Airplanes: Glassy Water Landings

October 16, 2006 by  
Filed under Features

We haven’t had much of a summer in this northern country. The leaves are already changing and I can count on two hands the number of calm, warm days we’ve had since spring. For the floatplane pilots around here, that’s not entirely a bad thing. After all, a little wind is great for takeoffs and landings, and calm days bring glassy water. Glassy water makes depth perception nearly impossible, often resulting in bone jarring or lethal landings.

This was brought home to me recently during one of the few calm days we’ve had. A floatplane came in to land on the river behind my cabin despite the glassy water conditions and the pilot’s minimal experience on floats. Obviously, the lack of wind doesn’t make the landing any easier. When the plane dropped toward the water, the pilot added a surge of power to slow the descent. I listened to the RPM’s drop as he then powered to idle and continued the landing. Again the aircraft descended too quickly, and a few moments later, it slammed onto the water. It yawed violently to the side before the rudders dug in and he got the plane under control. Luckily for him, what could have been a tragedy became instead an embarrassing memory.

It got me thinking: what’s the best method for landing on glassy water? Most agree that it requires a power-on landing. Many pilots set the power to a specific RPM and then maintain a predetermined speed in the descent. With this method, you’re never certain when you’ll touch down—the secret is to be patient and simply wait for it to happen. Others will toss items out the window in an effort to create depth perception.

Later that same afternoon, with the conditions just as glassy, a very experienced floatplane pilot came in for a landing. All the thousands of hours he’d logged on floats showed in the way he deftly maintained a constant rate of descent. It created the illusion that the water was gently rising to meet the plane. The floats touched down softly with a textbook perfect landing. Those who didn’t know better wouldn’t have realized he’d just done an extraordinary thing.

Maybe that’s the secret to landing on glassy water: practice.

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