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From intercontinental travel to modern workhorse: the changing role of the seaplane

From luxurious intercontinental travel to the modern workhorse it is today, the hardworking seaplane has stayed right out front of aviation innovation and just might revolutionize the future of air travel. Want to find out how? Read more in this article.

Fast facts

  • A seaplane is any class of aircraft that can land, float and take off on water.
  • Seaplanes with boat-like hulls are also called flying boats.
  • Seaplanes with separate pontoons or floats are known as floatplanes.
  • Unlike jets, seaplanes fly at a low altitude of 3,500 feet and are designed for short take-offs and landings – they can clear a 50ft obstacle within 1,500 feet of take-off.
  • There are about 35,000 seaplane-rated pilots in the U.S.A. with current medical certificates.
  • According to the Seaplane Pilots Association, only three percent of pilots have a seaplane rating, even though seaplane pilots are highly regarded for greater stick and rudder skills than the average pilot.
  • China’s AG600 is the world's largest amphibious aircraft – 121 feet long (similar in size to a Boeing 737) and with a maximum take-off weight of 53.5 tons.
  • The ICON A5 amphibious light sport aircraft boasts foldable wings for easy storage, can be towed behind your car and operates on aviation fuel as well as regular gasoline bought from any gas station.
  • The world’s most expensive seaplane is Japan’s ShinMaywa US-2, purchased in 2013 for $156 million.

Where to start

Henri Fabre sat on his seaplane whilst man in rowing boat helps pull the plane to the shore.
Henri Fabre sat on his seaplane whilst man in rowing boat helps pull the plane to the shore.

The first successful powered seaplane flight took place in 1910 in Marseilles, France, when Henri Fabre piloted an invention he called the Hydravion. It was made of ash-wood frame and cotton covering, with plywood floats so well-designed that they provided additional lift when the plane was aloft. It was 27ft 10in long with a wingspan of 45ft 11in and weighed just over half a ton, with a Chauviere propeller mounted at the back of the plane.

Just over a year later, Glenn H. Curtiss built and flew the first seaplane in the United States, an invention that led to the British F-boats of World War I. For the first time, it was possible to carry out naval air missions such as over-ocean patrol, antisubmarine warfare, mine laying and air-sea rescue. Following the war, commercial versions of the seaplane set the range and endurance records of the time. In 1919, the U.S. Navy’s water-based NC-4 made the first crossing of the North Atlantic via the Azores. By the late 1920s, seaplanes were the largest and fastest aircraft in the world.

The use of seaplanes gradually diminished following the outbreak of World War II; partly because of the increased range of land-based planes and partly because of the construction of land bases and aircraft carriers. Development of water-based aircraft continued after the war ended, but only on a small scale.

The world’s favorite adventure plane

Yellow, blue and white seaplane docked on the ocean by the palm trees of a Maldives holiday hut.
Yellow, blue and white seaplane docked on the ocean by the palm trees of a Maldives holiday hut.

Today, seaplanes are most often used in tourism and search and rescue. Coastguards are the largest operators of seaplanes, due to their unsurpassed ability to both spot and rescue survivors; helicopters are limited in their capacity to carry survivors and have lower fuel efficiency compared to fixed-wing aircraft. For similar reasons, these aircraft are used to drop water on forest fires.

Seaplanes remain popular among travelers and adventurers who charter amphibious aircraft to explore archipelagos and gain access to undeveloped or roadless areas and lakes. There are few more scenic ways to reach remote areas of Alaska and the Canadian wilderness or experience Caribbean islands. Seaplanes can be chartered both as part of a group scheduled tour or for private personal use.

A bright future for the seaplane?

Engineers at Imperial College London are busy developing the design and engineering specifications of a giant futuristic flying boat that could carry as many as 2,000 passengers.

Meanwhile, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China is building the world's largest amphibious aircraft – the AG600 – which is as big as a Boeing 737, with a maximum cruising speed of 300mph and a range of 12 hours or 2,800 miles. The aircraft will be used for firefighting and marine rescue missions.

Does all this point to the beginnings of a seaplane renaissance? Experts certainly hope so. Seaplanes have for over a century saved many lives and created unforgettable sights and experiences for tourists and adventurers the world over.

How much do seaplane charter flights cost?

This depends on the type of aircraft you charter and the route you take. To find out, check out this blog post on how much it costs to hire a private plane. For a tailored quote for your bespoke journey, speak to our team. We’ll answer all your questions and assign a dedicated account manager who can take care of all the finer details.



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