours SES and 271 hours MES. Instructor Alex Borrego, a retired Eastern Airlines pilot, has over 14,000 hours flying with 818 hours in J-3 Cubs. Rounding out the pool of instructors are: Eyal Breiter, Jim Hershberger, Kathleen Field, and Brian Elferdink.
Out on the water, students learn how to feel the crucial difference between the Center of Gravity and the Center of Buoyancy. They become familiar with a J-3 Cub floatplane from its sardonically named ‘armstrong’ hand-propped starter to the water rudders. They discover they can fly without an autopilot, GPS, storm scope, radio, and even flaps.
The training methods honed over 40 years at Brown’s have been condensed into an intensive short course. Weather permitting; a student can get the rating in a weekend. The instructors produce amazing results in an efficient, professional, relaxed atmosphere.
At the end of the day, pilots gather in the screened porch for coffee, camaraderie and storytelling. Usually, one can find a student and instructor reviewing the day’s splash-and-go practice, step-taxi procedures, and safety tips.
Despite their attention to safety, there have been a few accidents. Like driving a car, Jon said, “Just backing down your driveway, if you do it thirty-thousand times at some point you may hit the mailbox.” In fact, one of his daughter’s dates did knock down his mailbox. (In fact, one of his daughter’s dates did.) In 1979, Jon and a student on a check ride had an emergency landing in Lake Arietta in Auburndale in 1979 when a strut broke loose. Their accident contributed to the Piper Service Bulletins No. 910A and No. 528D and the Airworthiness Directive 93-10-06 on rolled instead of cut fork bolts on Piper Struts. Performing thousands of hours of training naturally involves some risk.
The vast majority of students get their seaplane rating for the fun of it or for bragging rights. Instructor Rennie estimated that about 15 percent go on to fly seaplanes regularly and buy one. The training, however, benefits all pilots because it teaches them how to read the wind direction and strength by looking at bodies of water.
The influence of Brown’s Seaplane Base reaches around the world, drawing students from Japan, Sweden, France, Britain, the Philippines, and South America. Foreign students have been 40 percent of Brown’s business.
The new background checks for foreign students that began in July 2002 have not hurt business at Brown’s, though it does slow down the process of booking students a bit.
Look for the yellow J-3 Cub yellow polo shirts with the “Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base” logo. They tend to bob up in crowds at aviation gatherings. Brown’s Seaplane Base also appears in the credits of movies such as Brenda Star, Nothing by Chance, and Dark Tower. Residents of Winter Haven have become accustomed to seeing the bright yellow planes with their white floats hopping from lake to lake to lake year-round.
Brown’s Seaplane Base treats pilots to a bygone era of basic stick-and-rudder flying laced with Southern hospitality. This is the closest most pilots will ever get to the wind-in-your-face, alligator-scaring thrill of being a bush pilot.
This article appeared in Pipers Magazine in the November 2003 issue, Volume 16, Issue 11. As of 2020, the seaplane base has been running for 57 years. See also, how I came to write this article in my essay Call Me.
If you fly long enough, you will experience a problem in flight. Maybe you’ll hit a bird. Maybe your wings will ice up. Maybe you’ll get distracted in your pre-landing check and forget to lower the gear. Fuel lines get vapor lock. Gunk clogs the fuel injector. A bug or moisture fills the static port. Stuff happens.
Each kind of problem makes itself known if you know how to watch for the clues—and take them seriously.
My husband, Maury L. Fisher, MD, and I were flying a Cessna 210 from Bartow, Florida to Asheville, North Carolina on Friday, August 31 when the engine revealed a clue. Though we both have our licenses, I had fallen out of currency and was relegated to the copilot’s seat. Handsome was PIC. At 10,000’ the engine analyzer started acting wonky. That’s my technical term for when the cylinder head temperature reading disappeared on cylinder one.
In the past, a cylinder reading disappeared because a sensor probe came loose and backed out. This time, Handsome mentioned it and stated that since we were cruising at 184 knots, we couldn’t have lost the cylinder’s power. All other gauges of power and temperature and fuel flow remained steady and within the normal range on our 200-hour IO-550-L Continental engine.
So, we agreed to watch the gauges, continue the flight, and have it checked when we returned home. The Jacksonville air traffic controller cleared us to climb to 12,000 to get above clouds.
At 11,000’ the engine shook hard, and the happy engine hum turned into a galloping sound. Instead of showing six green columns, our engine analyzer showed three. We were over the Okefenokee Swamp, 684 square miles of alligator and snake-infested wetland that spreads across the Florida-Georgia border. The name Okefenokee is a Native-American word meaning trembling earth. I wanted to land on solid ground, like a runway or a road.
