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Float Flying Adventure is Within Reach

As I stood on the ramp at the Canadian Bush Plane Museum to begin my pre-flight checks, I reflected on how much my flying had changed since I became a seaplane pilot less than two years ago. My Just Aircraft Highlander is an amateur-built (experimental) kit aircraft that I spent three years building in my spare time. It is a great tube and fabric STOL aircraft designed from the outset to be able to take a set of floats and makes an excellent floatplane. The Zenair 1450 amphibious floats had allowed me to land on the river and taxi up the ramp to the museum rather than land at an airport many miles away and have to arrange for a taxi to get to the bush plane museum.

I could spend a lot of time extoling the virtues of a great aircraft like the Highlander, but the biggest advantage and most significant change has been the addition of amphibious floats. When I’m not on floats, I like to fly on my 27” bush wheels and I didn’t want to lose too much of the rough terrain capability, so the amphibs had to be durable and withstand the occasional landing on semi-rugged terrain and grass airstrips.  I go to a lot of fly-ins at smaller private strips that would chew up the front wheels on some of the lighter floats. 

A friend of mine has commented to me several times how he would have given up flying years ago if he had not put his plane on floats. Every flight opens up another potential adventure.

Floats have allowed me to take my wife to secluded beaches, take my sons and several friends fishing to remote locations, do a bit of wilderness camping and even fly out for a hundred dollar hamburger or two at restaurants on the water that normally service boat traffic. By far the biggest advantage of flying on amphibious floats is the added safety of knowing the number of additional landing strips has increased exponentially, especially here in Ontario where there are so many lakes and rivers. Interestingly, as I become more comfortable over-flying larger bodies of water, I find myself staying much lower for the view of the scenery without the concerns I had in a land-based aircraft. Rock outcroppings, lighthouses, solitary islands and beautiful vistas all become part of the enjoyment of flying just a few hundred feet off the water when you are in a seaplane.

The Zenair amphibious kit is a great way for the average owner/pilot to be able to afford a great set of floats at a reasonable cost. The float building process is well documented in their on-line manual and although sometimes tedious with what seems like a million holes to drill and deburr, the step-by-step instructions make this kit well within the capabilities of any builder. Most of the rivets are sealed “pop rivet” style pulled rivets making construction relatively simple although a good pneumatic riveter is recommended since there are thousands of rivets to pull. Given Zenair’s reputation for quality products and great customer service the decision was easy for me. During the build process, Michael Heintz at Zenair in Midland was great to deal with and made sure any inventory, assembly or technical issues were addressed ASAP by his staff.

Float rigging was fairly simple using streamlined tubing supplied with the kit. All of the hardware including the cables, pulleys and other small parts required were supplied as part of the kit except for the Kitfox-style fittings that I required to adapt the float fittings to my Highlander mounting points, but those were also available from Zenair as an adapter kit. I did make a few small changes such as mounting the hydraulic pump in the passenger side float at the centre of balance. The only connections to the aircraft that way are the two brake lines and two electrical wires to operate the hydraulic pump, which makes the change-over back to wheels for the winter much easier. Other simple changes I made were the addition of traditional pump-out cups to the top of the floats and non-slip tape on the walkways.

Performance was only slightly changed with the addition of floats to my Highlander. Cruise speed with floats only slowed 2 knots and climb slowed by less than 100 ft/min. This loss is more than offset by the added versatility of being on amphibs., however, be prepared for your aircraft insurance premium to increase too.

Go for a flight with a seaplane pilot to learn what it’s like to fly on floats. Better yet, get a seaplane rating with a qualified seaplane instructor. I doubt you will ever regret it.

If the reason you fly is adventure, exploration or escaping to parts unknown, consider buying or even building a set of amphibious floats like I did. The added versatility opens up a whole new world of flying possibilities.

Dan Oldridge
Highlander on Zenair 1450 Amphibs.