How to Buy a Seaplane While Keeping Your Head


How to Buy a Seaplane While Keeping Your Head Above Water And Other Interesting Sea Stories

by H. Dean Chamberlain

As a retired Marine, I thought I had heard about every type of sea story imaginable. But I was wrong. (For those not of the sea services, sea stories are usually short, fictitious yarns passed from one generation to the next. Most are funny. Many have a lesson. Some are not repeatable in polite company. But they all add to the culture of the sea services.) Last September I attended the third annual seaplane safety seminar at the FAA Safety Center at the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport, Lakeland, FL, where some great  sea stories were told during the all-day seminar.

Stories not only repeatable in polite company, but stories that should be repeated in all types of company and especially in the company of aviators. These exciting sea stories told of the unique operating capabilities and needs of seaplane pilots. Many of the stories were told by J.J. Frey, President of the Seaplane Pilots Association, a Vice-President of Edo Floats, and a seaplane pilot with almost 5,000 hours. His snippets of seaplane wisdom and lore included a great discussion on how to buy a seaplane plus some interesting sea stories about the fun and benefits of seaplane flying.

Seaplanes, he said, are special because they allow those who love to fish or explore the great outdoors the chance to fly into the lakes and areas of Alaska and Canada that are so remote the only way to visit them is in a seaplane. In many cases, some of the areas are so remote if you want to visit them, you must either fly into them in a seaplane or hike in. The choice is yours.

But before you rush out to buy a seaplane for your next great adventure, you need to read Frey's suggestions on how to buy a seaplane. If you don't, you might find yourself getting in over your head. We want to thank him for sharing his ideas. We have the liberty of adding to his ideas and comments where we wanted to emphasize a particular safety point. If you want additional information on seaplanes, we suggest you contact the Seaplane Pilots Association (SPA), 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, MD, 21701, (301-695-2083).


1. Make sure you review the seaplane's logs for any record of the aircraft being sunk or of any water damage in addition to the normal things you would check when buying any aircraft. You may want to hire an independent, experienced seaplane A&P mechanic who knows what to check on that particular make and model as part of your checkout. You need to check that all airworthiness directives (AD's) have been complied with.

2. If buying a floatplane, it is critical to make sure that the installed floats are approved for use on that particular make and model of aircraft. Some aircraft type certificates (TC) list the types of floats approved for that make and model aircraft. If the TC lists the types of floats approved for the aircraft then the only requirement to mount a set of approved floats on the aircraft is logbook entry signed off by an appropriately rated mechanic. The mechanic will also have to recompute the weight and balance for the aircraft with the floats installed. If the TC does not list any approved float installations, then the aircraft's records must contain a supplemental type certificate (STC) entry or a FAA Form 337 completed for the installation. It is important that the installation conform to the aircraft and float manufacturers' recommended procedures. This type of installation must be signed off by a certificated mechanic with inspection authorization. A new weight and balance must also be recomputed for the aircraft and floats.

3. If you are buying a floatplane, you need to make sure the correct size floats and mounting hardware have been installed. More than one floatplane has had the wrong size floats and hardware installed. You can check with the float or aircraft manufacturer for a list of approved floats for a given make and model of aircraft. The same is true of floats. Float manufacturers publish lists of aircraft makes and models approved for different float designs and sizes.

4. If the aircraft was built as a landplane and then converted to floats, you should check to see if and how the aircraft was protected against corrosion when the floats were installed. One way to check is to compare a factory-built seaplane of that model, if one was produced, against the converted land-based model. Normally, factory-built seaplanes have corrosion protection built into them at the factory such as stainless steel control cables and internal corrosion inhibitors, etc. Factory-built seaplanes may also have additional fuselage reinforcements, etc. When comparing the two models, you should check to see if any of the unique seaplane items/changes were made to the land-based airplane during the conversion process. We are not saying converting a land-based airplane to a floatplane poses a safety issue. We are saying that depending upon the scope of the conversion process used to convert a land-based airplane to a floatplane, there may be some future economic issues involved that may not be a factor if you buy a factory-built floatplane. For example, you might have to do more corrosion preventive maintenance if you are operating in a salt-water environment with a land-based converted floatplane than with a factory-built floatplane with built-in corrosion protection.

5. Depending upon the type of water the seaplane has operated on, salt water or fresh, you may want to do a more in-depth corrosion inspection before you buy the aircraft if it was operated on salt water. Salt water is more corrosive than fresh water. If you are buying a floatplane, the floats, attachment parts, and rigging must be part of that inspection process.

6. When considering performance data, you must remember that floats may and probably will reduce the aircraft's performance.

7. Amphibious floats reduce performance more than straight floats because the amphib's wheels and operating mechanism add extra weight to the amphib floats. Amphib floats also require more maintenance which means increased maintenance costs.

8. A good rule of thumb when looking at a seaplane is: If it doesn't look right, it probably isn't. Have an experienced seaplane A&P mechanic or operator check it out for you.

9. If you are looking at floatplanes, the spreader bar between the floats should not be bowed. If it is, have your A&P mechanic check it out. It may be damaged and need replacement.

10. If you want a really good check of a floatplane, you should ask the owner to take the floats off the aircraft and to separate the floats so you can inspect the spreader bars, and the float installation's main bolts and attachment hardware for corrosion and wear. You should also check the aircraft's log for how long the bolts and hardware have been installed. A rough rule of thumb is about 15 years service life for hardware on straight floats, and eight to 10 years is about average for amphibious floats.

11. Check any seaplane for algae contamination because algae can cause corrosion problems. You will need to check out each float or hull compartment very carefully for any evidence of corrosion.

