“Can you test fly our Ultra-Light Floatplane?” This was the question of Dylan Tantuico to me when we were having lunch at my hangar two weeks ago after tagging him along on one of my test flight of an Agusta helicopter.
I have just finished my dessert, I had an easy morning at work, was in a good mood and noticed that I haven’t done any kind of adventure that week that could possibly kill me so I said: “Yes, why not”. Dylan immediately paid for lunch and I did not tell him either that the last time I flew a float- plane was in the mid 80s. Of course, I was just seven years old then.
That Saturday, off we went to the Angeles City Flying Club (ACFC) airstrip at Tilimundok in Magalang, Pampanga. We drove because the airstrip was too short for the Beech Baron and our Cessna 152 just finished the annual inspection and was waiting for the airworthiness certificate to be signed. We stopped by the Expressway Shell station to fill up his Expedition’s fuel tank and two five-gallon containers in the trunk. “That is for the two airplanes and I am sure that we will get tired of flying even before we consume it” Dylan said. Gee, that was cheap! I am so used to having avgas and jet A-1 trucks driving by the hangar and emptying all our cash in the safe on a busy weekend.
I have never flown an ultra-light in my whole life except when I rode as a passenger twenty years ago at the Canlubang airstrip. After that flight, I promised that the smallest plane I would fly was my Piper Super Cub.
The X-Air is a French designed kit plane that my two good aviation friends, Mel Troth (manager of the Flying club and known to be the guru of Ultra-light airplanes in the Philippines) and Dylan Tantuico (rich businessman and former schoolmate who has turned Wilbur Wright and aerodynamic fanatic) have assembled. It has a maximum gross weight of 450 kilos (fuel, passenger, and pilot included). It is delivered to you in about 249 major pieces (which you have to assemble yourself!). A Jabiru 80 hp four-stroke engine powers it. If not for Dylan and Mel, I will never touch this aircraft even with a ten-foot pole. But since they supervised assembly and did the checks, a quick 360 inspection and I was ready to go.
They were weighing the aircraft when we got to the hangar. Bob McLeod, who was the club’s chief pilot walked by and said.” After my accident in the river with the Searey, I don’t think I am confident to do a test flight. The aircraft just broke into pieces after landing in the water and I had to swim out from the wreck” Uh- oh! What did I get myself into now? It was the first time that I felt very ‘mature’ and I started thinking about what can possibly happen. It dawned on me that I was not actually seven years old and had a lot of responsibility. I was not even sure of my life and medical insurance coverage. Then, the thought of my Ballooning accident in Japan during the World Championship in ’99 scared me more. I know that accidents happen when you least expect them! I walked around the airplane thinking that Indiana Joy must be getting to retirement age. Just as I turned around the tail, I saw Spike Nasmith who was another floatplane rated pilot who just arrived from the States. Hmmm, this could be my way out. Should I tell Dylan that I am volunteering to let Spike do the test flight if he wanted since he was more current? Too many things can go wrong with a homebuilt compared to a production airplane. I do all the maintenance test flights in all the “real” airplanes and helicopters that we service in my facility. They are of course certified aircraft. But the devil and the adventure spirit in me says that I should fly and satisfy my curiosity and feast on my confidence and success, that is, if I do not crash, wreck the airplane, or hurt myself.
By the time the plane was out of the hangar, everyone in the club was around us asking what time I was going. They were all getting their planes ready and wanted to fly formation with me. My old (literally and figuratively) friend George Watson was visiting from the States assured me that he would be flying alongside me all the way. I asked if he was ready to jump in the river to save me if the plane falls apart. He calmly apologized and said “friendship can only go so far you know”. I knew it! I have to live and be content with just their cheers and moral support. I should put a tire inner tube around my waist and be ready to swim back to shore by myself if anything happens.
By this time, all the ultra-light planes were running up their engines and the whole place was alive! The sound of the engines kind of reminded me of the starting line of the Formula races. But I said “WAIT!”. I’d like to see if I could fly the X-Air amphibian in land first before doing a water landing. I was not sure how it flew. After several take off and landings, Dylan’s squeaky voice in the radio said “easy huh” and suggested that we scout the landing spot and see if the area is clear and where the wind was coming from. I pointed the nose of the amphib X-Air to the east to check out the Pampanga River with four to six other colorful ultra-lights flying behind me.
The X-Air flew like a real airplane. It was easier to fly than I thought! It was great flying in an open cockpit! I could see Mt. Arayat on my right and everything was green below me. As we reached the Pampanga river, the wind was calm, there was a slight drizzle, and I made several low passes on the river to feel the airplane and how it reacted on turns, high pitch climbs, power on and power off descents. The Jabiro engine was humming like a bee and the controls were crisp and positive as a toggle switch…. I was ready!! I flew back to base and discussed what the plan was and explain to everyone what my intentions where. Nope, there was no chase boat on the river to get me if I crashed. And, nope, there was no ground crew to support me in case of emergency. I was on my own but Pampanga River, here I come!
I checked out my fuel and started the engine. After a few minutes, the whole armada of ultra-lights was flying east with me ready and anxious of what the outcome would be. After my take off, I gave a call to the rest of the group but my radio conked out on me. Is this a sign for me to go back? Nahhh, nothing can stop me now. Behind me was the lynching mob of six airplanes, so how can I disappoint them? The engines were roaring, the sun was starting to come out of the clouds, and as we reached the area, I felt that I was not in “Mekeni” country. The brown winding river, the water lilies, and the red soil made me feel I was exploring an estuary in the Amazon. As I made a low pass in the small village, they looked like an Indian tribe. The kids were in the riverbank, half naked watching me fly by. On the final approach, I flew by a long wooden canoe being paddled by a local villager. This was like a dream; my imagination was taking me half way around the world with a flying adventure eighty years back in time.
Wait a minute, was that a Carabao I just passed?? Yup, yup, yup, so wake up and concentrate on flying! The river was long enough so I had plenty of time to make a nice approach and continue entertaining my imagination. I reduced the power and my floats started to touch the water. It was a nice feeling skimming thru the water in a flying machine. I put on power and stick forward to get the floats back on the step. I tapped on the rudder to make sure I was in control. In just a few seconds I was out of the river and back on the air. Wow, it was great!! I always felt like an eagle when I flew the jets, felt like a humming bird when I flew helicopters, now I am a DUCK! I could see the other planes circling around me and I was sure they were all dying with envy. So I made two more touch and goes to observe the floats, the plane, and to assure myself that the good landing was not just a fluke.
As I did my third take-off, I placed my hands out of the plane to feel the spray of water from the floats. As I got airborne, I felt that I was very very lucky to have been one of the few flips to have the opportunity of flying seaplanes. I flew two classic seaplanes in the mid eighties–the Cub on floats and the Grumman Albatross flying boat. Seaplanes were not allowed to fly during the martial law years and I was the first one to fly a civilian seaplane in Philippine waters after a long period of time.
Acquiring them, flying them, and adventure flights I had in different destinations would need a book as thick as the bible for me to complete the story. Flying the old seaplanes was a romantic way of flying. The X-Air rekindled my romance with sea- planes.
To a lot of people, flying is a job. For me, flying is a passion. I could be flying a rocket to the moon, a modern chopper, an old classic, or even an ultra-light and I will always be having fun as long as I am in the air. It was a smooth touchdown at the Talimundok airstrip and as I taxied to the ramp, everyone was waiting to congratulate me. I had a smirk in my face as I walked to the clubhouse.
I got away with this flying adventure and have a story to tell.