Aviation Safety Letter 2/2005

To the Letter: Floatplane Takeoff Too Close for Comfort

Dear Editor,

I was working on the balcony of the New Edinburgh Club boathouse, on the Ottawa River near downtown Ottawa, Ont., when I heard a floatplane start a takeoff in the distance. After a few seconds, the rising engine noise made me look across to see a floatplane just lifting off, heading southwest parallel to the shore. I was surprised that it immediately started a gentle left turn towards the south bank of the river. The river at this point is about 2 000 ft wide, and the wind was from the northwest at 5 kt.

After a few seconds, it was heading directly towards me, still below the level of the balcony in a 20-degree bank. It was close enough that I moved to an open doorway, prepared to dive inside if things got more interesting! The aircraft, which I recognized as an Aeronca, increased it's bank slightly, and I realized it would miss the building by only a small margin. The plane passed the boathouse going east, still below roof-level, about 50 yd from the balcony. The safety margin was slim, to say the least.

The plane passed the boathouse going east, still below roof-level, about 50 yd from the balcony.
Artist's impression of the event.

I calculated that a turn radius for 60 mph and 20 degrees of bank requires about 750 ft. A 135-degree turn (southwest to east) would need 1 300 ft. If the aircraft started 100 ft from the north bank of the river, and flew the turn for 25 s with a 5 kt drift to the southeast, we see that the remaining clearance is about 300 ft, since the boathouse is built on foundations 100 ft out into the river. For 65 mph, a more realistic speed for best climb, the turn needs 1 500 ft and the clearance at the boathouse shrinks to 100 ft; close to my estimate of 50 yd for the closest approach.

If there had been slightly more tailwind, the plane, the pilot, and this 100 year-old historic wooden building would have been toast or ashes, with another case of a floatplane failing to clear an obstacle. If this pilot was not scared by the close call, then he or she is in need of guidance.

John Firth, Ottawa, Ont.

Thank you, John, for this story. It should raise awareness for floatplane pilots who depart in congested areas, such as the confines of the Ottawa River near Rockcliffe, or many other similar spots. I would argue the possibility that this pilot intended to avoid the downtown core, and expedited a left-hand turn back east, rather than intentionally buzzing the boathouse. You are, nevertheless, correct that this was a very questionable manoeuvre, turning downwind at such a low altitude over water. A climbing right turn, into wind, to the north and over Gatineau would likely have been a much safer path. - Ed.

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