Dave Wiley, SPA Pilot of the Year
Interview on December 5, 1999
Written by Aron Faegre, Photography by Aron Faegre

Dave Wiley was selected by the Seaplane Pilots Association as the "Seaplane Pilot of the Year" in the fall of 1999. Dave has operated Wiley's Seaplanes at his home on the Willamette River near Portland for over 30 years. Besides being an FAA Designated Examiner and Accident Prevention Counselor, he has fourteen different instructor ratings and designations, along with the A&P (airframe and powerplant) and IA (inspection authority) mechanics licenses. Dave's teaching experience has ranged from instructing 15 year old students first learning to fly on floats, to seasoned airline pilots wanting to add on the seaplane rating. Dave was instrumental in getting the Oregon 1995 statute and 1997 rules passed that recognized seaplanes as having the same water rights as powerboats. In this interview we get him to tell us about his flying experiences, how he approaches instructing, and where he thinks the seaplane community needs to focus its efforts in the future.

Where did you get your start with flying?

As a young child, I had a friend, Bruce, who would build model planes. We'd take them up on the hill and fly them. Then they'd fly out over the valley and crash. I think the hobby was building them, not necessarily flying them.

Did these have engines in them? Were they radio controlled?

They had engines, but this was before the days of radio-controlled planes. We just tried to make them go up and fly in a circle and watch them. So that's the earliest experience I had with planes. I didn't get interested in being a pilot until after I'd gotten married in 1952. Hank Troh had given us a free introductory flight and a big sales pitch about learning to fly and all that. It worked, except we didn't take our lessons from him. We met Floyd Johnson at another airport and he sold us a little Taylorcraft and that's what we learned to fly in.

So you've just married Jody, and you both learned to fly at the same time?

Yes. Then we traded that Taylorcraft in for a Swift, which was quite a step up. We flew that until our first child came along. We had to finish the house here on the river, so we sold the Swift. And then we didn't fly for quite a while. Our neighbor had a Taylorcraft on floats and we used to see it occasionally. When we were down in California one time, doing construction work there for a couple of months, we got the seaplane ratings added on to our private licenses. But while raising kids and building a house we didn't fly - we just watched our neighbor and wished.

What got you back into flying?

The Willamette River flooded big time in 1964. A local seaplane club had an Aeronca Sedan and about 10 members. They lost their dock and one of the members wanted out. I bought his interest. Our docks were gone too, but I acquired a used seaplane dock and we started flying the club planes from here. The club upgraded to a Super Stinson in which I explored most of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. This lasted until 1970 when the Stinson was crashed and I bought a Taylorcraft.

Where did you get your advanced training in seaplanes?

I'd gotten my instructor rating in 1967 and I started working with Eagle Flight Center (Dean Johnson) out at Hillsboro. They had a 150-150 which Tom Benedict was using for single-engine sea instruction, along with his Widgeon, for the multi-engine seaplane instruction. I was teaching for them and had gotten my multi-engine seaplane and glider ratings.

When you say 150-150, what do you mean?

It was a Cessna 150 with a 150 horsepower engine. The Cessna 150 with the 100 horsepower engine won't take off on floats with both passengers and fuel.

Where did the 150-150 fly out of?

Here and at the River Queen at downtown Portland. I ended up getting my first Taylorcraft on floats in 1970, and that's when I actually started Wiley's Seaplanes. I incorporated in 1977.

Okay, so let's jump ahead to today, and run through some of the other licenses and certificates you've got. And tell us why you got them.

Someplace along the line after the Viet Nam War, there appeared on the scene a lot of pilots who'd been flying Army helicopters. They were getting out of the service and they wanted to keep flying, but all they had were helicopter ratings - they didn't have any fixed wing experience, and they couldn't afford to rent helicopters. So, they were learning to fly fixed wing. They had a lot of flying experience, a lot of hours, but nothing I could relate to - and I didn't know anything about helicopters. I was having trouble finding some insight into what they knew about flying so that there would be something to build on. I decided then that I needed to know more about helicopters. So, I did some trading and I got myself a gyroplane rating. Following that I got a helicopter rating, including instructor and instrument. That still is a kind of backdoor way into a helicopter rating. Helicopters require a lot of solo time if you start with them, but if you get your gyroplane rating first it's a lot less helicopter time.

