TECH CORNER: What’s so hard about flying a floatplane?

The differences between a floatplane and a wheeled airplane seem pretty obvious. But when it comes to actually flying and landing on the water, there is a lot more beneath the surface. MAF pilot Brad Hopkins shares what it’s like to navigate a floatplane on and above the wild, winding rivers of Kalimantan.

Photo by Isaac Rogers.

“Float flying is fun but very stressful, particularly on rivers, particularly in Borneo,” said Brad. “I would say it would be akin to landing on a busy interstate. That’s how dynamic it is.”

But once the floatplane lands, the fun is just beginning …

“Actually, it gets more stressful after you land than when you’re flying,” said Brad. “Oftentimes, if you’re a pilot of a wheeled plane, once you land, you breathe a sigh of relief, taxi in, shut down, and you’re good. Not so for a float pilot.

“Your senses raise, and your stress goes up when you’re on the water because now you’re a boat, and there are currents, sand bars, cables, ropes, gold diggers, rocks, floating wood, and big trees that you can get caught up in. And there’s a dock you have to find. Sometimes there’s no dock. What are you going to do?”

Photo by Isaac Rogers.

Unlike airstrips, rivers are constantly changing—landing on a stretch of river is never the same day to day. Water levels rise and fall, and underwater hazards are a constant threat. One day, a floatplane might be able to touch down on a particular spot, but on another day the water could be too low, and then the pilot must find another section of river on which to touch down.

And the stakes are high. One mistake can mean a several-day journey back to the base to get the tools needed to retrieve the floatplane.

But the risk is worth it for Brad and other MAF pilots to land the floatplane on the remote waterways of Kalimantan. Without them, the people living on the banks of these rivers would be cut off from medical care, supplies, and the hope of the Gospel.


Story originally appeared in the November 2017 issue of FlightWatch (Vol. 5)

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