12. Check the aircraft and all hardware and attachment points for structural damage. Rough water and submerged objects pose potential problems for all seaplanes. Check the hull or floats for excessive water leakage. The aircraft's fuselage should also be carefully inspected for any damage where the float attachment hardware is mounted to the fuselage. Hard or rough water landings can result in fuselage damage that may be expensive to repair.

13. Check the engine/s for all factory recommended baffles and engine compartment seals because proper installation is important for engine cooling and airflow through the engine. Generally speaking, seaplanes fly slower and operate hotter than landplanes.

14. And remember, each type of seaplane, float or hull, with its respective type of engine installation, tractor or pusher, has different flight characteristics. For example, aircraft with tractor or pusher engine installations generally respond differently to power changes. One may pitch up with a power increase. The other may pitch down. Although both types may be single-engine aircraft, they may fly differently. To be safe, you need to get a good checkout from a knowledgeable and current seaplane instructor before you take off into the wilds in a different type of aircraft. What may be a good habit pattern in one aircraft, may cause an accident in another.


In addition to Frey, Charlie Melot, the owner and general manager of Zephyrhills Engine, Zephyrhills, FL, spoke on seaplane engine maintenance and operation. Frey describes Melot as,"The best diagnostic engine guy I know."

In his discussion, Melot made one important point stand out. Seaplane engines work harder than their land-based kin. According to him, it is important that seaplane owners and pilots take even better care of their seaplane engines than their land-based counterparts might take care of their engines.

Melot said frequent engine oil and filter changes are particularly important. In addition to changing oil and oil filter regularly, Melot recommends people cut open their old oil filters after removing them to check for any metal contamination. Early detection of metal particles in your oil or trapped in your oil filter followed by prompt engine maintenance helps reduce the risk of major engine damage or possible inflight failure.

Oil analysis is another important way to check the health of your engine. In this test, a sample of your engine's oil is sent to a laboratory to be tested for metal contamination. Although one test can easily detect significant amounts of metal in a sample, a better way to protect an engine is to do periodic oil analysis tests. This way, a base line can be established for your engine and any abnormal trends can be detected early before any significant damage is done to an engine.

Melot reminded everyone that seaplane pilots need to pay particular attention how they operate their seaplanes and engines on the water because of the damage water spray can do to propellers and the seaplane. Proper takeoff techniques can reduce prop damage while minimizing engine abuse.


John Rennie, a former high-time seaplane instructor at Jack Brown Seaplane Base and now a corporate pilot who returned to Florida to share his seaplane knowledge at the seminar, told the audience of some important safety considerations unique to seaplane pilots.

Seaplanes on the water are always in motion, and once they are free on the water, they can't stop because they don't have brakes. Unlike land-based aircraft that normally don't move with the engine idling and the brakes set, a seaplane on the water with its engine running wants to move, and unless it is tied down or being held by someone, it will move. Because of this constant movement, seaplane pilots must always be aware of the consequences of that movement including the effects of any wind and current on any unrestrained seaplane.

Because of the effects of all of these outside influences, seaplane pilots must always have a safe way out of or an alternative plan for getting out of any situation in case the aircraft loses power.

Rennie told maybe the best sea story of a seaplane pilot who, not wanting to wake his friends early one morning at a seaplane fly-in on a Caribbean island, decided to let the ocean current drift him away from the island so that he could then start his engine without disturbing his friends. The problem was his engine wouldn't start. After running his battery dead trying to start the engine, the pilot then didn't have enough power to operate the radio.  He had no way of telling his friends he was in trouble as he drifted further and further out to sea.

Fortunately, a passing fishing boat found him and towed the seaplane and its hapless pilot back to the island. Of course, pilots being pilots, you can imagine the humiliation and grief the poor pilot faced from his friends as he and his aircraft were unceremoniously towed to the beach.


This example is a great reason FAA Aviation News thinks pilots should always file a flight plan or leave their itinerary and expected time of return with someone they can trust to notify authorities in case the aircraft fails to return. It is also important that a flight plan or expected time of return information be provided before every flight and especially when operating in remote areas. Our poor fly-in pilot should have considered the island a remote area because it's a great big ocean out there and seaplanes are so very small.

Obviously, he should have radioed for help long before he drained his battery trying to start the engine. Other things we think would have helped include having a portable aircraft or marine radio, a portable GPS, and a survival kit on board. A signaling mirror and flares should have been included. They can be life-savers when you are trying to attract help.

We also wonder if he had any drinkable water on board. What do you think? What other items do you think would have helped him if he had not been found by the boat's skipper. Do you carry such items? If not, why not?


Seaplane pilots have another problem that their land-based counterparts normally don't have. Few land-based pilots have to worry about a hyperactive 11-year old or an equally hyperactive 50-something year old going on 11 in a high powered bass boat or on a personal watercraft wanting to pull along side their aircraft to say hello or to race. Not only does the boat pose a serious danger to the aircraft, but few boaters realize the danger of a rotating aircraft propeller.


Jon Brown of Jack Brown Seaplane Base put all of this in context when he said seaplane pilots and pilots in general must always look out for the safety and concerns of others. Because seaplane pilots share an important natural resource with boaters, beachfront homeowners, and others who enjoy the outdoors and water activities, it is important that all seaplane pilots respect the rights of others while minimizing the impact of their flight operations on others sharing the water. The three-part series on seaplanes that we started on page 1 of this issue will address not only safety and noise, but" neighborliness."

Such things as following the right of way rules both in the air and on water, watching out for boaters, and minimizing overflights of nearby homes and boats are a few of the many ways seaplane pilots can be good neighbors on the water.
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