Florida Foray – Part 3

Florida Foray – Part 3

I was feeling lucky that the next stop on the Florida Foray had fit into our travel plans. Being a Seaplane Pilots Association member, I’ve heard several times about the city of Tavares, “America’s Seaplane City,” and its  Seaplane-A-Palooza. We woke up to a perfect day. Beautiful sunshine and a light breeze. Perfect seaplane flying weather.

Tavares has an interesting story. In the late 2000’s, a city manager with an aviation background convinced the city leaders it needed a brand. Watching seaplanes come and go on Lake Dora every day, a decision was made. “America’s Seaplane City it would be. After all, there are more registered seaplane pilots in the state of Florida than any other state in the nation, including Alaska, and that number is growing every week. The city went all in. The signage, the lamp posts, even the park benches promote the effort.

They started by building a top-quality seaplane facility on Lake Dora in the heart of downtown. The base has all the things required for seaplane operations. Special seaplane docks, a grass beaching area, and an amphibian ramp to taxi up from the water. Avgas is also conveniently located. One of the best things about the base, that premiered in 2010, is it is located right downtown with several restaurants and hotels all within walking distance. The base has been a success and new additions include a children’s splash park with a seaplane theme and the addition of a new boat marina making even more room for aircraft. Recently, Jones Brothers Seaplane &Co. Air and Seaplane Adventures moved to the base and began operating flying tours and seaplane flight instruction. They are also doing transition training in Progressive Aerodyne’s Searey amphibian aircraft, which are manufactured in Tavares.

We did an interview with Matthew Elia, Tavares aviation manager.  I couldn’t wait to point out to him that he’s got to be the only airport manager at a city that doesn’t have an airport.

EAA videographer Scott Giese spent some time filming various seaplanes as they approached Lake Dora and gently landed and either docked, beached, or ramped. I think it’s the first-time Scott ever saw seaplane come out of the water under its own power and was kind of impressed. I just stood there and drooled.

We spent some time shooting some statics of various amphibian airplanes that were on the ramp area that included a Mermaid, Seabee, Cessna 180, Husky, Kodiak, Super Cub, and more. Twenty more aircraft of various types lined the docks and grass beaching areas.

The Seaplane Pilots Association’s Executive Director Steve McCaughey was giddy to talk to us about his newest purchase, a 1946 Cessna 140 on straight floats. He keeps it at his home and flew into work that day. He was proud to say he had purchased it for just $25,000  with the floats! Steve was promoting the fact that float flying doesn’t have to be crazy expensive. Straight floats are generally cheaper than amphibs and just as much fun.

We decided to get out of the sun and visit one of those nice open air restaurants right across the street for lunch. Luckily, the boss, Jim Busha, arrived from his early morning assignment to join us and pay for lunch.

The aluminum bleachers that were set up started to fill with spectators as it was time for some splash-in competition.  They were; time to take off, a cantaloupe drop and a spot splash (landing) contest. Three different categories of aircraft, or heats would take place.

I enjoyed watching the seaplanes take off on their timed runs. I knew it was important to find the sweet spot on the step of the float or hull. Rotate too early and you’ll dig the heels of the floats or hull and there goes your good take-off time. I couldn’t exactly tell you how much skill was required for the cantaloupe drop. I think a lot of it was just good communications with your cantaloupe bombardier and little bit a luck.

The spot splash (landing) competition created the biggest reaction from the crowd. Oohs, aahs and clapping could be heard. It was interesting to see the different approaches to the landing. Some pilots came in steep trying to round out at the bottom right on the flare at just the right point. Others came in low and slow.  I have to admit, most floated past the point of touchdown marked with a huge red buoy. I thought the owner of a Super Cub who flew all the way from the Wisconsin/Illinois border nailed it.

We shot a few more static airplanes and a few departures then it was time to call it a day. The crew had gotten quite a bit of sun. All in all, it was a perfect seaplane day. By my count there were 46 aircraft in attendance. Quite a success for the inaugural Seaplane-A-Palooza event.

It was time to get some dinner. It had been three nights since ’I’d had a good meal. Luckily there was a great dockside restaurant within walking distance of our hotel.

The next morning, I got up at 4 a.m. to shoot some sunrise shots. I was able to capture a Tavares Seaplane sign in total darkness and went to the base to shoot as the sun arose. Later, the team shot a few more video clips and Jim did an interview with the splash-in organizers, Bob Highley and Geoff Nye.

By noon of that day it was time to move to our next destination, Kissimmee, Florida, home of Stallion 51. The Mustang people!

It was quite an experience for me to finally be at Stallion 51. I had seen and read so much about them. I met the principles and got a quick tour. Unfortunately, it was time for a changing of the guard.  I would be headed back to Wisconsin due to a commitment back at EAA headquarters, and EAA’s Sara Nisler would come down to replace me. She would finish out the Foray to SUN ‘n FUN. 

I made my way back to Oshkosh, arriving home finally around 2:30 a.m. I was wiped out, sunburned, and a little dehydrated. The good news was I lost a few pounds on the trip.

We came away with great photos, footage, and stories, and it was worth every minute.

The next time you’re in Florida I encourage you to plan a stop in Pensacola at the National Naval Aviation Museum. It’s fantastic! Or, make an appointment to visit Spruce Creek — at least have lunch there. Stop by at America’s Seaplane City, Tavares, and check out the seaplanes. As far as Stallion 51 and the Mustangs, well, for many of us that will always be on ‘our bucket list.

I’m hoping next January, when it’s 18 degrees below zero and snowing outside, there’s a possibility we’ll be planning a Florida Foray 2!

This is the third in a series of three posts. Read part 1 | Read part 2

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J.T., EAA 258824, is EAA’s visual properties manager overseeing EAA’s award-winning photo and video areas. He has been a pilot for almost 35 years and is celebrating his 40th year of association with EAA. J.T. has owned three aircraft including a J-3 Cub he operated on wheels, skis, and floats.