CHAPTER 4—Seaplane Operations – Preflight and Takeoffs


Skipping is a form of instability that may occur when landing at excessive speed with the nose at too high a pitch angle. This nose-up attitude places the seaplane at the upper trim limit of stability and causes the seaplane to enter a cyclic oscillation when touching the water, which results in the seaplane skipping across the surface. This action is similar to skipping flat stones across the water. Skipping can also occur by crossing a boat wake while taxiing on the step or during a takeoff. Sometimes the new seaplane pilot confuses a skip with a porpoise, but the pilot’s body sensations can quickly distinguish between the two. Askip gives the body vertical “G” forces, similar to bouncing a landplane. Porpoising is a rocking chair type forward and aft motion feeling.

To correct for skipping, first increase back pressure on the elevator control and add sufficient power to prevent the floats from contacting the water. Then establish the proper pitch attitude and reduce the power gradually to allow the seaplane to settle gently onto the water. Skipping oscillations do not tend to increase in amplitude, as in porpoising, but they do subject the floats and airframe to unnecessary pounding and can lead to porpoising.


A seaplane takeoff may be divided into four distinct phases: (1) The displacement phase, (2) the hump or plowing phase, (3) the planing or on the step phase, and (4) the lift-off.

The displacement phase should be familiar from the taxiing discussion. During idle taxi, the displacement of water supports nearly all of the seaplane’s weight. The weight of the seaplane forces the floats down into the water until a volume that weighs exactly as much as the seaplane has been displaced. The surface area of the float below the waterline is called the wetted area, and it varies depending on the seaplane’s weight. An empty seaplane has less wetted area than when it is fully loaded. Wetted area is a major factor in the creation of drag as the seaplane moves through the water.

As power is applied, the floats move faster through the water. The water resists this motion, creating drag. The forward portion of the float is shaped to transform the horizontal movement through the water into an upward lifting force by diverting the water downward. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and in this case, pushing water downward results in an upward force known as hydrodynamic lift.

In the plowing phase, hydrodynamic lift begins pushing up the front of the floats, raising the seaplane’s nose and moving the center of buoyancy aft. This, combined with the downward pressure on the tail generated by holding the elevator control all the way back, forces the rear part of the floats deeper into the water. This creates more wetted area and consequently more drag, and explains why the seaplane accelerates so slowly during this part of the takeoff.

This resistance typically reaches its peak just before the floats are placed into a planing attitude. Figure 4-14 shows a graph of the drag forces at work during a seaplane takeoff run. The area of greatest resistance is referred to as the hump because of the shape of the water drag curve. During the plowing phase, the increasing water speed generates more and more hydrodynamic lift. With more of the weight supported by hydrodynamic lift, proportionately less is supported by displacement and the floats are able to rise in the water. As they do, there is less wetted area to cause drag, which allows more acceleration, which in turn increases hydrodynamic lift. There is a limit to how far this cycle can go, however, because as speed builds, so does the amount of drag on the remaining wetted area. Drag increases as the square of speed, and eventually drag forces would balance the power output of the engine and the seaplane would continue along the surface without further acceleration.

Seaplanes have been built with sufficient power to accelerate to takeoff speed this way, but fortunately the step was invented, and it makes further acceleration possible without additional power. After passing over the hump, the seaplane is traveling fast enough that its weight can be supported entirely by hydrodynamic lift. Relaxing the back pressure on the elevator control allows the float to rock up onto the step, and lifts the rear portions of the floats clear of the water. This eliminates all of the wetted area aft of the step, along with the associated drag.

As further acceleration takes place, the flight controls become more responsive, just as in a landplane. Elevator deflection is gradually reduced to hold the required planing attitude. As the seaplane continues to accelerate, more and more weight is being supported by the aerodynamic lift of the wings and water resistance continues to decrease. When all of the weight is transferred to the wings, the seaplane becomes airborne.

Several factors greatly increase the water drag or resistance, such as heavy loading of the seaplane or glassy water conditions. In extreme cases, the drag may exceed the available thrust and prevent the seaplane from becoming airborne. This is particularly true when operating in areas with high density altitudes (high elevations/ high temperatures) where the engine cannot develop full rated power. For this reason the pilot should practice takeoffs using only partial power to simulate the longer takeoff runs needed when operating where the density altitude is high and/or the seaplane is heavily loaded. This practice should be conducted under the supervision of an experienced seaplane instructor, and in accordance with any cautions or limitations in the AFM/POH. Plan for the additional takeoff area required, as well as the flatter angle of climb after takeoff, and allow plenty of room for error.

Use all of the available cues to verify the wind direction. Besides reading the water, pick up clues to the wind’s direction from wind indicators and streamers on the masts of moored boats, flags on flagpoles, or rising smoke. A boat moored to a buoy points into the wind, but be aware that it may have a stern anchor as well, preventing it from pointing into the wind.

Waterfowl almost always align themselves facing into the wind.

