December 14, 2019

Aerials Get Aquatic

The Otsego Lake Splash-In
By Kristi Kates | June 3, 2017

You’ve probably heard of a half-dozen vintage automobile rallies, motorcycle meetups, or airplane fly-ins around Michigan. But if your passion is seaplanes, there's only one place to go: Gaylord, for the annual Otsego Lake Fly-In.

Randy Rhodes is one of the founders of the event. His love for seaplanes stems from another romance — or more specifically, his efforts to win the hand of his now-wife, Nancy. Her father, Dick Scribner, was an avid lover of all planes, from the small ones to the big airliners. “Dick was so devoted to the air that when I asked him for permission to marry his only daughter, Nancy, his response was ‘You have to learn to fly!’” Rhodes said. “So I did.” Together, with the assistance of good friend Brian VanWagnen, Rhodes and Scribner bought, salvaged, and rebuilt many airplanes as a hobby — seaplanes among them. 

Rhodes’ in-laws had a cottage on Otsego Lake, where they soon discovered that a couple of seaplanes were moored, in addition to Rhodes’ and Scribner’s own. That was as good an excuse as any to build a new event around this unique local hobby. “So in 1981, with help from Don and Art Butcher, Chum Noroit, and the blessing of Otsego County, we sent out word that a gathering of seaplanes would be held on Otsego Lake the second weekend in June,” Rhodes said. “We ended up with more spectators than we did planes!”

That first year of the Splash-In, 13 planes participated, three of them belonging to Rhodes’ family. The following year, the Splash-In drew 26 planes, and the event has continued to grow each year. Scribner passed away in 1988, and Rhodes took over as president of the event.

Part of the event’s popularity among seaplane enthusiasts? Several different varieties of seaplanes are on display. “Many of the planes are only able to operate on water — those are float planes — and many can operate on both land and sea — those are considered amphibious,” Rhodes said. “Some float planes are additionally equipped with wheels and can also operate on either water or land, and we call these amphibious floats.”

Amphibious seaplanes aren’t manufactured much these days, so when those show up at the Splash-In, they’re immediately the subject of attention. 

Seaplanes in general aren’t an inexpensive item to own, though, so pretty much all of the planes are of interest to airplane fans. “One can still put floats on a tail dragger, or build a kit plane, but with the rising costs of ownership, insurance, and meeting FAA requirements, most of the seaplanes are older — sometimes several years older than their owners,” Rhodes said.

Financial burdens to plane owners notwithstanding, the Splash-In has seen some pretty cool customers land in Otsego Lake: The Coast Guard has landed at the Splash-In to put on rescue demonstrations with its float-equipped helicopter. And a Grumman Albatross attended one year (an amphibious flying boat that was used by the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy).

Most of the attending pilots have single- or twin-engine aircraft; those who don’t have water-friendly airplanes simply land their “regular” planes at the nearby airport and drive over to attend. “We have had pilots attend from Alaska, Puerto Rico, California, and many from Canada,” Rhodes said. “We expect several WWII aircraft to be in attendance this year including Grumman Widgeons, a Grumman Goose, a multitude of Lake Amphibians which are a newer single-engine craft, and many, many float planes.”

Planes, pilots, and spectators start arriving as early as the Wednesday before the weekend event, with the majority arriving on Friday at the Otsego County Park on West Otsego Lake Road (Note: Call ahead if you need accommodations, as the campground and local hotels fill up quickly.)

Friday evening, the Splash-In feeds all the pilots: “Usually a barbecue of pulled pork and burgers, which my wife and daughter and several friends help prepare,” Rhodes said.

On Saturday morning, the flying events, which include a parade of planes and a series of friendly competitions, take flight. “We’ll also have a mass fly-over the town, followed by contests of skill — balloon bomb drops, spot landings and take-offs — these contests can take up the major portion of the day,” said Rhodes.

The local Boy Scouts set up in the park’s West Pavilion and serve breakfast and lunch on Saturday, and breakfast on Sunday; the proceeds from the food sales enable the troop to attend camp each year.

Saturday evening, most attend the Splash-In’s annual banquet and meeting at BJ's Restaurant, which has welcomed guests of the event for over 16 years. 

“And finally, Sunday is devoted to sharing rides, the teardown of equipment, and goodbyes,” Rhodes said.

It’s not unusual to have 1,000 people lining the beach to watch the planes, but don’t expect to snag a ride in a plane unless you’re fortunate enough to know someone, said Rhodes. 

“Airplane rides cannot be purchased at this event by the general public,” Rhodes said. “Our insurance does not permit that.” But if the weather holds, there will be plenty of planes to see. “We could have as many as 70 airplanes this year, judging from the responses we have received.”

Rhodes no longer flies — “I dearly miss it, but age and injuries have caught up with me,” he said — but he looks forward to seeing a long list of friends who have played a big part in the lives of himself and his family, as well as in the pursuit of his aerial hobby. “We have watched each other's children grow, have children of their own, and we have lost some dear friends and family along the way, so each Splash-In for us, is like a family reunion,” he said. 

The 2017 Otsego Lake Splash-In will take place June 9–11 at the Otsego County Park, 1657 County Park Rd., in Gaylord. For more information, call (248) 431-5435 or visit www.facebook.com/otsegosplashin or otsegolakesplashin.wordpress.com.

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