Seaplanes are the historical heart of aviation. Pilots have flown off-the-water since the beginning of flying itself. Yet, seaplanes sometimes meet resistance, even strong opposition, from concerned citizens and elected officials. Controversies usually center on safety and noise....[I]t is important to remember that concerns about safety and noise are real.
So, Are Seaplanes Safe?
According to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident statistics, over a 13-year period from 1983 to 1995, there have been as few as five seaplane accidents in a year and as many as 37. Over that 13-year time there were a total of 195 seaplane accidents on the water. (There were 338 accidents involving seaplanes, but only those which actually involved seaplane operations on the water are presented statistically here.) Of 438 people involved in the 195 accidents, there were 54 fatalities, and 49 people sustained major injuries. More than half the people involved had no injuries at all.
Over the 13 years studied, only three accidents occurred involving boats, and there were three fatalities in the boats. In six accidents, boat wakes were cited as contributing factors to a seaplane accident; i.e., there was no collision between the boat and the seaplane. In one accident, the seaplane pilot maneuvering to avoid a boat was cited as the probable cause. Property damage excluding the seaplanes and boats involved was almost nonexistent over the 13 years.
So, what, you say, do people have to complain about? As SPA says in its report, After all, seaplanes operate off lakes and rivers, even canals and small harbors, and many times are in...proximity to boats and beaches. This capability can cause concern.
Given the misconceptions among the public about aviation in general and small aircraft in particular, it is easy to see how the public can be concerned. And the industry, FAA, and the NTSB became concerned as well when the total number of accidents per year exploded in 1993: from 11 in 1992 to an incredible 36. If that weren't bad enough, in 1994 there were 37 accidents. In 1993 for the first time in the 13-year accident study period, seaplane accident fatalities went to double digits11, followed by 15 in 1994. Two of those accidents over those two years involved collisions with boats where the occupants of the boats were killed. This prompted the NTSB to issue safety recommendations concerning seaplane operations to which the FAA has chosen to respond in the interest of safety with the publication of this three-part series of articles.
Probable Causes and Contributing Factors
A few years ago, we published an article called Breaking the Chain, which described how accidents are rarely the result of a single, catastrophic event but rather the result of a string or chain of events which, if unaltered, leads to an inevitable conclusion. Break the chain of events, and you avoid the accident. You break the chain through proficiency, good judgment, and situational awareness.
Seaplane accidents are no different. The top three causes of the seaplane accidents in the study were improper technique or procedures (61 occurrences), a grab-bag probable cause that can encompass any deviation from proper operating procedures; landing in water with wheels extended (27 occurrences; five of which were caused by mechanical failure), which occurs when an amphib lands on the water with the gear down; and poor weather, gusty winds (26 occurrences), which includes not dealing with crosswinds or wind shear. The fourth leading cause of accidents was glassy water (11 occurrences), the bane of seaplane pilots where calm, flat water diminishes depth perception.
Two other leading causes were striking a submerged object (nine occurrences) and rough water (six occurrences). These top six causal factors were cited in 138 of the 195 accidents 72%. (Actually, there was one fairly interesting probable cause that came in last, that is, the least occurring probable cause: alligator avoidance. That could be a story in itself.) Alcohol or drug involvement was cited in four accidents, and that's four too many.
Improper Technique or Procedure
In accidents attributed to this, there may have been contributing factors such as rough water or high winds, but there are established procedures for dealing with such conditions. If the seaplane pilot failed to follow those established procedures or misapplied them, then the probable cause of improper technique or procedure is designated. Included in this is improper preflight judgment deciding to fly in bad weather, not bilge pumping the floats, etc.
To protect yourself against using an improper procedure or technique, practice and proficiency are the key. This was one of the reasons the Pilot Proficiency Award Program initiated its SEAWINGS aspect last year. (See the October 1996 issue of FAA Aviation News.) Seaplane pilots were always eligible for the Wings program by virtue of the fact that seaplanes are also airplanes, but the requirements to receive the distinctive SEAWINGS address specifically seaplane operations. After the start of the Wings program, general aviation enjoyed (and still does) a long decrease in accidents; hopefully, SEAWINGS will do the same for seaplane pilots.
Even if you don't opt for SEA-WINGS, proficiency or recurrent training in seaplanes is not terribly expensive. My seaplane base in East Haddam used to offer four hours of recurrent training for $99. For a hundred bucks a quarter, you can assure yourself of year-round proficiency this way. Besides, it never hurts to fly with an instructor once in a while.
Water Landings with Wheels Extended
Isn't it ironic that if you're a land-only pilot, you have to remember to put your gear down, but if you're landing an amphib on water, you have to remember to keep your wheels up? It can be confusing. Landing an amphib with the gear down on water means your floats take on water, and the aircraft is in danger of sinking. Only in five of the 27 cases of landing on water with the gear down was there mechanical failure. The other 22 pilots may have benefited from using a checklist to assure the gear was up. If you've just come from a retractable gear land plane to an amphib, your situational awareness of your landing gear will only be enhanced by strict adherence to the pre-landing checklist.
