Water, Water Everywhere: Water Babies

By Andrew Healey | May 1, 2009
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A glimpse at water landings taught to pilots able to take a long weekend on a Mediterranean island.

Wanna extend your flying skills in the Mediterranean sun? Where do I sign?

As our Editor-in-Chief Ernie Stephens pointed out in the March issue of R&W’s "Editor’s Notebook," one huge difference between the experience of learning to fly in the military and taking the Private Pilot License (PPL) route is that the military will routinely offer opportunities for its pilots to extend themselves. But in privately-financed aviation, you only get what you pay for.


As a result, a pilot must balance an opportunity to extend skills with the euro cost involved. And these days, just maintaining currency can be a challenge. But sometimes just the curiosity value can swing it the other way. And if you spend any time flying over lakes or coastline and you’ve only really practiced engine-offs to an airfield, you may often have wondered, "what if?"

During a weekend visit to a flying school within two hours of most of the continent on the sun-drenched Mediterranean island of Mallorca, you will find flying that few military or commercial pilots experience.

Since 1995 Sloane Helicopters, best known as a U.K. Robinson dealer, has operated a flying school from the airfield of San Bonet, four kilometers (2.5 miles) from Palma.

In the early days it could offer British students all-in-one PPL(H) packages at a significant cost and time saving over U.K. courses, and under all-but guaranteed perfect conditions. Nowadays, although the weather is still great, the growing dominance of the Euro and the weak British pound is leading it in a new training directions.

The bulk of budding pilots now come from within the Euro zone-three Germans, a Dutchman and a Dane (non-Euro) were under instruction. To continue to attract the Brits, it has broadened its syllabus to offer more specialized flying training. And the move seems to have worked.

During a weekend in the sun, you can practice confined areas, real-world limited power or autorotations. There’s a five-hour mountain flying course where pilots explore pinnacle and ridge-line approaches, and often the outer limits of the flight envelope, with a proper 4,500-foot mountain range as a playground. And now, for the first time in Europe, you can learn how to make the wet stuff your friend with Sloane’s Water Landings course.

Island Hopping

Jonny Greenall leads two other flying instructors and an ops manager at the San Bonet flying school. "Six of our eight R44s have floats, three with fixed and three pop-outs. We spend a lot of time flying above water, whether around Mallorca, over to [neighboring islands] Ibiza or Menorca, or even to mainland Spain for scheduled maintenance. I have a trip to Portugal and back with an owner planned for next month," explained Greenall. "So it seemed sensible to offer this as a specialist training opportunity. And since a good proportion of the R44s sold in the U.K. are Clippers, we figure their owners must at least have thought about how to land on water if something went wrong."

The first students have yet to sign up. Sloane has felt unable to market the course until all the permissions are in place. The courses are scheduled during weekends to attract owners who like to jet to the island on a Friday, concentrate on their flying without day-to-day work interruptions and return home on Monday. The newest addition to the program features ground-school, four hours of flying and two or three actual water landings.

In a nutshell, the ground instruction tells them how to prepare for a planned water landing, approach, power-down, power-up, takeoff and fly-away. (See course syllabus on page 53.) Then they transfer the instruction to dual flight-time and, finally, learn how to apply those skills if an unplanned situation arises.

"Out of the fixed-float ships, only the Clipper II is certified for water landings but we can use the two Clipper Is to practice approaches to a hover. There’s a weight limit of 2,400 pounds, but that’s only 100 pounds off MAUW. To minimize corrosion, we utilize one of several fresh-water lakes on the island; but we still prepare the helicopter before and wash it down thoroughly afterwards."

Taking the Plunge

First you learn to handle a Clipper with the fixed floats. Surprisingly, these only knock 10 knots off the helicopter’s cruise speed, so it will cruise quite happily at 110 knots. Be careful not to jolt the yaw pedals, as that can generate an unpleasant phenomenon known as adverse roll. It can also be slightly more challenging to hover, left-skid low, particularly in a crosswind.

But as any R44 pilot will tell you, it’s a joy to autorotate. Said Greenall, "lower the collective, set 70 knots in the green and, then you can concentrate on landing safely in the prevailing conditions. Deploy the floats below 80 knots and remember they take three seconds to inflate, which can seem like a long time if you leave it a bit late."

