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  • Tara Crutchfield

Seaplane Capital of the World

“It’s magical,” said 25-year-old seaplane pilot Abbie Kellett. “You’ll see – it’s just amazing.” Some 500 feet below the yellow airframe of the Piper J3 Cub, semis and Suburbans move along like toy cars. Breaking up the cityscape and pastoral patchwork are deep blue-green lakes dotted between baseball fields, highways, hospitals, woods, and pastures. Like swollen raindrops, some lakes appear perfectly round from our vantage point and others less so. An alligator suns himself in the shallows of a marshy creek connecting two larger bodies. We circle around to see him a second time. I am exhilarated – uplifted in more ways than one.



“It was built in the 1940s. They were originally designed to train people for World War II,” said Kellett of the seaplane we were soon to board. Kellett is Assistant to the Director for the Seaplane Pilots Association (SPA) and an instructor at Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base. Dandelion is an apt enough description of the plane’s hue. It sits on 1500 straight floats allowing it to move through water as it does through the air. The 1940s Piper J3 Cub has undergone a complete restoration by Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base mechanics. The base take their seaplanes to a maximum altitude of 500 feet and hop from lake to lake like a frog spoiled for choice, springing across an unending esplanade of lily pads.


A small tractor pulled the seaplane to the base of a series of shallow wooden steps descending toward the water. The plane would then be hand-guided onto the ramp steps and eased into Lake Jessie, one of the northernmost lakes on The Chain. This scene has played out thousands of times and has made many a seaplane pilot since 1963.


Abbie Kellett earned her pilot’s license at just 17 and got her seaplane rating at Jack Brown’s as a Christmas present. She went to college for communications and landed a job (pun intended) in New York flying seaplanes off the East River into East Hampton. She returned home to Winter Haven, where she obtained her Certified Flight Instructor (CFI) certificate. Kellett has been a flight instructor at Jack Brown’s for two years and joined the SPA team as an assistant to the director in October 2020. For Kellett, love of flight is familial. Her father, Ken Kellett, is a Restoration Specialist at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, building and maintaining small aircraft from throughout history, mostly from WWI. “The small airplanes are kind of what I’m used to with dad,” she said.


How does Kellett like being a seaplane instructor? “It has its ups and downs.”



JACK BROWN’S SEAPLANE BASE

“The seaplane base was founded by Jack Brown in 1963,” began Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base owner and president, Ben Shipps. Founder Jack Brown began flying an Aeronca C-3 Floatplane on the Kanawha River in West Virginia. He took his piloting expertise with him into the military during World War II, in which he flew the Grumman “Flying Boats” and PBY’s. Brown worked as a civilian instructor and test pilot for the United States Air Force station in Central Florida after the war and eventually settled in Winter Haven, becoming the fixed base operator at the Winter Haven Airport.


“Jack’s affection for seaplanes gave him a grand vision for an overgrown area on Lake Jessie, located just southwest of the Winter Haven Airport. Jack launched a Piper J-3 Cub on floats to introduce a friend to the freedom of float flying, and a seed was planted for Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base,” according to their website. Brown ran the seaplane base for twelve years until his passing in 1975. The business was passed on to his oldest son, Jon Brown. After 42 years of operating the base, Jon Brown would sell the business in 2019 to his son-in-law, Ben Shipps.


“I had the dream of going to Alaska. At the time, I was a private pilot with a restricted medical, and I couldn’t go fly commercially there, but I wanted to go out there for a summer adventure and work the line and fuel airplanes,” said Shipps of what led him to pursue his seaplane rating. Not too far from his home in Venice, Florida, Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base was the logical choice for training.


“That seaplane rating at Jack Brown’s led to a job offer if I ever got my CFI, that I could come teach here,” he said. Shipps earned his rating in the summer of 2010 and changed his major in school to become a commercial pilot and CFI to come back and teach at the base. He started instructing full-time in the summer of 2011, the same year he was introduced to Jon Brown’s youngest daughter. The two would go on to marry, and Brown would eventually approach Shipps about taking over the family business. In 2018, he became an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner and bought Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base from Jon in 2019. Jack Brown’s may not be the largest seaplane base by size, but it does train more pilots than any other base in the world. Some 25,000 pilots have been trained to fly seaplanes at the Lake Jessie base throughout its almost sixty-year history, with around 450 to 500 pilots training there annually. Their fleet includes five Piper J3 Cubs, a Piper Super Cub (with a second Super Cub being assembled by their mechanics), an M-7-235 Super Rocket, and a recently acquired ICON A5.


