Often associated with the Golden Age of flying in the 1930s, seaplanes have recently been staging a comeback with an increasing number of new operators, designs and applications. BILL READ FRAeS reports
Mention the word ‘seaplanes’ and many people think back to the long-gone days of the 1930s when companies such as Imperial Airways flew passengers around the world in luxury flying boats. However, recent years have seen renewed interest in the use of flying boats for a variety of applications, including recreational flying, tourist sightseeing flights, private and commercial transport, air sea rescue, firefighting and providing vital transport links to remote communities. There have also been initiatives to use seaplanes for military operations and even a proposal for transatlantic commercial flights.
Land and water
Seaplanes can be categorised into aircraft that can only take-off and land on water and amphibians that can operate from both land and water. Some seaplanes are derivatives of land aircraft fitted with floats while others are ‘flying boats’ designed with specially shaped hulls which are an integral part of their design. Flying boats are able to operate in rougher water and said to be more stable than floatplanes.
The most widely used type of seaplanes are small aircraft which are either variants of popular GA designs or specially designed sport or light aircraft. There also a variety of customised designs. One established manufacturer of seaplanes is Idaho-based Quest aircraft which produces the single-engine Quest Kodiak. First delivered to customers in 2007, the 10-seat Kodiak is designed to be easily adaptable from a land to an amphibious float plane without structural upgrades. Another popular seaplane is the amphibious version of the Cessna Caravan made by US manufacturer Textron Aviation.
There has also been a revival in older designs. In 2007, Canadian manufacturer Viking Air announced the restart of production of the discontinued de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter. Fitted with new engines the 19-passenger STOL (short take-off and landing) Series 400 Viking Air DHC-6 Twin Otter utility aircraft has the option of being configured as a water-only or amphibious floatplane. To date, over 100 of the Series 400 version of the aircraft have been sold.
In 2017, German manufacturer Dornier Seawings rolled out its new Seastar advanced amphibious aircraft. Powered by two Pratt & Whitney Canada PT-6 turboprops mounted fore and aft above the wing, the all-composite aircraft will have a maximum cruising speed of 180kt. Fitted with tricycle landing gear and fuel tanks in the sponsons, the interior of the Seastar can be configured for 12-seat commercial, 9-seat corporate or government or seven-seat VIP missions. Jointly developed by Dornier Seawings in Germany and Dornier Seawings China, the fuselage and wings of the Seastar are to be manufactured by Diamond Aircraft in Canada with final assembly to to carried out first in Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany and later in Wuxi in China. First flight of the Seastar is scheduled for the first half of 2019 with type certification to follow in 2020.
In France, Lisa Airplanes is developing the Akoya amphibious aircraft which it claims will be able to operate from land, water and snow. Powered by a single turboprop fitted to the tail, the Akoya is fitted with ‘Seafoils’ fins beneath the fuselage, giving the aircraft the ability to glide on the water like a hydrofoil. The aircraft’s wings can be folded and the empennage detached to allow the aircraft to be stored in small spaces or transported by trailer. Following the first flight of the prototype aircraft in 2007, progress on the project has been slow but, following a $20m investment from Chinese investors in 2013, a second prototype was flown last year.
An additional new seaplane design is the US-made Icon 5A single-engine amphibious light sport aircraft. First flown in 2008, the first production version of the Icon 5A took to the skies in 2014. However, the project suffered a number of setbacks last year with no fewer than three accidents, two of which were fatal, one of which killed the company’s chief test pilot.
Another company which experienced problems developing a seaplane is Sea Air Composites which was working on the four-seat composite Seawind 3000 featuring a single-engine fitted to the leading edge of the vertical tailfin. The programme encountered a series of delays following the crash of the prototype Canadian-built aircraft in 2007. A new test aircraft was rolled out in 2010 but experienced more problems during flight tests. In 2012, production of the aircraft was moved to the US after a financial dispute with the Canada Revenue Agency. Further delays were experienced during certification testing, including the crash of the second prototype aircraft in 2014. In December 2016 the company announced that it needed to raise an additional $100m to complete flight certification and begin production, after which no new information has been released.