What got you to the A&P and IA certificates?

I had a friend who called me one day and said he and his wife had been at a garage sale and the guy there had a pair of floats hanging up in his garage. So I went up to take a look and sure enough there was a pair of 1320's in there, which looked immaculate. The fellow had lost his medical rating, and he'd taken his airplane apart and had it there in his garage. He didn't want to sell the floats, but then he thought about it and figured he probably never would either put it back together again or get his medical rating back. He still didn't want to sell just the floats. It was the whole plane or nothing because he was moving and he didn't have anyplace to store it. So I ended up offering him what I was willing to pay as top price just for the floats, for the whole plane. And he took it. So I came back with a truck and started hauling off airplane parts. As it turned out, I ended up hauling away two complete airplanes out of there, a '41 Taylorcraft on floats and a '39 Taylorcraft on wheels. I got two complete airplanes, for the price of two floats, at a garage sale! And that actually got me started rebuilding airplanes, and in the process I hired an IA. I decided I'd do as much work as I could, and I also had my son Jeff, and Bill Wainwright working together with me and we built both those airplanes from the parts. We also re-built the '46 Taylorcraft I already had, too. I still have the '41. That's the one I put together. I sold the original '46 in the 1980's when I got into some economic difficulties in my construction business. So that's the history on the Taylorcrafts. The A&P came from all of the work I did rebuilding a total of four airplanes. The end result is that Jeff, Bill, and I all got A&P's.

Somewhere in here you got an ATP (Air Transport Pilot) rating?

I have always done other training besides my seaplane program. After Eagle shut down I taught single and multi-engine fixed wing and instrument helicopter for a helicopter school across the river at Pearson Airpark in Vancouver, Washington. During that time I acquired my ATP. Okay, all this time you're also running J. A. Wiley, your dad's commercial flooring company. Tell us about that, and how you juggled life between family, flight, and construction. Our Company was in the commercial construction industry, so it was pretty much a five day a week industry. In the wintertime, say Friday night, we'd take off for the mountains. We have a cabin up there and Jody and I taught skiing, every winter for 33 years. In the summer it was flight instruction. The skiing and flying were my hobbies.

They were more than just hobbies because you were training people and making money on it.

Actually, we didn't make any money. I just supported my hobbies by training people. What I've always done is teach my hobbies; whatever I was interested in I'd teach it. I started out in the Ski Patrol teaching first aid, then water safety because I liked to swim. I'd be with my family all weekend - either skiing or here at home, but during the week I would be often gone all week at work, from Monday morning until Friday night.

I assume your dad was still running the company partially at that point?

He was there until the late 1960's.

At some point you did a spell of flying in Alaska. Tell us about those experiences.

We did some large tile jobs in Alaska which gave me an excuse to fly around up there. I took many business associates fishing in B.C. I had a friend who was building a fishing lodge in B.C. My kids all worked for him in the summers and Jeff managed the lodge for two years. During those winters we guided 50 mile cross country ski trips into his lodge and flew by ski plane. When my dad died in 1985 the construction business was in a depression and we weren't doing well, so I shut down the flooring part of my business and turned the stone part over to the kids. Since then I've been doing odd jobs in aviation. One of them was flying for a fishing lodge in Alaska.

You and Jody met at Lewis & Clark College here in Portland?

Yes. She was raised in Los Angeles but she came up here to go to Lewis & Clark.

--and fell in love with you.

Well, I'm not sure about that - not right away.

So you had to pursue her for a while?

I guess I chased her till she caught me. I was driving the college ski bus on weekends to the mountains. I would drive the bus and that got me a free ticket on the mountain; Jody was regularly on the bus.

