Charles Welden, ATP, CFII, MEI, CFIG, Rotorcraft CFII
Chief Flight Instructor and Founder of WaterWings Seaplanes
I grew up boating and playing on Lake Martin in central Alabama. When I reached the age of 16, I became intrigued with the idea of flying because driving and boating were just not fun enough. I found a job parking cars to pay for my flight training at Bessemer Airport. I became a private pilot just after my 17th birthday. It wasn’t long before the idea of seaplanes began to interest me (I had seen a float plane parked at a dock near Willow Point on Lake Martin for years and thought it was extremely cool). Unfortunately, there were no means for me to actually accomplish float flying at the time. In 1996 I bought my first airplane, a 1966 Cessna 206, on wheels. In this airplane I achieved my instrument rating and had many adventures flying all over the southeast.
I finally tried float flying in 1997 in a J3 Cub. The nostalgia of the cub and the idea of float flying were very exciting. I showed up ready for adventure and learning. My experience was not what was expected. The instructor was a pushy, yelling, know-it-all type, and the experience was not the Margaritaville-in-flip-flops kind that I had hoped for. Nor was it a positive learning experience. It was boot camp with a drill sergeant instructor. No prep was done. I lost hope and did not complete my second day of training. Abuse was not the ticket that I had purchased. I knew that there had to be a better way.
Some years later I was hangar flying with a friend Bessemer Airport and I learned that this guy had a float plane for sale. It was a Cessna 150/150 on floats, and turned out to be the same 150 that I had seen as a youngster on Lake Martin. From my Cub experience I was a little wary of underpowered float planes, but this one had been upgraded to 150hp and had a STOL kit on it. I was easily talked into a test flight on Lake Guntersville in northern Alabama. Needless to say the plane was bought. I found an excellent instructor who took the time to really teach float flying. I had to import an examiner from the Nashville FSDO, who happened to fly water bombers and a Consolidated PBY on occasion.
After several years of enjoying the plane and wishing that I could share this love of flying floats with others, I recognized that it was not easy to get into seaplane flying if you live in Alabama or much of the country for that matter. There are very few seaplane schools and some of them are just factories pumping out ratings. Seaplane flying should be a fun learning adventure. The training should be enjoyable, informative, and it should leave the new seaplane Pilot with more than just a slip of paper and a merit badge. The new pilot should be left with cool stories, new skills, and a wanting for more. So I became a CFI.
That still left the area in need of an examiner. The local FSDO was able to appoint Gary Kiteley from Auburn with the authority to give Single Engine Sea check rides. All the elements were now in place to form WaterWings Seaplane School, and we have been providing new adventures ever since. I have thousands of hours giving seaplane training. I do it because I love it- the fun of flying, and the fun of introducing pilots to new worlds nearly unimaginable in a land plane. This is not a job for me- it is a lifestyle and a mission.
Eventually I wanted a plane for travel. I bought the Twin Comanche from the same guy that I purchased the Cessna 150 from. I spent a couple hundred hours getting to know the plane and the world of multi engine flying. The Twin Comanche is a great aircraft. It is very efficient for a twin and arguably the most efficient twin to buy and fly. It operates on a total 16 gallons an hour and flies at 160kts. I upgraded the avionics to very functional levels and made the plane a very nice learning and cross country platform, and now it is available for training and gaining/maintaining currency.
In 2005 I purchased a Piper Cub. This too was an eye opening experience. The Cub is a very sweet aircraft in just about every way. It is a simple airplane and a great trainer. I found the Cub an escape from the busy world of business and the complications of life. It flies really slowly. I noticed all kinds of interesting sites near the airport that I have flown over for the last 20 years. The open door and slow speed allow a view that cannot even be described. The limits of Plexiglas and lots of speed are epic. The Cub is the perfect plane to “just go fly” and you learn something every time. Sometimes that lesson is just humility. I again put in a couple hundred hours in the Cub to get competent enough to train in it and now I offer this piece of aviation history to the flying public for tailwheel training and currency.
In 2009 I found myself looking to broaden my horizons again. The Cub and the Cessna 150 had shown me that simple and slow flying was a very pleasing experience. How could we get simpler and even slower? For “simpler” I decided to start glider training in Sylacauga with the Sylacauga Soaring Society, now the Central Alabama Soaring Association, and I progressed to get my private, commercial, and CFIG ratings. If you want a taste of soaring then you should contact CASA or I for an introduction.
To go even slower than the Cub I choose helicopter training. This was a tough project, since there was not much of an organized training operation in the Birmingham area. I drove to Pell City and trained in a Hughes 269/TH55 helicopter with Greg Turley. This was a great challenge and a huge learning experience. You can do things in a chopper that are simply impossible any other way. I earned my private rating and found it tough to keep current in the chopper without a local rental ship available. I eventually bought into a Robinson R44. This is a really great ship. It has respectable airspeed, carries four, and this one is an instrument trainer. Again I went through all the ratings and now can offer private, commercial, instrument, ATP, and CFI training in the R44.
In 2011 I found the opportunity to purchase a 2000 Aviat Husky on Wipline amphibious floats. This has opened a bunch of new worlds as well. I take the Husky to land based fly-ins and airshows to spread the word about seaplane flying and its many facets. We can now operate out of regular land based airports and even offer ATP ratings in the Husky. The open door and window allow a cool cockpit even in the depths of an Alabama summer.
What’s next? Aerobatic training? We recently added a 2006 Super Decathlon to the available training aircraft and I have been hard at work learning the fine art of aerobatics.
I am a member of the Bessemer Pilots Association, the local EAA Chapter at Shelby County Airport, and President of the Shelby County Aircraft Association. I am also a member of NAFI, AOPA, EAA, and IAC.