Return of the executive seaplane

Sep 9, 2018 - 8:45 PM

Antique-airplane aficionados often refer to the 1930s as the golden age of aviation. It was an era that saw a proliferation of aircraft builders and a time when airplanes were meticulously and laboriously assembled by hand; materials were expensive and labor was not. Airports, while growing in number, were still a relative rarity—the number of public airports in the U.S. has grown tenfold since then—and the aircraft of the day reflected that: many models were seaplanes (see below), be they amphibious or built solely for off-land operations, to take advantage of the fact that water covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface. 

Technology and economics largely made business and commercial seaplanes irrelevant by the end of World War II, save for places like Alaska and Vancouver. However, today’s urban land gridlock and global economic development are conspiring to make seaplanes relevant again. 

Blade—an on-demand helicopter service—has a seaplane base on the banks of New York’s East River. Its contractor, Tailwind Airways, provides service from the river base to executive airports at White Plains, New York and Teterboro, New Jersey; and, on New York’s Long Island, to the Hamptons, Montauk, Sag Harbor, and Shelter Island. There’s also service between Boston and Nantucket, and Tailwind is looking at expanding service to Washington, D.C.; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Montreal; and Toronto. Tailwind flies Cessna Caravans on amphibious floats. 

Cessna Grand Caravan with executive interior by Wipaire

St. Paul-based Wipaire, meanwhile, has been equipping seaplanes since 1960 and does a healthy business in Cessna Caravans and Twin Otters. “We’re seeing increased interest in outfitting aircraft on floats with VIP interiors internationally, with a smaller uptick domestically,” says Clint Clouatre, Wipaire’s vice president of sales and marketing. “Individual owners and aircraft operators that provide last-mile service to exclusive properties are finding that they can improve the passenger experience by adding high-end finishes and appointments similar to what you’d find in jets. In aircraft used as luxury resort transportation, an upgraded interior smooths the transition from jet travel to seaplane and offers an enhanced customer experience. The interior can really set the tone for how enjoyable the flight is. No matter how rugged the aircraft or how far off the beaten path the destination, you don’t have to feel that [you’re roughing it] when you sit down inside.” 

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Seaplanes never fell out of favor with certain resort destinations such as Bimini; Cape Air provides daily flights between that island and Fort Lauderdale and Miami and flies from its San Juan hub to St. Thomas, St. Croix, Tortola, Vieques, Mayaguez, Culebra, and Virgin Gorda. Harbour Air Seaplanes has long been a mainstay in Vancouver, with service within that market as well as to the Canadian cities of Victoria, Nanaimo, Comox, and Whistler, and to the Gulf Islands and Sechelt.

Now seaplanes are gaining popularity in other parts of the world, too. Seawings offers seaplane service in Dubai, once a “flying boat” stop on the route from the U.K. to India. Seawings service cuts travel time from the UAE airport to the Dubai World Central complex by 30 minutes to an hour, depending on time of day. In Mumbai, India, Maritime Energy Heli Air Services operates seaplanes to the Aamby Valley and islands in the Bay of Bengal and plans to add two dozen more aircraft to service destinations along the country’s 6,000 miles of coastline. Setouchi Holdings, parent of Idaho-based Quest Aircraft, has formed a joint venture with Island Aviation Services in the Maldives to run a seaplane service featuring Quest Kodiak aircraft on Aerocat floats. Consisting of 1,200 coral islands, the Maldives hosts more than 45 seaplanes. 

Dornier Seastar

The worldwide seaplane resurgence has prompted aircraft manufacturers to take another look at the market. Viking Aircraft, holder of the type certificate for the Twin Otter twin-engine turboprop, began offering a dedicated floatplane version of the model, called the 400S, last year. The $5.995 million aircraft features straight floats (no wheels) with Honeywell VFR avionics, less-powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-27 engines (620 shaft horsepower each), and a 17-place interior.

The 400S will have special maritime-use anti-corrosion features, including drains, seals, and protective coatings. Amphibious floats are available on the 400 and add slightly more than $500,000 to its base price. The Dornier Seastar, a $7.21 million twin-engine turboprop amphibian certified in 1991, has been resurrected with Chinese financial backing: an updated prototype rolled out last August. The 12-passenger Seastar cruises at 180 knots and has a 900-nautical-mile range and a service ceiling of 15,000 feet. Dornier Seaplane Company founder Conrado Dornier notes that China, due to its long coastline, large inland bodies of water, and comparatively scarce airport infrastructure, is a natural market for seaplanes. The Chinese government seems to think so as well, as it is bankrolling development of the world’s largest amphibian, the 117,700-pound AG600. 

While seaplanes will never replace modern jets, they can make remote or congested destinations more convenient and accessible and offer a cost-effective alternative to helicopters. A new golden age of seaplanes may be just over the horizon.    

The First Golden Age of Seaplanes

As the accompanying story notes, seaplanes first enjoyed popularity in the 1930s and early 1940s. In fact, Terminal A at New York City’s La Guardia Airport was once known as the “Marine Air Terminal” and was built, in 1939, to handle seaplanes. In the 1930s, seaplanes were landing in Chicago’s Burnham Harbor, next to Northerly Island, where Meigs Field would open in 1948. Los Angeles and Miami also had thriving seaplane bases. 

Amphibians built for corporate use were elegant affairs. For example, the Sikorsky S-38—a 10- to 12-seat, twin-engine flying boat built beginning in 1928—featured wicker-backed seats upholstered in mohair and leather in a cabin finished in teak and brass. The passengers drank from crystal decanters. S-38 pilots and owners included billionaire entrepreneur Howard Hughes, Charles Lindbergh, and “Colonel” Robert McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune. Back then, airplanes that landed on water captured the romance of the day—both the glamor and the zest for unbridled go-anywhere exploration. 

They were not fast, because their pontoons or boat-hull fuselages imposed enormous drag penalties. World War II triggered not just a massive airport-building program worldwide but also numerous aerodynamic and engine advances that hastened the march of much slower amphibious business and commercial aircraft toward obsolescence.

Boeing’s massive transoceanic Model 314 Clipper, introduced in 1938 and flown by Pan Am, had a range of 3,600 miles but typically cruised at just 155 mph with a full load of 36 passengers in sleeping berths—nice to have on the 19-hour flight from San Francisco to Honolulu—and required a crew of 11. The late author Ernest K. Gann, himself a seaplane pilot, called one poky amphibian “the only airplane I ever owned that you could put in a dive, lose a cylinder, and stall out.” —M.H.