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Float-flying season is a special time

Rick Mercil1 / 2
A floatplane moored at the dock on a lake surrounded by towering pine trees and a rocky shoreline is a picture of wilderness beauty. (Photo courtesy of Rick Mercil)2 / 2

Bush planes are the workhorses of the North, conjuring up images of hunting and fishing adventures of the variety many people put on their bucket lists.

There's a romanticism to flying a bush plane that's difficult to put into words.

Helping people learn to fly floatplanes has been a way of life for Rick Mercil, an avid outdoorsman in his own right, for nearly 40 years.

In the story below, Mercil, of Grand Forks, shares some of the joys and challenges he experienced this past summer as an instructor working with both experienced and novice pilots as they studied to obtain their floatplane certification.

By Rick Mercil

The joys of flying typically bloom in the summer for most pilots. They finally open their hangar, get some light to shine on that bird and clean off the layer of dust that forms from months of hibernation.

For me, it's a little different. My Piper Super Cub stays on its floats all winter. It makes its way into the shop two or three times throughout the winter for minor maintenance or a modification here and there. The Cub is a working airplane, and winter is a time to get it tuned up and dialed in for another float-flying season.

The float-flying season is special for me. It is fulfilling a dream of having a working airplane of my own. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would have my own airplane, much less a Super Cub on amphibious floats. The Super Cub was one of the first original bush planes. I use this airplane to teach other pilots the joys of float flying. A short course covering takeoff and landing techniques, as well as various water maneuvers, culminates in an endorsement for them to take a Federal Aviation Administration check ride.

Great students

This summer was filled with great students. There was Mike Moe, a retired Delta captain of more than 30 years. Seeing Mike wiggle his way into the small cockpit of the Cub was enough to get me to chuckle in the early cool May mornings. Moe had a level of enthusiasm that pushed me as an instructor pilot to make sure his experience was special. Going from an Airbus A320 jet airline to a Super Cub had its challenges. It wasn't without some encouragement during this transition that my instructional experience was tested. But Moe was a true professional pilot, and he studied hard. His smile never left his face throughout the training process. Needless to say, it was a lot bigger when he returned from the check ride. He nailed it.

There was Todd Yahna, a farmer. Yahna was a natural stick-and-rudder guy. He was one of those students you only had to tell once, and he was able to process the required inputs to get the task completed to an acceptable standard. Yahna was so easy going it was hard to tell if he was having fun. When he came out of the room where he had done the oral portion of the exam with a smile, I knew he was on track for a good flight check. Once the flight check was completed, he too taxied up to the hangar. I met him and the examiner, and they both gave a thumbs-up, and smiles filled all our faces. I could see on Yahna's face he went from farmer to bush pilot, if only for that brief moment in time. It was priceless.

Kim Shrock and Ken Ryan were buddies from Alexandria, Minn., and tackled the rating together. They studied hard and came super prepared. Both own airplanes and both gave 100 percent in their training. A little older than average, they had developed their own style of flying. I found I had to recondition some behaviors, but they accepted the instruction, made the necessary adjustments and both passed their check rides with flying colors. It was great to see older guys challenge themselves with a new rating. These guys are special!

My next students were Ross Krinsberg and Dawn Cook. Ross is a flight Instructor working toward building hours to get an airline job. Dawn is a Kindergarten teacher and received a scholarship from the Wipaire Float manufacturing to add a commercial seaplane rating to her existing pilot certificate. Krinsberg was one of those students who as used to studying. He not only read and retained all my study material but challenged me on some interesting points. But with 39 years under my belt, I always save a few tidbits of knowledge to counter guys like Ross. We had good exchanges back and forth and his flying was spot on. We made minor adjustments along the way and progressed at each lesson. Ross pounded out the rating in just a couple of days.

Dawn Cook was special. She was quiet but self-assured. She had been getting her various pilot ratings over the last few years so she was use to receiving instruction. However, what I wanted more than anything was to see Cook become more assertive. She had become use to having someone next to her giving direction, such as an instructor. So we worked on having her become more of the pilot-in-command, flying the airplane instead of letting the airplane fly her.

In the end, I told her to pretend she was mad at her husband—and that worked. Cook took control and never gave it back. Learning how to fly floats was a byproduct of our instruction; I really think she became a better pilot when she realized she was a capable and confident pilot in command of the airplane. She came back after her check with the same smile I had seen on other students. I was so proud, and knowing she is going to share the experience with her kindergarten students makes it more than special.

In the heat of August, Dr. Matt started his training. A 150-hour pilot, Matt had a great attitude and a zest for life. He jumped in with both feet. I noticed immediately he was a bit preoccupied. Something was interfering with the learning process, and we needed to identify this barrier.

The second lesson was similar to the first: A struggle to get control and establish the importance of acting as pilot-in-command.

Before our third flight, I sat Matt down, and we visited about his busy work schedule. I realized he had his plate full with patients.

I also learned his business partner at the clinic had just passed away. We visited about this and how it was influencing his performance. It was a great lesson for both of us.

The opportunity to see how stress can impact performance was clear. We both agreed to put the rating on hold for a few weeks and return in the early fall toward the end of the float-flying season. That decision alone shows Dr. Matt's professionalism and supports my impression that he will be a fun student and a great seaplane pilot.

A new challenge

As the summer months came to an end and the trees started to change colors, a young farmer and spray pilot named Aaron Peterson came in and wanted a float rating. Peterson had a very interesting issue—he was hearing impaired.

This presented a new challenge for me as a flight instructor. In my 39 years, I had never encountered a challenge quite like this in the cockpit. I acquired a small dry erase whiteboard and away we went.

Peterson was a good stick. It was obvious his crop spraying skills translated to float flying, and he handled the airplane with confidence. I require my students to confirm the landing gear position on downwind, base and final legs of the landing pattern with a call out of "four blue lights, gear up for water landing—confirm."

Peterson and I worked out a different system; he would hold up four fingers (four blue lights), and I would tap his shoulder confirming the landing gear position. I went through two dry erase markers during our training but it was worth it. He did a great job.

The float-flying season is winding down, and so is my student load. It was another year of giving pilots an opportunity to dream a little. To splash down on a quiet lake somewhere and imagine themselves as "that crazy bush pilot" warms my heart. Each year, I wonder who is going to challenge themselves and add this pilot rating to their certificate, and every year I get a group of great students from all walks of life.

How do I sum it all up? "I love this stuff"—it's a dream come true. I'm a bush pilot, even if it's only in my own mind.