PM steps aboard a flying rubber duck

  • The FlyingDuck, made by Italian manufacturer Polaris, effectively combines a microlight and rigid inflatable boat (RIB) to create an affordable flying boat. PM takes the only one in the country for a spin over Saldanha Bay. Image credit: Sean Woods
  • Flying instructor Johann Froneman performs a quick safety check before taking off from the calm water of Saldanha Bay. Photo by Sean Woods
  • A rotax 582 engine gives this quirky bird a maximum flying speed of 73 km/h Photo by Sean Woods
  • Retractable wheels allow the FlyingDuck to transition between land and sea modes while in flight. Photo by Sean Woods
  • Froneman performs a radio check before we take off from Saldanha Airport and head for the bay. Photo by Sean Woods
  • With its 100 kg fuel payload, the FlyingDuck can remain airborne for up to 6 hours. Photo by Sean Woods
Date:21 November 2013 Author: Sean Woods Tags:, , ,

Boldy going where no rubber duck has been before

Is it a boat? A plane? Nope – just your average flying inflatable boat, or fib. Meet the FlyingDuck, a dual-purpose machine that fills a small and distinctly unusual niche that didn’t exist 20 years ago. We head up the Cape’s West Coast to Saldanha Bay and spread our wings… 

Some problems are more fun to solve than others. Consider the challenge faced by Cape Town-based Chris Engelbrecht, a trainee pilot and frequent visitor to an idyllic islet off the coast of Mozambique, where he enjoys a small piece of heaven in the form of a jetty, a houseboat and a 39-foot Leopard power catamaran.

So where’s the problem? It’s all about access, or more accurately, the lack thereof. Chris’s favourite getaway is located about 40 km off the Mozambican coast, and getting there from the mainland can be a real pain. A fast rigid inflatable boat (RIB) would seem the obvious choice, but as Engelbrecht explains, even this isn’t ideal: “Because there’s a huge tidal range, the sea can become very shallow. On one occasion, the trip took me nine hours and I had to negotiate sandbanks for virtually the entire night. In perfect conditions, it can be done in 40 minutes, but your kidneys take a real hammering – it’s rough.”

Conversely, the FlyingDuck can get him there in about 15 minutes, with minimal fuss and no hammering at all. But that’s only part of the story. As Engelbrecht sees it, getting there is only the start of the adventure, because once there, he’ll be able to play to his heart’s content with what he regards as the “ultimate toy”.

His enthusiasm has no bounds: “The water in the bay is utterly flat and the weather’s perfect. I envisage lots of fun times, with me taking friends on awesome aerial tours of the islands.”

Certified flyer
Although the Italian-made FlyingDuck is still a novelty in South Africa, it’s no stranger to Mediterranean skies – especially in island-strewn areas such as those off the coast of Greece. It’s been in production since 1996, so the technology is proven and mature.

Identifying your ideal flying boat is easy, but it gets a little more complicated when you address the practicalities – for example, getting a completely unfamiliar aircraft cleared by the authorities. Next, you need to find someone who can teach you to fly it.

Enter Johann Froneman, an experienced flight instructor with many hours under his belt on fixed wings, trikes and gyrocopters, and the energetic backbone of Saldanha Airport. He manages the airport property, runs the flight school, and maintains and services his clients’ aircraft. His base of operations is located just a short hop from the calm, sheltered waters of Saldanha Bay, making it the perfect location for Engelbrecht’s flying tuition and, incidentally, a convenient place for the authorities to type-certify the FlyingDuck.

Before assuming his instructor duties, Froneman spent two weeks in Italy, where he underwent flight and maintenance training at the Polaris factory. Back in South Africa, he was full of praise for the FlyingDuck’s robust design and forgiving nature: “It’s a very pilot-friendly, docile flyer. But what I enjoy the most is that you have the whole sea as your landing strip, which gives you an incredible sense of freedom.”

Polaris, founded in 1982 by a group of hang-gliding enthusiasts, has always been about recreational flying. It soon became one of Europe’s leading wing manufacturers, and by 1985, with an eye on the growing motorised hang-glider market, it had opened a motor division. That led to manufacturing reinforced wings for power trikes and, ultimately, to the production of complete flying machines.

Since microlights don’t require much take-off or landing space and have very low stall speeds, it was probably inevitable that someone at Polaris would eventually come up with a ground breaking concept: “Hey! Why don’t we strap a rubber duck to one of our trikes?” Polaris duly teamed up with respected RIB manufacturer Lomac Nautica and the two companies began collaborating on a design for the perfect flying hull. A monohull was everyone’s first choice. As Engelbrecht tells it, pontoons and catamaran hulls weren’t even considered because they were deemed too unstable for take-offs and landings in anything other than ideal conditions.

Lomac’s designers quickly determined that the thrust from a trike’s motor delivered from an elevated point in the air (as opposed to low down and under water) caused ordinary rubber duck hulls to dig their bows into the water – which was exactly what they didn’t want. Their solution: increase the volume in the bow to compensate for the propeller’s thrust, even when full throttle was applied on take-off. They also sharpened the bow’s V shape to improve the boat’s performance in choppy water. Lateral steps were incorporated into the stern section and longitudinal steps into the bow; their job was to counter the water’s “suction” effect on the hull.

Finally, they devised retractable wheels (available as an optional extra), allowing the FlyingDuck to transition between land and sea modes while in flight.

Getting high
Having heard Froneman enthuse over water take-offs and landings on more than one occasion, I was keen to experience it for myself. His safety briefing included an interesting twist: “Make sure your seatbelt’s unfastened when we’re flying over the water.” (Clearly, crashing into the drink while strapped into your seat is a bad idea.)

I watched as he let go of the control arm to manually haul in the wheels. Okaaay… After a flurry of activity – this involved the tugging of various ropes while keeping a sharp eye on our progress – we settled into the flight. Below me was a tranquil farmland dotted with cows and colourful bursts of West Coast flowers. Ahead, the silver-grey sheen of Saldanha Bay grew ever larger on the horizon. Soaring over the bay, with a bird’s-eye view of the shipping activity far below, was a rare and memorable treat, as was the landing – as gentle as the fall of thistledown, with a barely perceptible transition from air to water – a few minutes later. It was still early in the morning, so the wind hadn’t picked up, and the water was like glass. It was the gentlest landing I’ve ever experienced.

For the record, taking off is no less smooth. Rather than having to focus on a narrow strip of runway, you’re free to pick your ideal take-off line. The sense of space is indescribable, exhilarating. Although I didn’t experience it myself, I’m assured the FlyingDuck can withstand a fair degree of rough treatment.

Froneman elaborates: “It will easily handle metre-high waves. You just push the bar forward to create maximum lift and drag then hit full throttle. You get klapped, though – it’s like driving over a badly corrugated dirt road. But the FlyingDuck can handle it.”

Back at the hangar, flight over, Froneman casually appends another item to his flying machine’s already formidable list of abilities: “It’s also a great fishing boat. You can put it down wherever you want, and once there, you’ve got this huge sombrero over your head to shield you from the sun.”

ENGINE: Rotax 582
FUEL CAPACITY: 100 litres
FUEL BURN RATE: 15 litres/hour
WING AREA: 19,6 metres squared
MAX PITCH ANGLE: 30 degrees
MAX BANK ANGLE: 60 degrees
PRICE: about R330 000

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