Sightseeing and charter
One of the most popular use for modern small seaplanes is for fun. In addition to their use by private pilots, there are a number of commercial operators around the world which offer seaplanes for tourist sightseeing flights. These include the Aero Club at Lake Como which is also host to a seaplane flight training school which has been in operation since 1913.
Hai Au Aviation in Vietnam (which is run by the Thein Minh Group travel and hospitality company) operates charter and tourist seaplane flights from Hanoi using a fleet of three 12-seat Cessna Caravan 208B-EX amphibians. The aircraft can operate on land from Noi Bai Airport and sea in Halong Bay.
Another Cessna Caravan 208 operator is UAE company Seawings Dubai which flies luxury sightseeing flights over Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Its fleet of three nine-seat aircraft operate from Dubai Creek where Imperial Airways seaplanes used to fly in the 1930s.
The UK has its own seaplane operator with Scottish company Loch Lomond Seaplanes which operates a Cessna 208 Caravan on tourist flights around Loch Lomond and the Trossachs. Prestwick in Scotland is also the location of a seaplane training centre which offers EASA SEP (Sea) class rating using a Cessna FR172F fitted with Wipline amphibious floats.
In Australia, Sydney Seaplanes offers scenic flights over locations close to Sydney Harbour. First started in 2005, the company is now the largest seaplane operator in Australia, flying a fleet of five de Havilland Beavers and Cessna Caravans from its Seaplane Terminal in Rosebay - a location also used by Imperial Airways Empire flying boats. Sadly, Sydney Seaplanes was recently in the headlines for the wrong reasons after one of its crashed while attempting to land into the Hawkesbury River, near Sydney on 31 December, killing the pilot and all five passengers. It was the company’s first accident in 22 years.
Linking remote communities
Canadian operator Harbour Air operates scheduled seaplane services across British Columbia.(Harbour Air Seaplanes)
However, seaplanes are not limited to sightseeing flights but can also provide commercial transport links to remote areas. These can either be island archipelagos or inland areas where there are no airports but plenty of lakes. There have also been a number of national initiatives where governments are attempting to promote the use of seaplanes as part of a larger transport network.
In Canada, seaplane operator Harbour Air flies a fleet of de Havilland single Otters, Twin Otters and Beavers on scheduled services to nine destinations in British Columbia. However, some of the more northern services do not operate in the winter due to the lakes being frozen.
Located in the Indian Ocean, the Republic of Maldives is made up of 1,200 coral islands, making it an ideal location for seaplane operations. Local operator Trans Maldavian Airlines (TMA) claims to have the world’s largest seaplane fleet with a fleet of 48 Twin Otters. In 2016 TMA carried close to 1m passengers on over 120,000 flights. Seaplane activity in the Maldives looks set to expand. Setouchi Holdings (the parent company of seaplane manufacturer Quest Aircraft) has entered a joint-venture agreement with Island Aviation Services to launch a new seaplane operation. Operated by the Maldives government Island Aviation Services operates both large commercial aircraft and seaplanes. Named Sky Atoll Private, the new JV company would initially operate four Quest Kodiak 100s fitted with Aerocet 6750 straight floats.
Indian low-cost carrier SpiceJet and Setouchi Holdings Seaplane in Japan recently ran trials at Girgaum Chowpatty off Mumbai’s coast to look at the feasibility of using seaplanes to connect Mumbai with cities in western India which have no airports but where water landings are possible. The plan depends on the suitability of stretches of open water to use for take-offs and landings, as well as investment into infrastructure such as floating jetties. If the economics looks feasible, SpiceJet could invest up to $400m to acquire up to 100 small Kodiak amphibious aircraft from Setouchi Holdings to feed into its existing network from remote areas. The Indian government is interested in the venture with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi taking a flight in December in Gujarat flying from the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad to Dharoi Dam in a Spice Jet-acquired Kodiak seaplane.
There have been earlier attempts to operate seaplanes in India but the businesses failed to make a profit. In 2011, a seaplane service was started by Mehair in the Andaman and Nicobar islands with different fares for islanders and the tourists but it was not became financially viable. A further proposal in 2014 to start a seaplane service connecting Mumbai to tourist destinations in the Western Ghats also failed to take-off. A seaplane service was also started in 2013 in Kerala but commercial operations were opposed by local fishermen.
