Setting up your traffic pattern in a seaplane may be a bit different than the aircraft you are used to. As with any aircraft, we’d prefer to always fly it at an altitude and direction that would allow us to make a safe landing in the event of a power loss. For a seaplane, this means higher and tighter than it’s landplane counterpart, as the additional drag of floats, rigging, or just the ungainly shape of a hull means the aircraft is likely to have a poor glide ratio, and will most likely have a glide ratio similar to that of a brick or cement block (either of those glide very poorly).
Choosing whether to fly left or right traffic (assuming it is not otherwise denoted on the chart) will depend on things such as obstacles, your visibility to the landing site, and noise abatement (we always try to be good neighbors when operating seaplanes). The most important thing to determine before setting up your traffic pattern is the wind direction and speed.
Here are some tips:
- There is going to be a glassy band of slick water on the upwind side of a lake
- Wind “streaks” that are parallel to the wind begin to show on the surface between 6 – 10 knots
- Whitecaps may appear starting at 10 knots and become frequent at 12 – 16 knots
- Waves are generally perpendicular to the wind
- To determine which way along the wind streaks the wind is blowing, reference your ground speed on GPS, look for the glassy band of water near shore, and look for which way the waves “curve” or “bend” from the wind.
- USE ALL CLUES (smoke, trees, water, flags, boats at anchor, etc.) DO NOT make the mistake of using too few clues and landing 180 degrees to the wind (do not land downwind).
When setting up your traffic pattern, keep in mind you do not want to land somewhere without first overflying the surface and inspecting for obstacles, shallow spots, fishing boats, or other hazards. If you are sitting in the left seat of a side-by-side seating aircraft, you will likely want to offset your inspection pass slightly to the right of where you plan to land so that you do not obstruct your view of the waterway with your airframe.