The use of seaplanes dates back to 1910, when French aviation pioneer Henri Fabre performed the first successful launch of a seaplane from water. Fabre’s plane, Le Canard or Duck, was powered by a 50 hp. engine and flew a course of about 1,650 ft. The following year, Glenn Curtiss, the renowned American aviator and racing enthusiast modified a biplane with attached floats and successfully took off and landed from water. During World War I seaplanes played a limited but important role in protecting convoys from prowling German U boats. However, it was not until after the war when a Curtiss NC-4 became the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic from New York to Lisbon that their potential was recognized by both the civil and military aviation communities.
In order to gain a better understanding of seaplanes, we must first define them by their subcategories – amphibians, float planes and flying boats. An amphibian is an aircraft which can take off from both land and water, having both floats and /or a boat shaped fuselage with retractable wheels. Float planes are essentially land based aircraft with flotation pontoons attached underneath the plane corresponding with the landing gear position, as these are often interchangable with landing wheels. Floatplanes either have a large central float located underneath the fuselage with additional floats near the wingtips for lateral stability or a catamaran arrangement placing two equal sized floats below the inner wing to provide buoyancy. Flying boats are seaplanes which have a boatlike shape to their fuselage and usually land in water, although the employment of beaching gear, a temporary dolly on wheels, may be used to move the plane from water to land.
During the 1920s a number of float planes competed in the international racing circuit. By the 1930s seaplanes were being developed for use as commercial airliners. The advantages were twofold: early aircraft engines were still relatively unreliable, so a plane which could land on the sea offered a measure of protection in the event of engine failure, while the capability to land on water made such aircraft accessible to remote areas of the globe. By the mid 1930s seaplanes such as the Sikorsky S-42 and the Martin M-130 were flying transoceanic routes on a regular basis, connecting North America with both Europe and Asia. Flying boats, amphibians and float planes were used extensively during World War II for reconnaisance, transport and bombardment missions, the Consolidated PBY Catalina a prime example.
However, after the war interest in amphibian aircraft began to wane for several reasons. By the late 1940s enough commercial airliners with intercontinental range became available to cover the routes flown by the seaplanes, while newer land based aircraft offered more passenger capacity, speed and range than flying boats. Military use of seaplanes declined as well, as a result of their being superceded by more efficient land based patrol and transport aircraft and the more cost effective helicopters in the air-sea rescue role.
Despite their decline in commercial and military use, amphibians are extremely well suited for operations in remote areas of the globe, providing vital links to the outside world. The current trend toward light sport aircraft has renewed interest in them, with a number of high tech designs such as the Privateer, Donier S-Ray and Petrel. The common thread among these aircraft are lightweight composite materials, fuel efficient engines, as well as the latest electronics. These planes are both versatile and fun to fly. Instead of fishing on one lake with a boat, why not fish from several with an amphibian?