Greece is also looking at the potential of seaplanes to enhance transport links between small islands without airports. Petrichor Capital Partners recently announced a proposal for a Euro 250m investment over the next two years to develop a Greek seaplane network in conjunction with new start seaplane operator Hellenic Seaplanes. The investment would include the purchase of up to 20 aircraft, together with the creation of 110 seaside terminals with maintenance and refuelling stations. However, the project would need government support to go ahead.
In November last year a series of test flights were conducted at the Greek island of Corfu to investigate the practicality of establishing seaplane flights in Greece. The test flights involved a 10-seat Quest Kodiak which performed a series of take-offs and landings from the port of Corfu and destinations at other Ionian islands. The flights were conducted by seaplane base management organisation Water Airports, in collaboration with K2 Smart Jets and the Japanese groups Setouchi Holdings and Mitsui. Water Airports has obtained licences for three seaplane bases at Corfu, Paxi and Patras and is hoping to add 34 more bases in island and coastal areas in the Ionian Sea, Crete, Cyclades, Dodecanese, Saronic Gulf, the Peloponnese and Attica. The company plans are to begin regular flights from Corfu this Spring, using a 10-seat and a 19-seat seaplane. The aircraft could also be converted for medical evacuation missions.
In Japan, Hiroshima-based Setouchi Seaplanes operates chartered and sightseeing flights from Onomichi Floating Port using a fleet of amphibious Kodiak 100s. Japan’s sole seaplane operator, Setouchi Seaplanes, announced plans in September to begin flights between the Sanin and Sanyo regions. The company conducted a trial flight in July carrying seven passengers on a round trip from Lake Nakaumi along the Shimane Peninsula facing the Sea of Japan. Setouchi Seaplanes hopes eventually to expand its services to cover the whole of Japan.
Seaplane operators have not always met with success and have found it difficult to make economic ends meet. European Coastal Airlines started up a seaplane service within Croatia and across to Italy in 2014 but ceased flying in October 2016.
For and against
The use of seaplanes is not always welcomed by local communities. Californian company, Seaplane Adventures, which provides sightseeing tours of the San Francisco area and air charter services, ran into trouble last year following noise complaints from residents who called for restrictions on the company’s number of daily flights and use of an inlet. However, a public hearing of the Marin County Planning Commission held in September voted to assist the company to continue flying.
Meanwhile, residents of Hebgen Lake in Southern Montana are opposing plans from operator Yellowstone Seaplanes to land seaplanes in the lake due to concerns over noise and disturbance to fishing.
In Montana, seaplane operators have been accused of spreading aquatic invasive species (AIS) across the lakes they operate in. However, the Montana Seaplane Pilot Association (MSPA), together with the Seaplane Pilot Association (SPA) and the Washington regional association of seaplane pilots, have countered the accusations, pointing out that there are fewer than 300 seaplanes operating in the state, compared to 68,000 registered motorboats and an estimated 78,000 paddle craft. Any contaminated water that leaks into seaplane floats can be pumped out and contained while any water outside the floats will kill any AIS by dehydration.
Sometimes, state legislation has been introduced to promote seaplane use. In Ohio, local officials announced in 2016 that the state would take steps to allow seaplane access to more bodies of water. In Michigan the state Senate is considering introducing legislation which would protect the state’s ‘open water’ policy and allowed seaplane access to public waters where they have been subject to restrictions by local municipalities.
Seaplanes gather at the Tavares Seaplane Base. (City of Tavares)
However, there are some communities which not only welcome seaplanes but actively promote them. The city of Tavares in central Florida has rebranded itself as ‘America’s Seaplane City’ and is actively encouraging and promoting the use of seaplanes. Tavares has the advantage for seaplane operators that it is surrounded by lakes which do not freeze in winter. Visitors to the city can enjoy seaplane scenic rides, day trips and pilot training. Tourists are also encouraged to visit the city’s own seaplane manufacturer, Progressive Aerodyne, which produces the Searey amphibious flying boat in either kit or finished form. There is even a specialist seaplane shop - the Prop Shop - which sells seaplane baseball caps, mugs, toys, tees, jewelry and scale models. Non-seaplane activities also include gliding, fishing, boating and golf. Tavares holds two ‘fun seaplane splash-ins’ every spring and autumn - the most recent of which was postponed due to damage from Hurricane Irma in September 2017 but which was still held in November.