Under most circumstances you will aim to land on the water facing into wind. If in an emergency you have to land on the sea with a swell running, you may elect to head into that swell and thus minimize the threat of it rolling you over (but instead run the risk of a tail-strike). For training purposes to a sheltered lake, it’s the wind every time.

The most important points to remember, said Greenall, is to pick a fixed reference point within your field-of-view and aim, after flaring, to touch down with as little forward speed as possible. That’s to minimize the threat of digging in a skid-tip and flipping over. This technique is broadly the same as that for a conventional engine-off to the ground, but with some important variations.

"Visual cues are unreliable, particularly over calm water, so you need to keep an eye on that reference point-a tree or a rock on the shoreline for instance — for longer than you might over land. To avoid generating disorientating ripples or spray at the last minute, minimize time spent in the hover. In an emergency, with only Nr to keep you airborne, you obviously need to flare to wash off most of the groundspeed. You don’t get any ground effect over water, so you will need more lever to cushion the impact. A successful engine-off is always a balancing act, but it’s even more of one over the water."

If you do it right, touching down on water can be a strange sensation in that you don’t actually feel the moment of contact. Once you have stopped descending, if you slowly lower the collective and maintain 100 percent rpm, you can maintain heading using the cyclic and pedals. Obviously, if you lose power for real, you can only do this until they become ineffective. So, there are some interesting nuances.

"We teach the actual touchdown and lowering the collective to zero pitch, and then to close the throttle to idle while maintaining heading," said Greenall. "And there you are, bobbing along."

The floats inflate above the skids and semi-submerge, so the water will lap uncomfortably close to the door. However, that characteristic, plus the fact that the Robinson’s engine is situated low on the airframe, gives it a fairly low center of gravity and additional stability.

Float, Float On

Now safely on the surface, you must keep an eye on your position relative to the shore. Currents may be a factor and should be avoided, as they often lead to places you don’t want to be. The manual says you should consider deploying a sea anchor, me hearties!

Preparing for takeoff is the reverse procedure. You will need to counteract yaw from the moment you introduce collective pitch. Once off the surface, avoid water spray by making a "towering" climb, rather than skimming the surface.

Back at the airport, the aircrew make like ground crew and drain any water that might have accumulated inside the floats. Even though they have been operating to fresh water, they then wash and dry the whole aircraft.

As with any of the Sloane offerings, completing the Water Landings course will not qualify a pilot to do anything. But as Jonny Greenall said, anything that extends a pilot’s experience, removes uncertainties and encourages him or her to think ahead of the helicopter, is a worthwhile investment in his book.

"As with most training, you may never have to use what we teach but it’s nice to know that if the situation arises, you have an idea what to expect," explained Greenall. "These familiarization courses also provide a real confidence boost."

It remains to be seen whether this new business module becomes a commercial success. But, when it comes to flying helicopters, continuous training is the one aspect that ought to be recession-proof; in theory, anyway.

Sloane water operations course syllabus
Exercise 1 Flying characteristics with fixed or inflated floats
Exercise 2 Autorotations and emergency procedures with floats
Exercise 3

Briefing, pre-flight

Site recce, water approaches, landings and take-offs

Shutdown and checks after returning to land

Emergency water landings – heavy seas

Cost Euro 2,700 (USD3,600) including taxes

Robinson Kings

Sloane Helicopters has been operating in England for nearly 40 years. It represents Robinson and Agusta in the U.K. and Eire, and has sold more Robinson rotorcraft than any other distributor outside of the U.S. As well as maintenance and component overhaul services, its engineering department provides specialized cockpit and cabin designs, and integration service to U.K. police and air ambulance operators.

In the 14 years since the corporation opened its satellite operation in Mallorca, it has become a CAA approved Flight Training Organization, offering full training for the JAA PPL (H), as well as type conversion courses for the Robinson R44 and R22. It also holds a CAA Air Operators Certificate to undertake helicopter charter, sightseeing tours and aerial photography.

As well as water landings and mountain flying, Sloane offers refresher training in autorotations, emergency procedures, confined areas, navigation and limited power.

The current fleet:

  • 1 R22 Beta II

  • 2 R44 Raven I

  • 2 R44 Clipper I w/ fixed floats

  • 1 R44 Clipper II w/ fixed floats

  • 3 R44 Clipper II w/ pop-out floats

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