The autopilot struggled to maintain altitude. We lost horsepower. Handsome notified the Jacksonville controller that the engine was running rough. (The engine sounded like a horse trying to kick its way out.) He asked for the nearest airport. The controller offered Lake City at twenty-eight miles behind us or another airport thirty miles ahead. Handsome asked for Lake City’s identifier.
I took a quick inventory of emergency supplies. We had no water, a few snacks, two 9mm handguns, and a handheld radio. My wicked memory flashed to May 1996 when ValueJet Flight 592 crashed in the swamp near Miami with 110 people on board. It sank, and parts of it were finally located a month later. Handsome’s seaplane rating gave me some comfort.
My hand shook as I entered KLCQ into the autopilot as our new destination. I was about to press ENTER to activate the new destination when Handsome reached over and started the process over. He was in his zone, focused on what to do, so he hadn’t noticed the new reading. His hand wasn’t shaking.
The controller recited the heading to Lake City and the number of degrees to turn left on course. My body temperature rose while I calculated the rate of descent needed to reach Lake City if the last three cylinders stopped firing. We were descending 200 feet per minute on half power. Without power, we’d be forced to land in a roadless section of trembling earth.
The engine seemed to be holding together. It wasn’t spewing oil or smoke. Handsome maintained a calm demeanor. Decades of working in the emergency room and in surgery had taught him to school his emotions. He also has 1500 more flying hours than his copilot.
I sent up a quick prayer and remembered that I’d once landed safely after a cylinder blew. I was grateful this was not a solo flight, or my turn to fly.
I imagine I would have done exactly as he did during the engine problem, but in truth, I’d have sweat-soaked the upholstery in the process like a nuclear hot flash.
The controller spoke in calming tones as he gave the tower frequency for Lake City Airport and the weather conditions there. He named the runways and reported that Lake City cleared us for any runway. Then he asked, “How many souls on board and how much fuel?”
There’s something about hearing an air traffic controller ask the question that ratchets up the stress factor. By the time the words are spoken you already know there’s a problem. But still.
Handsome answered him while I took a calming breath. At 3000’ we broke out from the clouds and saw the airport. Ten miles to go. Handsome said he wouldn’t drop the gear until he had the airport made. By ‘made’ he meant glide in with a dead engine.
On short final, he dropped the gear and pulled back the power. The engine’s syncopated rhythm sounded more pronounced. We landed and taxied to the end of runway 010, past the Lake City Fire Department’s tank-like yellow crash truck. We sputtered down the taxiway and passed a red firetruck to the parking area. The linemen directed us to a spot isolated from other aircraft.
There’s a moment in the movie Armageddon after men jump a rover over a canyon on an asteroid and crash land. Actor Michael Clarke Duncan, covered in sweat in the back seat, says, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Lord. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” That. That’s how I felt.
We climbed out. The firemen, three police officers, two linemen, Handsome and I breathed a collective sigh. Bo, Byron, and Larry in the tower probably sighed, too. Thanks, guys!
Airport Lineman Crew Leader Ed Bunnell said, “Welcome to Lake City.” He secured chocks under the nose wheel. “What can we do for you?”
I wanted a hug. Handsome asked for a mechanic. While they arranged for a mechanic, I planned an emergency kit for future flights. We often fly over the Appalachian Mountains. It’s embarrassing how complacent we had become about these routine flights. Next time, we’ll bring bottled water, flashlights, granola bars, maybe a flare gun, a reflective blanket, a first-aid kit, a sweat towel, and a 45-caliber handgun. The Okefenokee has gators, and snakes, and black bears. Oh, my.
This article was first published in General Aviation News, January 10, 2019.
In 2003 Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base celebrated a milestone–40 years of continuous seaplane instruction. Brown’s Seaplane Base has trained more people to fly seaplanes than any other flight school in the world. How far does this school’s influence reach? Well, as Brown’s Seaplane Base entered 2003, its historic 40th year of business, its reach extended from Winter Haven, Florida into low-earth orbit. It seems that one of instructor Jim Torphy’s students, Commander Kenneth D. Bowersox, wanted to keep in touch during his 4-month stint in the International Space Station.
About 500 students a year train at Brown’s Seaplane Base. Lawyers, Blackbird pilots, commercial airline pilots, plumbers, and celebrities alike have trained here. To name a few, singers Alan Jackson and Jimmy Buffet, TV journalist Hugh Downs, and French astronauts Jean-Loup Cretien, Michel Tognini and Jean-Pierre Hainere, have earned their seaplane rating at Brown’s.