Shipps attributes relatively idle airspace and abundance of freshwater lakes to what makes Winter Haven ideal for such an illustrious seaplane training base. “We can launch out of our lake here and go less than half a mile in any direction we have other lakes adjacent to it,” he said. There are well over 500 naturally freshwater lakes in Polk County, and within the ten-mile radius around Winter Haven Regional Airport, instructors at the seaplane base have over 100 bodies of water to use for training.



THE SEAPLANE PILOTS ASSOCIATION

Down the road from Jack’s Seaplane Base is the Winter Haven Regional Airport at Gilbert Field. Last year, The Seaplane Pilots Association (SPA) moved from Lakeland to the airport in Winter Haven, where they plan to build their world headquarters. “This is an incredibly seaplane-friendly community in Winter Haven. The city council and the mayor have always been incredibly supportive of the seaplane community here, which makes it unique and wonderful,” said SPA executive director Steven McCaughey.


The SPA was founded in 1972, celebrating its 50th anniversary next year. Their mission is simple – ‘protect and promote water flying.’ The SPA is an international organization, the only one of its kind, “solely focused on representing the interests of seaplane pilots, owners, and operators,” according to their website. It goes on to note, “SPA is dedicated to promoting safe seaplane operations, and to protecting the sharing of our nation’s waterways with other user groups.”


FLYING FEVER SINCE FIFTH GRADE

Fort Lauderdale native Steven McCaughey became the Seaplane Pilots Association executive director ten years ago. He had been a member of the organization 25 years before that. He started flying to Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in 1983, with Jon Brown having signed three of his licenses over the years.


McCaughey’s aviation addiction started in the fifth grade with his best friend, Michael Wagner. “His father was an airline pilot for National Airlines and flew from Miami to Lima, Peru, as his route. For some reason, that planted an unbelievable seed in me,” said McCaughey. “I started memorizing every statistical data point of every airline airplane made that the airlines were flying – how many passengers, what the engines were, wingspan, length, weight – everything about the airplane.”


At age ten, he hand-typed 200 letters to every airline of which he could get a name and address. The letter went something like this: “My name is Steve McCaughey. I’d like to pursue aviation as a living. I’m ten years old. I’d appreciate anything you could send me or any guidance you could give me to help me pursue my path.” McCaughey got 146 responses, three of which were personal letters from the CEOs of Delta, Braniff International Airways, and Eastern Airlines.


In his late teens, McCaughey decided he didn’t want to fly the airlines. He wanted to pursue more ‘interesting, hands-on flying.’ He gravitated towards aerobatics, tailwheel, warbirds, and historical airplanes and seaplanes. McCaughey went into special operations for the air force. Coming out of the military, he and his wife used their engineering backgrounds to design rocket components and work on deep-dive submarines. He left his own company to become the executive director of the SPA.



ADVOCACY FOR FAIR AND EQUAL ACCESS

Current SPA advocacy focuses include seaplane safety, protecting waterway access and saving seaplane bases, invasive species, environmental issues, promoting the next generation of seaplane pilots, and educating resource managers, policymakers, and the general public about seaplanes.


The SPA has some 5-6k members internationally. With a modest staff, the organization relies on its many volunteers, also known as field directors. “Volunteers are the bread and butter – they are the backbone,” said Kellett. “Being a field director is so important. What those people do is pretty amazing. They’re setting up events, they’re doing safety groups, they’re talking to local politicians, trying to get legislation in favor of seaplanes, and collecting membership because there is strength in numbers.”