Let's talk a little bit about seaplane flight instruction. You've been instructing for a long time. If you summarized your approach to seaplane instruction, what are the basics that you try to get across?

One of the criticisms I have of a lot of flight instruction is that it tends to be very limited in scope - what I call "tunnel vision". If you go through the instructor training books they all talk about the "building block," where you build on top of what somebody already knows. This is instead of trying to make them forget one thing and learn something different - rather you reapply what they already know. The highest order of instruction is "correlation," which is rarely achieved by most instructors - mostly because they don't really make the effort to determine what knowledge the person has when he or she comes to them. This is why I've gotten all seven instructor ratings, plus balloons - so I can take any flight knowledge the student has, and help relate it to what they need to learn.

Where does this concept of "correlation" come from?

Right out of the FAA flight training handbook.

So you're saying most flight instructors are not really using "correlation" very well in their programs?

Yes, they're not training to that level, mostly because they don't put out the effort to find out what the person knows and build on it. They just have a set curriculum and they apply it whether it works well or not. It's unfortunate. It's what the student comes with that I think is important. This is the reason that I got into other kinds of aircraft. People were coming to me with a lot of different experience and I didn't know enough about their training to be able to build on it, so I went and sought out that training for myself. I just believe that I can do a better job if I have a broad base and foundation to work from. The other thing that's not done as far as instruction is concerned, is to more fully understand the student's goal - why the person wants to learn to fly. We lose over half of the people that start flying lessons after they solo - they never finish. They never get their pilot's license.

Expand on this.

Here's an example. There's someone who's always wanted to fly. His kids are gone now, the mortgage is paid, he's got an "empty nest," and his job doesn't take all that much effort. He has the time, and has enough money. So he gets signed up for flight lessons at his local air field, and they put this middle-aged guy with this young person who's what we call a "time-builder" but who's actually acquiring experience toward his goal to be an airline pilot - and that's all he can really see. However, the guy he's been given to train isn't interested in being an airline pilot, all he wants to do is learn to fly. He's looking at it from a recreational standpoint. He wants this to do as a hobby. So, the first thing that happens is they go fly, and it's fun, and he learns, and they put in ten hours more or less. He gets the little quiz on traffic pattern and things like that, and then he solos. However, once he solos then they start doing the cross-country training, and he's getting all these procedures, geometry, trigonometry, geography, and everything else they're throwing at him. It's starting to be a lot of work. He finds it takes longer to plan a cross-country flight, if you do it according to the book, than it does to fly it! And that's not fun. So, the net result is that the student disappears, and the reason he does is that he accomplished his goal: his goal was to learn to fly. And he soloed, he did fly. He wasn't doing this because he wanted to go and be an airline pilot. Likewise, there is the fellow who does get his license, and then they push him to go on and get an instrument rating, and that's more work than just getting a pilot's license. So we scare them off with that, as well.

So what do you recommend as an alternative?

The alternative is to have instructors who actually determine where the student's coming from and where he's going. It's as simple as that.

Okay, so they guy comes in and says, "I just want to learn how to fly." You train him, he solos, now what do you tell him that's different?

Here again you have to ask, "Why are you learning to fly?" In other words, if the most the guy's going to do is take the family on a flying vacation, then just enhance that. If it's a hobby, that's OK! And if that's his goal, then he doesn't need all the sophistication of instrument training or anything else. What he may need is some good basic training, such as getting into a tail-dragger or doing some mountain flying. Maybe he needs to learn how to fly out to a friend's ranch. Right now there's hardly a flight instructor around that can allow the student to land off of pavement on a grass runway, because the insurance won't let them. Nobody here teaches hand-propping any more - which could really be useful to a pilot who mostly uses an airplane as a hobby and keeps it where there is no FBO.

Now, let's focus it back down to seaplanes in terms of training. Some of the advertised courses talk about getting a rating in five or six hours - they guarantee it over two days. You've always advertised quite differently - "no quickie ratings." Tell us a little bit now about your philosophy of seaplane training.