Jack Brown established the seaplane base 40 years ago and flew an estimated 24,000 hours in his beloved seaplanes. Jack died in 1975. He was ferrying a Seabee to North Carolina when he experienced a fatal loss of elevator control. Jack’s sons, Jon and Chuck, continue the family business. Unlike many seaplane flight schools, Brown’s has two examiners on staff. Chuck has 3500 hours SES and 3500 hours MES. Jon has over 9400 hours SES and 6250 hours MES. Representing the third generation of Browns on the base are Travis Gaines and Emily Brown. Travis has his private pilot’s license and does fabric work on the J-3 Cubs. Emily has recently begun her flight training.
The light brown FBO at Brown’s rises on stilts from Lake Jessie. Beside it on solid ground sits a huge hangar that serves as a maintenance garage when it isn’t being used to host a cookout or birthday party. The FBO is like a home in many ways with a front and back porch and a large screened-in porch with a kitchen. I was a student there in 1996 and remember meeting pilots from Alaska on their way to the Caribbean. They had landed on nearby Lake Arietta to refuel a Twin Otter. Jon brought a fuel truck to them. Like water birds migrating, they knew this place as a safe haven to rest and refuel with their kind.
LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION
Of course, it helps Brown’s popularity to be strategically situated in central Florida with over 100 freshwater lakes in a 5-mile radius. Practically in the geographic center of Florida, it serves as a hub of year-round seaplane training with the busiest season running from January to May. Pilots who plan to get their seaplane rating during the April EAA Sun ‘N Fun Fly-In sign up in November to reserve a training spot. In good weather, students can witness shuttle launches and clearly see the second-stage separation of the booster rockets.
Brown’s attracts top-notch instructors like John M. Rennie, an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) with over 4500 hours SES and 1200 hours MES, who wrote Step Up To Floats: Airplane Single Engine Seaplane Training Manual. Instructor Ron Trostle was furloughed from United Airlines after three years and chose to return to teach at Brown’s. Trostle has 1550 hours SES and 271 hours MES. Instructor Alex Borrego, a retired Eastern Airlines pilot, has over 14,000 hours flying with 818 hours in J-3 Cubs. Rounding out the pool of instructors are: Eyal Breiter, Jim Hershberger, James Wagner, and brothers Cason and Clay Chatham.
SEAWINGS SAFETY PROGRAM
In October 2000, the Orlando FSDO gave Brown’s an award for promoting the Seawings program in the United States. Obie S. Young, Safety Program Manager with the Orlando FSDO, said, “I know that every year Jon is somewhere around 50 percent of the Seawings issued compared to the rest of the country.” Young earned his seaplane rating from Jack Brown. He described the base as a family business conducted with southern hospitality. “It’s like walking back into history.”
Instructor Rennie flies a Hawker 800XP jet and a Citation Bravo jet for Darden Restaurants, yet he still teaches at Brown’s. Rennie said, “People say, ‘don’t go back’ because it’s never the same. But the thing about the seaplane base is it’s always the same. And it’s got the same stories and the same people and it’s wonderful. And the character of it is just the whole thing, it’s nice and laid back and it’s seat-of-the-pants flying again.” He refers to the instructors at Brown’s as a sort of fraternity. “Everybody is gung-ho and really enjoys what they’re doing and it’s not just a job.” His passion for seaplanes continues in his work on a new book to be called Step Up To Boats about flying boats.
Instructor Ron Trostle also mentioned the lifelong friendships of colleagues who have trained at Brown’s. Trostle said that they help each other find commercial jobs and at some time, they all migrate back to Brown’s, even if just to visit.
Students train for their Single-Engine Seaplane rating using three 85-horsepower J-3 Cubs on Aqua 1500 floats and for their Multi-engine Seaplane rating in a Nomad/Piper Aztec Pa-23-250 on Edo 4930 floats. Amphibious aircraft can land at Winter Haven’s Gilbert Field (GIF, 123.05) and back-taxi on runway 11 to Brown’s or land on Lake Jessie. For the landlubbers, Brown’s rents out a Cessna 150 and a fixed-gear Cessna 182.
Out on the water, students learn how to feel the crucial difference between the Center of Gravity and the Center of Buoyancy. They become familiar with a J-3 Cub floatplane from its sardonically named ‘armstrong’ hand-propped starter to the water rudders. They discover they can fly without an autopilot, GPS, storm scope, radio and even flaps. The training methods honed over 40 years at Brown’s have been condensed into an intensive short course. Weather permitting; a student can get the rating in a weekend.
The instructors produce amazing results in an efficient, professional, relaxed atmosphere. At the end of the day, pilots gather in the screened porch for coffee, camaraderie, and storytelling. Usually one can find a student and instructor reviewing the day’s splash-and-go practice, step-taxi procedures and safety tips.
