Flying on floats: CFI and DPE Ben Shipps teaches seaplane ratings in Florida.
Interview by Yayeri van Baarsen
9 June 2021
I grew up hearing stories of how my grandparents met at an airport and shared an enthusiasm for aviation, which sparked my interest. My dad was a private pilot. When I was 18, I did an intro flight which I loved. I never knew it’d be possible to fly for a career though. Because of my physical challenges, getting my PPL took a year – most of that time was spent getting my medical certificate.
I’m the president of Jack Brown’s Seaplane Base in Winter Haven, Florida (USA). We have five Piper J3 Cubs, a Super Cub and a Maule, and specialise in secondary training, offering a two day, single-engine, sea rating course. Typically, we train between 400 and 500 new seaplane pilots each year. As my responsibilities in the company have increased, my flying has decreased, but I still fly about 500 hours a year, mostly check rides.
“There’s no brakes, and you’re dealing with boat traffic…”
We don’t fly great distances. In a 10-mile radius, there are more than 100 lakes, giving us lots of diversity. Seaplane flying is low and slow, with sometimes an alligator swimming beside your floats while taxying. It feels like stepping back in time and attracts our inner adventurer. A lot less regulated than other areas of aviation, it’s like the last frontier of flying. There are many more decisions – and mistakes – to make. Because our runway surface is ever-changing, seaplane pilots are constantly adapting to the environment. As I’ve always had to adapt in life, this mindset appeals to me.
Training new seaplane pilots is a big responsibility. There are no brakes on a seaplane, you’re dealing with boat traffic, and every landing is an off-airport landing. I love helping students maximise their potential and introducing them to the floatplane community. All our staff members share a passion for the wonderful world of floats, making for an upbeat working environment. What’s also important to me is that I can fly for work, yet come home to my family every day – there aren’t many jobs where that’s possible.
It wasn’t until I did my seaplane rating here at Jack Brown’s in 2010, that I knew I wanted to become a seaplane instructor. I immediately changed my major at Liberty University, obtaining my CPL and becoming a CFI with the sole goal of teaching in floatplanes. In 2011, I joined Jack Brown’s as a part-time instructor. In 2013, I did a summer season flying deHavilland Beavers in Alaska for a Part 135 charter company. Afterwards, I returned to Jack Brown’s.
In 2019, I became the designated pilot examiner and purchased the family business together with my wife.
A trip in 2012 with a student I’d trained, flying the small two-seat floatplane he’d got in Washington back to Florida. It was an amphibious aeroplane, so half of our stops were on water and half on paved runways. Crossing the entire country in 40 hours and flying over all the different terrain, I learned so much and made great memories.
I’m biased. F-57, the seaplane base where our flight school is located. It’s busy during the day, with lots of seaplanes coming by. In the evening it’s peaceful, sitting on a rocking chair, you can see ospreys diving for fish and watch the sun set over the lake.
Yes, and I often find myself doing exactly the same flying, with the only difference that I don’t get paid for it. My favourite part of aviation is sharing it, so I seldom fly alone. I mostly fly with friends or take my five-year-old son. I also co-own a Cherokee Six, which I use for visiting family in Venice, Florida.
Pursue something you enjoy, but do this with flexibility. Your best career path can be something you’d never considered. When I started flying, becoming a seaplane instructor wasn’t even on my radar!
Started current job: Joined 2011, became DPE at Jack Brown’s in 2019.
|Now flying:||Piper PA-J3 Cub, PA-18-150, Maule M-7 Super Rocket|
|Favourite aircraft:||deHavilland Beaver. “It’s a seaplane pilot’s airplane.”|
|Hours at job start:||Approx. 240 (in 2011) / Approx. 6,500 (in 2019)|
|Hours now:||Approx. 8,200|