Well, people that come to get a seaplane rating for the most part are already pilots. They know how to fly and already have their pilot's license. They may have just gotten it and have only 50 or 60 hours of experience, but they can fly. They generally already have the built-in reflexes necessary. In other words, they don't have to think to keep the airplane straight and level, and up in the air. They've been trained at an airport where you have standard operating procedures. In other words, you take off, you climb to four or five hundred feet, you turn crosswind and go to pattern altitude, and when you get parallel with the runway end you reduce power. Then you make your turn at the 45° angle with the end of the runway, you do your base leg, and then you turn final. You've got standard altitudes, air speeds, and power settings for all of this. So, you've got all these standard ways of doing things, that's how the typical starting seaplane student has learned to fly. And these work fine, so long as the conditions are standard. So what I assume is that they can already do this. What we're going to teach them here is to cope with a different environment, - with no standard operating procedures, no standard conditions. If you don't have standard conditions you can't have standard procedures. So this is my approach to it, and it takes longer. In other words, to get a seaplane rating and pass the flight test standards, it's pretty simple. That's a minimum standard. There's no requirement that you have any difficulty involved in it or that you do it at any time except at the most ideal of flying conditions.

Of course the FAA exam does have standards in it, for example, glassy water or rough water. They've tried to codify the seaplane range of conditions.

As they have with land planes where you have short field, soft field, and crosswind take-offs and landings, you have the same type of things in seaplanes. We have standard operating ways of coping with standard conditions. In other words, with glassy water you have to deal with it a certain way. But you still have to cope with the rest of the situation you are going into.

So we're still going to say there are standard operating procedures for specific conditions.

Well, I wouldn't call them procedures so much as techniques. If you describe a situation to me I can describe how I would cope with it.

Okay, so standard techniques for certain conditions, but the overall airport environment isn't standardized. That's what you're getting at.

Yes. It's an overall environment that is different for every take-off and landing. Seaplane flying takes a lot more situational awareness, - it takes a lot more thinking ahead. As an example, you're on downwind and you have to think about how you're going to make your approach, where you're going to land, where you're going to taxi to after you land, how you're going to cope with the beach or the dock or whatever it is you're going to. At the same time you've also got to think about where you're going to taxi to for starting your take-off, what area of water your take-off's going to be along. You have to think about all of that before you ever descend; because once you're down on the water you can't see the bigger picture of the airport environment. You have to design your own airport; you have to think that far ahead. An example for a land plane pilot would be landing at a strange airport and getting lost on the taxiway while trying to find the gas pump. So what does he do? You get out your little flight guide, which has an airport diagram in it, and you look at that - or you call the FBO on the radio and get them to help you. However on the water, this airport you've just "designed" doesn't have a diagram. In fact, you wouldn't need one for your land plane scenario if you'd just thought about it and looked out the window before you landed, because the diagram in your flight guide is the same as what you would see out the window. In other words, if you think about it: okay, I'm going to land, and this is the traffic pattern, and I'm going to turn in at that taxiway and I've got to cut off across the other runway to get to the gas pump over there at the Shell pump instead of the Chevron. You could figure all that out on downwind. So that's the situational awareness that we have to teach for seaplanes.

Part of the reason that this extent of awareness probably isn't taught in land planes is to reduce workload. The pilot is taught to focus on safety-approach and landing. Why focus a lot of energy on figuring out where you're going to go on the airport - when maybe you should spend that time looking outside the airplane for other traffic? But in the seaplane we don't have a choice, right?

Yes. One of the quizzes we use in instrument training is: What are the two most important things happening when you're IFR? The answer is, the next two. In other words, when you're flying instruments, you not only have to be thinking about what you're doing, you've got to be thinking about what's next, and then what's next after that - the next two things that are going to happen. Say, the next frequency you're going to get. If the controller just gave it to the guy ahead of you, then you know what it is, and you can pre-tune it. You have to pay attention to what's going on out there. You've got to be thinking at least that far ahead to avoid being overloaded. In seaplanes we've got to go about six things ahead and we don't have an approach plate to follow.