RISKS AND REWARDS
Recent student Vinnie Pipitone is a commercial pilot and flight instructor from New Jersey. He said that flying a seaplane was as thrilling as “renting an exotic sports car to drive around.” The toughest part of the training was changing his thinking process. “A seaplane is not as responsive as a land plane. No brakes. You start the prop and you’re moving. You have to plan around moving objects in an environment with changing conditions.”
Instructor Rennie contrasted the secured landing environment for land planes against that of seaplanes. “On a lake, every landing you make you personally approve the landing strip. So you’ve got to be aware of where the wires are, where the trees are, how long the lake is, and not only that, it’s a very un-sterile environment. . . . you can have a 14-year-old driving a high-performance boat on the lake and he could pull right out in front of you.”
Rennie also lamented, “With a seaplane as long as you have boats and seaplanes together sooner or later a boat is going to make contact with a seaplane. And unfortunately, it’s a seaplane accident even if the seaplane had its engine turned off and a boat ran into it.”
In 40 years of training, there have been a few rare accidents. Jon and a student on a check ride had an emergency landing in Lake Arietta in Auburndale in 1979 when a strut broke loose. Their accident contributed to the Piper Service Bulletins No. 910A and No. 528D and the Airworthiness Directive 93-10-06 on rolled instead of cut fork bolts on Piper Struts. Performing thousands of hours of training naturally involves some risk. Like driving a car, Jon said, “Just backing down your driveway, if you do it thirty-thousand times at some point you may hit the mailbox.” In fact, one of his daughter’s dates did knock down his mailbox. Point taken.
Instructor Rennie said, “I’d say only about 13 to 15 percent of the people who get their seaplane ratings actually go and use them. It’s mainly a cocktail license, so to speak, that gives the pilot bragging rights . . . or it’s just to do something they’ve always wanted to do, but they’re not going to go out and buy a seaplane and actually fly seaplanes.”
Rennie said that a seaplane rating benefits pilots whether or not they ever fly another seaplane because in an engine failure, “if they had seaplane experience they can look at a lake and tell exactly where the wind is coming from, how strong it is, and so they pick a filed with a lot more information ahead of them.”
The reputation of Brown’s Seaplane Base led a special request from the Flying Physicians group. At their request, Jon and his instructors brought their entire operation to Lake-of-the-Ozarks for two weeks in 1992. Instructor Trostle remembered the effort of ferrying the planes from Florida to Arkansas. He had flown one of the J-3 Cubs while Jon flew the twin Comanche. “We got there before Jon,” Trostle said smiling. “We had the advantage of flying under the weather that he had to go around.”
The influence of Brown’s Seaplane Base reaches around the world. It is common to find students there from Japan, Sweden, France, Britain, and South America. Foreign students have been 40 percent of their business. Because the new required background checks for foreign students began in July 2002—after Brown’s busy season—the seaplane base has not yet felt the economic impact of the 9-11 terrorist attacks as other flight schools have.
“You mention seaplanes in Europe and it’s automatic that Brown’s enters the conversation,” said Irish pilot Margaret Jackson. “I came to Brown’s to get my seaplane rating and I liked it so much I sold everything in Europe and came to Florida.” Since Jackson’s 1997 move to Florida, she has flown 420 hours SES, bought a Cessna 180 on floats and bought the Lake Ida Beach Resort in Winter Haven. She loves the freedom of seaplanes as the last vestige of real bush flying.
Look for the yellow J-3 Cub yellow polo shirts with the “Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base’ logo. They tend to bob up in crowds at aviation gatherings like the Greenville Annual International Fly-In on Moosehead Lake in Maine. Brown’s Seaplane Base also appears in the credits of movies: “Brenda Starr”, “Nothing By Chance” and “Dark Tower.”
If you plan to go for flight training at Brown’s, go for that first fresh pot of coffee of the day on the screened porch. And even though the Japanese students consider the back porch the prime location for photographing alligators, the back porch gets scalding hot in the summer.
Despite their communications with astronauts in orbit, Brown’s Seaplane Base treats pilots to a bygone era of basic stick and rudder flying laced with Southern hospitality. Since this is the closest most pilots will ever get to the thrill of being a bush pilot, why not get a seaplane rating? We aren’t getting any younger.
Oh, and if you see Jon, ask him about posing for the September page of a 2002-2003 calendar. But that’s another story.
This article appeared in WaterFlying magazine in 2003. WaterFlying magazine covers topics of interest for the world-wide Seaplane Pilots Association. The seaplane base is still going strong. Jon Brown’s daughter Alison married Ben Shipps who teaches there. In 2019, Jon retired and Ben took over ownership and operation of the base.