According to McCaughey, the SPA wants to protect and expand waterway access for seaplanes and protect pilots from a safety aspect. A large part of that, says the executive director, is educating those in charge of regulating waterways. “Most of what we’re confronted with as opposition is due to lack of understanding. Very few people from the regulator side know anything about seaplanes.” Many assumptions made about seaplanes involve pollution of water, noise, the transmission of invasive species, hazard to public safety, and that boats and seaplanes can’t operate safely in the same water. This is all a lack of understanding posit the SPA. The difference, McCaughey says, between the seaplane and boating communities is that you can buy a boat and launch it, and you’re on your way as a boater. “By the time you get a seaplane license, most of the pilots have invested about sixty thousand dollars in training on average.”


In addition to a monetary investment, there is a significant investment of time. To obtain a private pilot’s license requires an average of 60 to 85 hours. “The level of experience that we have going into the water to operate where we’re dealing with boats, we generally take 100 percent responsibility for avoidance and safety. We don’t put any burden on the controlling agencies. We don’t put any burden on the boaters. We’re going to take the burden to make sure that we’re operating safely. We’re trained to do that, unlike the typical boater,” said McCaughey.


“With all the regulators and groups that we work with, we want to be a sincere partner,” he continued. “We go in and say, ‘We’re going to partner with you, and we’re going to look at the data, and if we don’t have the data, we’re going to try to find the data and then if we need to make changes we’re going to try to engineer ways to make those changes.”


In answer to the perception that seaplanes produce excessive noise, the organization initiated noise studies. “It’s easy to identify because you hear the noise, and you see the airplane taking off. But what people don’t realize is you’re talking about 18 to 40 seconds where you have that noise footprint,” he said. That initial noise spike is minute in comparison when looking at a composite noise footprint of, say, a motorcycle idling, a ski boat on the lake all day, or someone mowing the lawn. “You get that spike of noise, but you don’t have the duration, so your actual footprint is much different than other activities,” said McCaughey of seaplanes.


The perception that seaplanes aren’t safe is another relative fallacy when looking at other user groups, says McCaughey. The SPA obtains a detailed annual report from the U.S. Coast Guard measuring all on-water accidents. In almost every state annually, there are more fatalities involving boats than seaplanes. And as far as boating accidents involving seaplanes, it’s virtually unheard of, said the executive director. “Boaters hit boaters. We don’t hit boaters.”


“My job is to go to the regulators and the communities and bring this message home. This isn’t our data; this is U.S. Coast Guard data, and they’re measuring all on-water accidents. We don’t show up in the report usually because we’re not even a measurable number,” he said.


In addition to advocacy work and providing resources for their members, the SPA conducts some fifty workshops each year from Alaska to Australia. Six years ago, the SPA began hosting exclusive seaplane excursions for members. In Lake Como, Italy, “We would park up on a beach and have lunch at an Italian villa on the side of the lake, and you’ve got the Swiss Alps behind you, and you’re looking across the lake to the rose garden at the Bellagio,” said McCaughey. “I wanted to create the adventure of a lifetime for our members where we could take a small group of our members, 35 to 65 people, and give them an epic adventure that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”


To promote future seaplane pilots, the SPA awards several scholarships annually. These include the Tyler Orsow/ Chuck Kimes Memorial Seaplane Rating Scholarship and the LIFT (Ladies in Flight Training) Scholarship, with plans to continue expanding their scholarship programs. “Our goal is to award twelve zero-cost seaplane ratings per year to people based on achievement,” said the executive director. Abbie Kellett discussed the LIFT Scholarship as a response to the low number of female seaplane pilots – just three percent. “A lot of it is that they don’t know it’s an option for them. It’s not that anyone is keeping them from flying, but they just don’t know that it’s a viable option,” she said. The first-ever LIFT Scholarship was awarded last month.


“We want to be a positive force,” said McCaughey. Being a good neighbor is paramount to this aviation advocacy group. “We want to make sure that our presence is an asset. We want to bring the community more into our world, and we also want to be an active and vibrant part of the community,” said the Seaplane Pilots Association executive director.


Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base

2704 US-92, Winter Haven

(863) 956-2243

FB @Jack Browns Seaplane Base

IG @browns_seaplane


The Seaplane Pilots Association

2072 US Highway 92, Winter Haven

(863) 701-7979

FB @SeaplanePilotsAssociation

IG @seaplanepilotsassociation


Photography by Amy Sexson

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