Seaplanes to the rescue
Several countries manufacturer larger seaplanes which can be used in a variety of specialist roles, among which are water bombers, air-sea rescue, maritime patrol and military transport. Amphibious water bomber are particularly adept at fighting forest fires as they have the advantage that they do not have to land at an airport to be filled with water but can skim over lakes and refill quickly while still flying. Until recently, Canadian manufacturer Bombardier produced the twin-engine Bombardier 415 amphibious waterbomber which was first developed in 1993 by Canadair as the CL-415. However, the aircraft was not considered to be a core business and Bombardier sold the type certificate for the CL-415 to Vikingair in 2016, although no new versions have been produced since 2015. CL-415s are in operation in Canada, Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Malaysia, Morocco, Spain and the USA.
Another specialist use is air-sea rescue. Seaplanes have a longer range than helicopters and have the advantage over fixed-wing land-based aircraft that they can land on water to rescue survivors. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force operates the four engine ShinMaywa US-2 air-sea rescue amphibian which can carry up to 20 passengers over distances of 4,700km. The Indian Navy and Coast Guard is considering acquiring the US-2.
Russian manufacturer Irkhut produces the twin-engined Beriev Be-200 amphibious aircraft which is used a variety of roles. Designed in the 1990s as a smaller version of the A-40 anti-submarine flying boat, the Be-200 is powered by two Progress D-436TP turbofans giving it a speed of up to 710km/hr. The Be-200 can be used for a variety of roles, including freight and passenger transport, air-sea rescue, maritime patrol and military missions. However, its most common use to date has been as a waterbomber for fighting wildfires and the aircraft has been used to combat fires in Russia, Israel and Portugal. Plans were announced in 2003 to produce a version of the Be-200 fitted with Rolls-Royce engines but the project was shelved.
In addition to its interest in investing in foreign seaplane manufacturers as described above, China also has ambitious plans to create its own seaplane design. This December saw the first flight of the AVIC (Aviation Industry Corp of China) AG-600 large amphibious transport aircraft. With a length of 36.9m and a 38.8m wingspan and, the AG-600 is currently the world's largest amphibious aircraft. According to AVIC, the AG-600 has a maximum take-off weight of 53.5 tonnes, enabling it to carry up to 50 people or 12 tonnes of water for firefighting missions. Powered by four WJ-6 turboprops, the aircraft has an operational range of about 4,500km. AVIC says that the AG-600 could be used for such roles as fire-fighting, search and rescue, transport to islands and maritime surveillance, although some commentators have also pointed out that the aircraft could also be used to support China’s ambitions to expand its influence in the South China Sea. AVIC claims that it has received orders for 17 AG-600s from Chinese companies and government departments.
PIC - Two illustrations from the future Large airliners paper showing three-engine blended wing body seaplane design for 200 passengers with a range of 5,600km (left) and a seven-engine design for 2.000 passengers with a range of 15,000km. (Levis and Serghides)
Looking to the future, there have even been proposals for the re-introduction of seaplanes for long-distance commercial travel. In 2015 Dr Errikos Levis from the Department of Aeronautics at Imperial London College and Professor Varnavas Serghides from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Frederick University, Cyprus published a paper proposing a family of large blended wing seaplanes which could carry between 200 to 2,000 passengers on transatlantic flights (The Potential of Seaplanes as Future Large Airliners). The paper explains how conventionally-designed seaplanes suffer from increased drag and structural weight due to the need for the fuselage to be shaped and reinforced for water-borne operations. Such designs require a V-shaped hull to enable landing on water together with tip floats to keep the air laterally stable on water - both of which will increase drag. A blended wing body would avoid these problems and improve the aircraft’s aerodynamic efficiency. Unlike most previous seaplane designs, the BWB seaplane would be powered by three, five or more high bypass ratio turbofans or propfans fitted to the top of the wings, enabling it to fly at transonic speeds. These engines could be powered with non-fossil fuels, such as hydrogen.