Okay, but also the land plane system is all designed ultimately around an instrument rating with radio transmissions and clearances. Sometimes you say in the seaplane training "we're outside of the system". So could you tell us a little bit about what it means to be outside the system?

In Part 135 of the FAA regulations, which is your charter operation, and Part 121, which is your airlines - pilots are not allowed to make an instrument approach if they don't have the current weather data for the airport destination. You've got approach plates, you've got all of these standard procedures. You've got everything mandated. Airline pilots have a big thick book and they've memorized the thing because whatever happens, if it's in the book there's a method and procedure for it. If they get a red light, there's a procedure for it. Really, being a successful pilot at that level is having a good memory for the standard operating procedures. And the reason that works is because they don't go where the conditions aren't known. If the conditions aren't known or they don't like the weather or whatever, they don't go there. They're not allowed to, legally they can't go there. So they've geared themselves to standard operating procedures for known standard conditions. And it works. But we don't have any of that as seaplane pilots; we're out of the system. There is no system where we go. We do get upstairs and fly from one place to another cross-country, and yeah, we can be in the system up there. There's nothing that says we can't be in the system when we want to be, but as soon as we descend to land the system disappears. We now have to start doing our own thing.

Sometimes I've thought seaplane flying may be a little bit like what barnstorming was in the old days.

It's exactly like what barnstorming was. They had to figure out which pasture they could land in without dumping over in a ditch, which they did once in a while anyhow.

So in some ways seaplaning is the last of the barnstorming days.

In a way.

Let's change the subject. When we first announced to you that you were Seaplane Pilot of the Year you had some hesitancy to accept the award because you felt there are other people who you admired in the seaplane community who you feel equally deserve it but haven't gotten it yet. The award puts you in a position to pass some of that honor to other people.

Well, the one that I was probably referring to in that conversation was Tom Casey. Tom planned a flight around the world on straight floats, which had never been done before. Tom had this dream for a long time. Tom is a flight instructor maybe kind of like I am, sort of a rebel out of the Seattle area, and actually he worked in the aviation industry, for Cessna at one time, - but he had this dream that he wanted to do it. I worked with him a little in the beginning, and he ended up making two tries. The second time he did make it around the world. The first time he lost his airplane in Iceland.

Is that when a boat hit his seaplane at night?

Yeah, it got hit by a sailboat while at its mooring and it was sunk. But on his second try he circumnavigated the world on straight floats, and I thought that his accomplishment was quite something. Basically, I think Tom should have gotten more recognition. I thought Tom deserved Seaplane Pilot of the Year for what he did.

Anyone else? What about your wife Jody?

Well, she's been pretty tolerant and pretty supportive.

Not many wives get the seaplane rating along with their husbands.

We started out together, but when I went back into it after the '64 flood with the membership in the floatplane club, she was up to her ears in kids then. So she never got back into flying as far as flying by herself. She's got no problems helping me. She's done a lot of navigating, and she can handle the plane just fine whenever she wants. I'm sure if she had to, she'd get her ratings back up again quite easily.

Okay, let's move ahead and say, if we look out to the next 10 to 15 years do you see any issues that the seaplane community should be dealing with that it's not?

