Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base

Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base continues to train more pilots in the fine art of flying seaplanes.

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.

Seaplane baseThe 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.


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.


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.”

Seaplane in flightInstructor 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.


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.



Jack Brown's Seaplane BaseThis 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.

Call Me

I love it when editors call. Some editors call because they want a woman’s perspective on my hobby—aviation. Only six percent of pilots are women, so I’m kind of a novelty. Some editors call for reprints on essays or articles that made them laugh. Some editors call because they want an article on a topic a staffer doesn’t have time to write. In 2003 a call came from an editor representing a magazine that I’d never written for, nor queried. He explained that he was preparing the special annual edition of WaterFlying magazine for the spring and would I consider writing an article on Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Florida? The edition would feature seaplane bases and schools around the world. Okay, so this editor called because he needed a writer in Winter Haven. When asked how he learned about me, he said he’d picked up my business card from a writing colleague who could not accept the assignment. Okay, so I’m the SECOND choice, but not too proud to accept a hand-me-down. He offered $500. I knew the place well enough to avoid the second pot of coffee of the day. I knew the people, like the Japanese pilots who gathered on the back porch to photograph alligators, and the instructor Rennie who wrote THE book on seaplane training. The owner, Jon Brown, lived on my block. I knew the myths and legends and history of the base that was, coincidentally, celebrating its 40th year of operation. Familiar and newsworthy, this place taught stick and rudder flying in cloth-covered, slow-moving aircraft. This place humbled Air Force fighter pilots and thrilled private pilots. Brown’s Seaplane Base sat on the lakeside edge of the Winter Haven airport. It was where I learned to fly. As one of the few, the cheap and the brave who learned to fly a land plane at a seaplane base, this story felt like mine to tell. The editor didn’t care that I had never taken a lesson in a seaplane. He wanted me to capture the people and the place. Astronauts, celebrities and foreign pilots learned to fly seaplanes at Brown’s. Commander Kenneth Bowersox emailed from the International Space Station to his favorite instructor—at Brown’s. The fraternity of instructors at Brown’s connected seaplane pilots from around the globe and many dropped in for coffee and storytelling. Brown’s appeared in the credits of movies. On a trip to Alaska, my husband and I signed up for a seaplane ride over a glacier. The pilot had taught at Brown’s. Who could call such a fun assignment work? The gang gave an odd mix of reactions when interviewed since they knew me as a pilot and friend instead of as a writer. Somewhere between “spell my name right” and “is this on the record?” they shared their passion for the base. The instructors described the “Armstrong” starter on the J3-Cub as I dutifully jotted notes. It was only later when I saw them hand-prop the cub that I knew I’d been had. The dears. These are the same guys who tried to explain to me the tradition of cutting out the back of a shirt when someone solos. For women, they said straight-faced, they cut out the front. After the article appeared in WaterFlying magazine the gang at Brown’s gave me their sign of approval—they asked when the next article would be published. They, too, liked seeing their names in print (anywhere but the Post Office). I queried Pipers magazine because the seaplane base relied on Piper aircraft for 40 years of training. Pipers gladly bought the reprint. With guilty pleasure, I cashed the checks. After these articles were published, hurricanes Charley, Frances and Jeanne all passed within fifteen miles of Brown’s Seaplane Base. Frances took off the roof. Frances is also the name of the owner’s wife. Do you think I’ll let this aviation news pass without reporting on it? I’ve done the background research, I have the clips to show about the base. Lemme see. Now which aviation magazine would pay the best for such a story? Call me shameless, call me published. Call me if you’re an editor. __________________________ Joni M. Fisher, author of South of Justice, is a writer and an instrument-rated private pilot who lives in Central Florida and North Carolina. She is a reporter for General Aviation News when she isn’t working on her Compass Crimes Series. See her website: www.jonimfisher.com.