Naturally, be sure you have enough room for takeoff. The landing distance of a seaplane is much shorter than that required for takeoff, and many pilots have landed in areas that have turned out to be too short for takeoff. If you suspect that the available distance may be inadequate, consider reducing weight by leaving some of your load behind or wait for more favorable weather conditions. Atakeoff that would be dangerous on a hot, still afternoon might be accomplished safely on the following morning, with cooler temperatures and a brisk wind.

In addition to wind, consider the effects of the current when choosing the direction for takeoff. Keep in mind that when taxiing in the same direction as the current, directional control may be reduced because the seaplane is not moving as quickly through the water. In rivers or tidal flows, make crosswind or calm wind takeoffs in the same direction as the current. This reduces the water forces on the floats. Suppose the seaplane lifts off at 50 knots and the current is 3 knots. If winds are calm, the seaplane needs a water speed of 47 knots to take off downstream, but must accelerate to a water speed of 53 knots to become airborne against the current. This difference of 6 knots requires a longer time on the water and generates more stress on the floats. The situation becomes more complex when wind is a factor. If the wind is blowing against the current, its speed can help the wings develop lift sooner, but will raise higher waves on the surface. If the wind is in the same direction as the current, at what point does the speed of the wind make it more worthwhile to take off against the current? In the previous example, a wind velocity of 3 knots would exactly cancel the benefit of the current, since the air and water would be moving at the same speed. In most situations, take off into the wind if the speed of the wind is greater than the current.

Unlike landplane operations at airports, many other activities are permitted in waters where seaplane operations are conducted. Seaplane pilots encounter a variety of objects on the water, some of which are nearly submerged and difficult to see. These include items that are stationary, such as pilings and buoys, and those that are mobile, like logs, swimmers, water skiers, and a variety of watercraft. Before beginning the takeoff, it is a good practice to taxi along the intended takeoff path to check for any hazardous objects or obstructions.

Make absolutely sure the takeoff path ahead is free of boats, swimmers, and other water traffic, and be sure it will remain so for the duration of the takeoff run. Powerboats, wind-surfers, and jet-skis can move quickly and change direction abruptly. As the seaplane’s nose comes up with the application of full power, the view ahead may be completely blocked by the cowling. Check to the sides and behind the seaplane as well as straight ahead, since many watercraft move much faster than the normal taxi speed and may be passing the seaplane from behind. In addition to the vessels themselves, also scan for their wakes and try to anticipate where the wakes will be during takeoff. Operators of motorboats and other watercraft often do not realize the hazard caused by moving their vessels across the takeoff path of a seaplane. It is usually better to delay takeoff and wait for the swells to pass rather than encountering them at high speed. Even small swells can cause dangerous pitching or rolling for a seaplane, so taxi across them at an angle rather than head-on. Remember to check for other air traffic and make any appropriate radio calls.

Be sure to use the pre-takeoff checklist on every takeoff. All checks are performed as the seaplane taxies, including the engine runup. Hold the elevator control all the way back throughout the runup to minimize spray around the propeller. If there is significant wind, let the seaplane turn into the wind for the runup. As r.p.m. increases, the nose rises into the plowing position and the seaplane begins to accelerate. Since this is a relatively unstable position, performing the runup into the wind minimizes the possibility of crosswinds, rough water, or gusts upsetting the seaplane. Waste no time during the runup checks, but be thorough and precise. Taxi speed will drop as soon as the power is reduced.

Water rudders are normally retracted before applying takeoff power. The buffeting and dynamic water pressure during a takeoff can cause serious damage if the water rudders are left down.

As full power is applied during takeoff in most seaplanes, torque and P-factor tend to force the left float down into the water. Right rudder pressure helps to maintain a straight takeoff path. In some cases, left aileron may also help to counter the tendency to turn left at low speeds, by increasing drag on the right side of the seaplane.

Density altitude is particularly important in seaplane flying. High, hot, and humid conditions reduce engine power and propeller efficiency, and the seaplane must also attain a higher water speed in order to generate the lift required for takeoff. This increase in water speed means overcoming additional water drag. All of these factors combine to increase takeoff distances and decrease climb performance. In high density altitude conditions, consider not only the length of the water run, but the room required for a safe climbout as well.

The land area around a body of water is invariably somewhat higher than the water surface. Tall trees are common along shorelines, and in many areas, steep or mountainous terrain rises from the water’s edge. Be certain the departure path allows sufficient room for safe terrain clearance or for a wide climbing turn back over the water.

There are specific takeoff techniques for different wind and water situations. Large water areas almost always allow a takeoff into the wind, but there are occasionally circumstances where a crosswind or downwind takeoff may be more appropriate. Over the years, techniques have evolved for handling rough water or a glassy smooth surface. Knowing and practicing these techniques not only keep skills polished so they are available when needed, they also increase overall proficiency and add to the enjoyment of seaplane flying.

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