Well, the thing that I feel best about is our Oregon seaplane law. Seaplanes have been too much of a non-entity. The whole idea of why we have the FAA is because aircraft travel is interstate, and thus the federal government regulates it. This federal pre-emption is supposed to have priority over any local rules. The biggest problem we had in this state prior to changing the laws, and it still exists in 48 of the other states, is that seaplanes can be regulated by a local jurisdiction. A local town that happens to have a body of water going through it can try to pass an ordinance saying no to seaplanes. They can make it stick up until the point where somebody wants to spend the money to take them to court. But always the burden of proof is on the seaplanes, to prove that they aren't dangerous, or incrementally harmful in one way or another. So what we did here in Oregon, and now it's gone through in Texas as well, is to take the privilege away from the local jurisdiction and make them go up to a state level. In other words, any body of water in the state that is under other than federal control has to go by the state's jurisdiction. If the local community wants to get a rule about seaplanes in regard to it, they have to go through the state. And so, the burden of proof is on the local community. If they think seaplanes are unsafe, they have to prove it to the state aviation department, rather than the way it was before where seaplanes could be guilty until proven innocent. So that happened here in Oregon, also in Texas, and they also have it under review in Michigan If we can keep this ball rolling and get these things going, I think this is the most important thing that we can do. They're having problems in Washington where San Juan County has passed laws against seaplanes. They started with outlawing jet skis, which like us should have the same rights on navigable waterways as all other watercraft.

Yeah, it's surprising. For San Juan County it wasn't even a water body under local control. It was Puget Sound - part of the Pacific Ocean!

Well, the seaplane community is having to fight it. The County just went ahead and passed the law. So they can write you tickets and collect on them until you take them to court and prove that they don't have that jurisdiction, which is what's going on now. That's $100,000 in legal fees just to get it through the court system.

Okay, so Oregon and Texas and maybe Michigan have dealt with water access on the state level, but we still have many national waters controlled by the Corps of Engineers, Forest Service, and others.

Where federal agencies have jurisdiction, then we're still fighting that. As an example, we did this over in the Snake River and now we're fighting regulations on the Salmon River where seaplanes have traditionally used the area, but the Forest Service has ruled against it for no reason.

So I guess where I'm leading with this discussion is whether you think there'd be any hope of passing a federal law that has some kind of a blanket permission to allow seaplanes unless proven otherwise. Could the federal pre-emption that the FAA uses be extended to all of the federally controlled waterways?

This is one of my pet gripes with the Seaplane Pilots Association. They haven't been able to do a job with the federal agencies. Years ago when the Seaplane Pilots Association first started, Dave Quam went to the Army Engineers, and he got seaplane access rules established from the top down. Prior to this each of the Army Engineer local bases were deciding whether or not they wanted seaplanes on their property. So the way it was done was that seaplanes were ruled off of the Army Engineers waters unless they specifically were allowed. Dave got it turned around. He did it right at the top, at the Army Engineers in Washington, DC. All the Corps' waters were open unless specifically closed, it was as simple as that. But it couldn't be done any other way. We can't deal with the federal agencies from the bottom up. We need to come from the top down. For the moment we're having some success getting recognized on the state level. We're trying to get a seaplane to be viewed as just another boat that's on the water, and to be legal wherever powerboats are allowed. That's how the Coast Guard rules have always been. We just need other federal agencies to recognize this. Now what we've got to do is get that recognized so that somebody can't discriminate, can't say you can have powerboats but you can't have seaplanes. And we need that at every state level, as we now have in Oregon and Texas. And then we need to go to Washington DC, and that's why we need a national organization, to come from the top down. In the federal bureaucracy, the right hand does not talk to the left. We need the FAA, the Army Engineers, FERC, and the BLM to recognize the basic nature of seaplanes, that they aren't more dangerous than other powerboats. There is a fear of seaplanes that just isn't borne out in the accident statistics.

I know that you have been working for years on a book about seaplane flying. Is that something that you're going to publish or make available for the public in the near future?

I can't believe how long ago that was started. Yes, I'm going to. When I was in Alaska, and had lots of miscellaneous slack time, I basically wrote a book. I've always wanted to finish it up and get it out. I'll probably have to change it a lot more than I would have if I'd finished it earlier.

Some of it's out of date already?

Well, yeah. Some of my thinking has probably changed - I'm still learning. But the theme that I had was to write a book for the flight instructor, rather than for the student. In other words it was more of a how-to-teach book. Maybe I can get it finished sometime in this next millennium.

We'll all be looking forward to that. Thanks for talking with us, and congratulations on being Seaplane Pilot of the Year!

Source: 2000 Water Flying Annual