CHAPTER 3—Water Characteristics and Seaplane Base Operations


A competent seaplane pilot is knowledgeable in the characteristics of water and how they affect the seaplane. As a fluid, water seeks its own level, and forms a flat, glassy surface if undisturbed. Winds, currents, or objects traveling along its surface create waves and movements that change the surface characteristics.

Just as airplanes encounter resistance in the form of drag as they move through the air, seaplane hulls and floats respond to drag forces as they move through water. Drag varies proportionately to the square of speed. In other words, doubling the seaplane’s speed across the water results in four times the drag force.

Forces created when operating an airplane on water are more complex than those created on land. For landplanes, friction acts at specific points where the tires meet the ground. Water forces act along the entire length of a seaplane’s floats or hull. These forces vary constantly depending on the pitch attitude, the changing motion of the float or hull, and action of the waves. Because floats are mounted rigidly to the structure of the fuselage, they provide no shock absorbing function, unlike the landing gear of landplanes. While water may seem soft and yielding, damaging forces and shocks can be transmitted directly through the floats and struts to the basic structure of the airplane.

Under calm wind conditions, the smooth water surface presents a uniform appearance from above, somewhat like a mirror. This situation eliminates visual references for the pilot and can be extremely deceptive. If waves are decaying and setting up certain patterns, or if clouds are reflected from the water surface, the resulting distortions can be confusing even for experienced seaplane pilots.


The ability to read the water’s surface is an integral part of seaplane flying. The interaction of wind and water determine the surface conditions, while tides and currents affect the movement of the water itself. Features along the shore and under the water’s surface contribute their effects as well. With a little study, the interplay between these factors becomes clearer.

A few simple terms describe the anatomy and characteristics of waves. The top of a wave is the crest, and the low valley between waves is a trough. The height of waves is measured from the bottom of the trough to the top of the crest. Naturally, the distance between two wave crests is the wavelength. The time interval between the passage of two successive wave crests at a fixed point is the period of the wave.

Waves are usually caused by wind moving across the surface of the water. As the air pushes the water, ripples form. These ripples become waves in strong or sustained winds; the higher the speed of the wind, or the longer the wind acts on them, the larger the waves. Waves can be caused by other factors, such as underwater earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or tidal movement, but wind is the primary cause of most waves. [Figure 3-1 on next page]

Calm water begins to show wave motion when the wind reaches about two knots. At this windspeed, patches of ripples begin to form. If the wind stops, surface tension and gravity quickly damp the waves, and the surface returns to its flat, glassy condition. If the wind increases to four knots, the ripples become small waves, which move in the same direction as the wind and persist for some time after the wind stops blowing.

As windspeed increases above four knots, the water surface becomes covered with a complicated pattern of waves. When the wind is increasing, waves become larger and travel faster. If the wind remains at a constant speed, waves develop into a series of evenly spaced parallel crests of the same height.

In simple waves, an object floating on the surface shows that waves are primarily an up and down motion of the water, rather than the water itself moving downwind at the speed of the waves. The floating object describes a circle in the vertical plane, moving upward as the crest approaches, forward and downward as the crest passes, and backward as the trough passes. After each wave passes, the object is at almost the same place as before. The wind does cause floating objects to drift slowly downwind.

While the wind is blowing and adding energy to the water, the resulting waves are commonly referred to as wind waves or sea. (Sea is also occasionally used to describe the combined motion of all the factors disturbing the surface.) These waves tend to be a chaotic mix of heights, periods, and wavelengths. Because the wind causes the height to increase faster than the wavelength, they often have relatively steep, pointed crests and rounded troughs. With a windspeed of 12 knots, the waves begin to break at their crests and create foam.

The height of waves depends on three factors: windspeed, length of time the wind blows over the water, and the distance over which the wind acts on the water. As waves move away from the area where they were generated (called a fetch), they begin to sort themselves by height and period, becoming regular and evenly spaced. These waves often continue for thousands of miles from where they were generated. Swell is the term describing waves that persist outside the fetch or in the absence of the force that generated them. Aswell may be large or small, and does not indicate the direction of the wind. The wake of a boat or ship is also a swell.

Unlike wind and current, waves are not deflected much by the rotation of the Earth, but move in the direction in which the generating wind blows. When this wind ceases, water friction and spreading reduce the wave height, but the reduction takes place so slowly that a swell persists until the waves encounter an obstruction, such as a shore. Swell systems from many different directions, even from different parts of the world, may cross each other and interact. Often two or more swell systems are visible on the surface, with a sea wave system developing due to the current wind.

In lakes and sheltered waters, it is often easy to tell wind direction by simply looking at the water’s surface. There is usually a strip of calm water along the upwind shore of a lake. Waves are perpendicular to the wind direction. Windspeeds above approximately eight knots leave wind streaks on the water, which are parallel to the wind.

Land masses sculpt and channel the air as it moves over them, changing the wind direction and speed. Wind direction may change dramatically from one part of a lake or bay to another, and may even blow in opposite directions within a surprisingly short distance. Always pay attention to the various wind indicators in the area, especially when setting up for takeoff or landing.

While waves are simply an up and down undulation of the water surface, currents are horizontal movements of the water itself, such as the flow of water downstream in a river. Currents also exist in the oceans, where solar heating, the Earth’s rotation, and tidal forces cause the ocean water to circulate.

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