SeaplaneSeaplane — A seaplane is a fixed wing aircraft capable of taking off and landing (alighting) on water. Seaplanes that can also take off and land on airfields are a subclass called amphibian aircraft. Seaplanes and amphibians are usually divided into two categories based on their technological characteristics: floatplanes and flying boats; the latter are generally far larger and can carry far more. These aircraft were sometimes called hydroplanes.


The word “seaplane” is used to describe two types of air/water vehicles: the floatplane and the flying boat.

  • A floatplane has slender pontoons, or floats, mounted under the fuselage. Two floats are common, but other configurations are possible. Only the floats of a floatplane normally come into contact with water. The fuselage remains above water. Some small land aircraft can be modified to become float planes, and in general floatplanes are small aircraft. Floatplanes are limited by their inability to handle wave heights typically greater than 12 inches (0.31 m). These floats add to the empty weight of the airplane, and to the drag coefficient, resulting in reduced payload capacity, slower rate-of-climb, and slower cruise speed.

  • In a flying boat, the main source of buoyancy is the fuselage, which acts like a ship’s hull in the water. Most flying boats have small floats mounted on their wings to keep them stable. Not all small seaplanes have been floatplanes, but most large seaplanes have been flying boats, their great weight supported by their hulls.

The term “seaplane” is used by some instead of “floatplane”. This is the standard British usage. This article treats both flying boats and floatplanes as types of seaplane, in the US fashion.

An amphibious aircraft can take off and land both on conventional runways and water. A true seaplane can only take off and land on water. There are amphibious flying boats and amphibious floatplanes, as well as some hybrid designs, e.g., floatplanes with retractable floats. Modern production seaplanes are typically light aircraft, amphibious, and of a floatplane design.


The first seaplane was invented in March 1910 by the French engineer Henri Fabre. Its name was Le Canard (’the duck’), and took off from the water and flew 800 meters on its first flight on March 28, 1910. These experiments were closely followed by the aircraft pioneers Gabriel and Charles Voisin, who purchased several of the Fabre floats and fitted them to their Canard Voisin airplane. In October 1910, the Canard Voisin became the first seaplane to fly over the river Seine, and in March 1912, the first seaplane to be used militarily from a seaplane carrier, La Foudre (’the lightning’).

The seaplane, the French 1910 Le CanardIn the United States, early development was carried out at Hammondsport, New York by Glenn Curtiss who had beaten Alexander Graham Bell and others in the Aerial Experiment Association. The first American seaplane flight occurred on January 26, 1911. Englishman John Cyril Porte joined with Curtis to design a transatlantic flying boat, and developed a more practical hull for Curtis’ airframe and engines with the distinctive ’step’ which enabled the hull and floats to cleanly break free of the water’s surface at take-off. In the UK the Curtiss flying boat was developed into the Felixstowe series of flying boats, which were used in the First World War to patrol for German submarines. Curtiss N-9 seaplanes were used during World War I as primary trainers, and over 2,500 Navy pilots learned to fly in them. A handful of N-9s were used in the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane project to develop an “aerial torpedo”, an unmanned seaplane that would hit a distant target. On March 27, 1919, the first transatlantic flight was completed by a U.S. Navy NC-4 flying boat.

The Grumman Goose came about in 1936, when a group of wealthy industrialists, including Henry Morgan, Marshall Field and E.R. Harriman, wanted an easier way to commute from their homes on Long Island, New York, to the financial district of Wall Street. They commissioned Roy Grumman to build ten airplanes that could take off from their private air strips and land on the water near the financial district. During World Wars I and II, many navies used seaplanes for reconnaissance, search and rescue, and anti-submarine warfare. The US Navy utilized a fleet of Grumman Goose amphibians for reconnaissance, rescue and had many fitted with machine guns and bombs. Most battleships carried one or two (some cases as many as four) catapult-launched seaplanes to spot targets over the horizon for the big guns, or to fight off enemy reconnaissance planes. The failure of the German battleship Bismarck’s Arado 196 seaplane to hunt down a PBY Catalina reconnaissance aircraft is said to have contributed to the ship’s demise.

By the end of World War Two, nearly 350 Gooses (they are never referred to as Geese) had been built. They helped the U.S. military and its allies with reliable transportation to remote locations all over the world.Seaplane airbase at Natal (Rio Grande do Norte), Brazil. In the post war period the military uses of seaplanes were much reduced. The British and the US experimented with jet powered seaplane fighters such as the Saunders-Roe SR.A/1. Seaplane tenders, such as HMS Engadine, fell out of use after the 1950s with the general demise of the seaplane, the advent of the first stable, fully-controllable helicopter, and continued development of the modern aircraft carrier. The U.S. Navy, however, continued to operate seaplanes and seaplane tenders, especially in the Far East until the mid-1970s.

An attempt was made in the early to mid-1950s to develop a full-sized jet-powered flying boat (the Martin P6M SeaMaster) for the U.S. Navy. Although several prototypes were built and tested, the project was eventually terminated for a variety of reasons. Seaplanes are increasingly being used for ASW, SAR and firefighting and are being considered for expanded military purposes in light of the pervasive surveillance means of satellites that make slow surface ships leaving a visible wakes easy to target with guided munitions.

Uses and Operation

A De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter float plane in West Coast Air livery. Numerous modern civilian aircraft have a floatplane variant, usually for light duty transportation to lakes and other remote areas. Most of these are offered as third-party modifications under a supplemental type certificate (STC), although there are several aircraft manufacturers that build floatplanes from scratch, and a few that continue to build flying boats. Many older flying boats remain in service for fire-fighting duty, and Chalk’s Ocean Airways operated a fleet of flying boats in passenger service until service was suspended after a crash on December 19, 2005. Purely water-based seaplanes have largely been supplanted by amphibious aircraft.

Float plane landing on water in Vancouver, British Columbia, CanadaSeaplanes can only take off and land on water with little or no wave action and, like other aircraft, have trouble in extreme weather. The size of waves a given design can withstand depends on, among other factors, the aircraft’s size, hull or float design, and its weight. Flying boats can typically handle rougher water and are generally more stable than floatplanes while on the water.

Rescue organizations, such as coast guards, are among the largest modern operators of seaplanes due to their efficiency and their ability to both spot and rescue survivors. Land-based airplanes cannot rescue survivors, and many helicopters are limited in their capacity to carry survivors and in their fuel efficiency compared to fixed-wing aircraft. (Helicopters may also be fitted with floats to facilitate their usage on water, though such craft are not referred to as “seaplanes”.)

Water aircraft are also often used in remote areas such as the Alaskan and Canadian outback, especially in areas with a large number of lakes convenient for takeoff and landing. They may operate on a charter basis, provide scheduled service, or be operated by residents of the area for private, personal use. Greece uses seaplanes to connect its many islands to the mainland. In the Western Hemisphere, there are numerous seaplane operators in the Caribbean Sea that offer service within or between island groups. In August 2007, Scottish based commercial operator Loch Lomond Seaplanes launched the only European city based seaplane service. They offer a daily service from Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city, to the west coast town of Oban, as well as charters and excursions elsewhere.

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