By JONI M. FISHER
“Dream big or go home,” said Seaplane Pilots Association (SPA) Executive Director Steve McCaughey on plans to build a permanent home for the association.
He was talking to about 100 SPA members at the association’s annual meeting held Nov. 6 at Gilbert Field (KGIF) in Winter Haven, Florida.
The big news is that the SPA signed a 50-year lease agreement (at $1 per year) with the City of Winter Haven to build a new headquarters building and seaplane base.
The SPA plans to raise between $3 million and $5 million to build a two-story headquarters on the airport property near the end of runway 11/29 on airport land and along 1,000 feet of shoreline on Lake Hartridge. The land where the SPA headquarters will be built has a copse of oaks, bamboo, and saw palmetto palms inhabited by coyotes. At the other end of runway 11/29 sits Brown’s Seaplane Base on Lake Jesse.
In the 44-year history of the Seaplane Pilots Association, it first operated out of New Jersey, then as part of Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) in Frederick, Maryland, then it was housed in a small building on the SUN ‘N FUN grounds at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport (KLAL) in Florida. McCaughey said that during the annual SUN ‘N FUN Fly-In the little blue building is rented out to others, which frustrates SPA members who stop by looking for SPA staffers.
Plans for the new SPA headquarters include a floating dock on Lake Hartridge and a ramp large enough to accommodate a Caravan. But wait, the logistics challenge comes from the fact that between Lake Hartridge and the rest of the leased property where the headquarters building will be is a road. Amphibious aircraft, according to the plans, will be able to taxi from Lake Hartridge to the SPA building by pilot-activated gates and barriers that temporarily block car traffic like a railroad crossing.
McCaughey says that by designating the path from the lake to the airport grounds a taxiway, it will allow fuel trucks to drive to the lakefront to refuel seaplanes.
He added several engineering companies are donating their services to the project.
“Just the ground-level engineering would cost about $40,000,” McCaughey said, “but companies like AvCon of Leesburg are willing to donate their services to get this project done.”
He noted the association will break ground only after it can pay cash for the project.
He described the proposed headquarters building to “have a lodge feel, with a J-3 Cub hanging inside and a Bass-Pro Shop motif. We’d like to have each room with a different theme to represent different regions of seaplane activity. A Caribbean/Bahamas room, Alaska, Australia…”
Along with the plans for the headquarters, SPA members also voted on a board of directors, discussed advocacy programs to open Colorado waterways for seaplane use, and presented the fight to keep the Bellamy River in New Hampshire open as one of the few ice runways.
Earlier in the year the Australian Seaplane Pilots met with McCaughey about combining their organizations. The SPA is also planning a field trip to Lake Cuomo, Italy, for members to earn their Italian seaplane certification.
McCaughey identified the main challenge facing the SPA is attracting new and younger members, because the average member age is 65. To attract young pilots, the SPA gives out a dozen full-paid seaplane training scholarships each year based on merit. Interested students must be between 18 to 25 years old and must demonstrate community involvement and good grades.
Winter Haven’s new airport manager, Leo Treggi, planned a Seaplane Festival and Parade to showcase seaplanes in the community on Nov. 7. The event, which was open to the public, included a presentation by McCaughey and a caravan of seaplanes that took off from Winter Haven Airport. The seaplanes did splash and goes on seven lakes in Winter Haven and then returned to the airfield and Brown’s Seaplane Base. Food trucks and a live band were on site that evening. There was a modest turnout for Saturday’s event, possibly because the folks at SUN ‘n FUN were hosting the annual “When Pigs Fly South” barbecue and car show.
One of the pilots who participated in the seaplane parade was Shannon Moon of Long Island Air Park in North Carolina. She flew her SeaRey following instructor Ben Shipps in a J-3 Cub on floats from Brown’s Seaplane Base. Shannon graciously offered me a ride for the parade. During the splash and go on Lake Howard, a boat wake struck. Moon apologized and laughed that she could log it as two landings.