Poor Weather, Gusty Winds
Seaplanes are not any more susceptible to bad weather or turbulence than land planes, but seaplanes operate into more areas where there is no capability to report weather or into areas where terrain turns a mild wind into various shears and crosswinds. Again, seaplane pilots receive training on how to spot phenomenon that may estimate from where and how strong the winds are blowing, and again, refreshing that training periodically is essential. And remember, anytime you have a lot of water, you have the potential for ground fog that can sock you in once you land or obscure obstacles on your approach. Granted, if you're flying into areas where there is no weather reporting capability, you will have to learn enough about weather and its movements to extrapolate on your own. PIREP's getting and giving are a good source of information.
You'd think seaplane pilots would want absolutely calm water,
wouldn't you? But glassy water flat, calm surface that reflects
like a mirror can be one of the most dangerous conditions a seaplane
pilot can face. Picture this: Try staring into a mirror and reaching
in to pick some object up; your hand smacks the mirror before
you realize how close your hand is to it. Seaplane pilots who
attempt to approach and flare at the correct height above glassy
water are destined to smack the surface of the water. When your
hand hits a mirror, you're likely to receive a sore knuckle or
two; when your seaplane smacks glassy waterwell, it is not pleasant.
Here is where proper technique comes into play. For a glassy water landing, you set up in landing attitude and fly the seaplane with power onto the water, but you use your peripheral vision for cues to your height trees or structures along the shore. When you touch the water, power off, and you've made a safe, glassy water landing.
You can practice glassy water landings on non-glassy water so
that you can become proficient before actually being put to the
glassy water test. Of course, you use a little more room with
this technique, so you have to be sure your waterway is long enough.
Although no accidents were cited in the study where seaplanes
landed long, running up on someone's boat docks does not improve
the public's opinion of seaplanes.
Striking a Submerged Object
If you're lucky to land in crystal clear water, you can better spot submerged objects, but often you don't have that luxury. I was taking a seaplane refresher in East Haddam a few years ago after a week's worth of rainstorms and some minor flooding. The Connecticut River was muddily opaque and full of floating tree limbs and lawn furniture. It was quite a challenge to find a landing spot. When objects float you can spot them, but treat them like ice bergs the biggest portion is probably hidden underwater.
Overflying your landing area is a good idea to spot sandbars or submerged logs, and, of course, just like taxiing slowly on the surface, slow water taxiing will diminish the damage if you do encounter a submerged object. Granted, step-taxiing gets you where you're going faster, but if you know there are conditions as I described above, you may have to forego step-taxiing. In fact, it's best to treat any landing area unfamiliar to you as chock full of submerged objects and use caution.
Seaplane pilots don't want glassy water, and they don't want rough water. (Is there just no pleasing us?) Rough water may not only beyond your capabilities to control the airplane in pitching waves, it may be beyond the aircraft's capabilities as well. What's rough water? At times you may not know it until you touch down on it, but there are a number of clues before that. You can look for the typical things a land pilot looks for: how quickly columns of smoke dissipate and at what altitude, how rapidly and to what extend leaves on trees move around, and big clue here white caps on the water.
Rough enough water can cause break-up of your aircraft on the
surface at the worst or damage it to the point where you cannot
takeoff again. Cited with this type of accident as contributing
factors were things like poor pilot judgment and improper technique.
The Where of Seaplane Accidents
If we would just allow seven states to secede, the seaplane accident rate would be pretty good, but since those are the states with the most seaplane activity, it wouldn't do much for the industry. All joking aside, the states in order where the most seaplane accidents occurred over the 13-year period were:
Alaska 70, Florida 18, Washington 15, New York 10, Maine 9, Michigan 9, Wisconsin 9
Total 140 (72% of total accidents)
Let's take a look at this. Alaska, which boasts the largest seaplane base in the world, Lake Hood, has more than one-third of the seaplane accidents. When viewed this way, that statistic makes sense; there are more seaplanes and the exposure is greater. I said it was understandable but not an excuse.
Florida, which includes the Keys, has the second highest. Again, there is a large concentration of seaplanes in the state and traveling to the state. You have year-round conditions for seaplane flying and lots of inland and coastal water.
Washington state has Lake Union, a downtown Seattle seaplane base. New York borders on the Great Lakes and has lots of inland water, as do Maine, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Do I detect a pattern here? Could it be that the states that have the most water available have the most seaplanes? Could it be that those same states attract seaplanes to fly there for that very reason? Anda quantum leap of logic here could it be where you have more seaplane activity, you have the most accidents? Eureka! (My parents would be so proud that that education they paid for bore some fruit.)
Through humor I've tried to make a point. Seaplane accidents happen where there are seaplanes, but car accidents happen where there are cars. You don't see local governments banning cars from a stretch of road that has experienced a spate of accidents, but they jump right to the front to keep those horrible, dangerous seaplanes away from the public even when the accident statistics don't support such action. (You know, the way people are driving lately, we may be safer in a seaplane.)
What we can do as seaplane pilots is be as careful as we can possibly
be when we interact on the water with boaters, operators of personal
watercraft, canoers, etc. It's a lot of responsibility to place
upon us responsibility not only for ourselves and our passengers
but others on the water as well. In SPA's report they discuss
three factors that can help us: a higher pilot standard, cockpit
discipline, and judgement.
Seaplane Versatility Requires a Higher Pilot Standard
SPA believes that the seaplane's versatility, that ability to go where other aircraft can't, demands peak pilot performance and skill. Whereas SPA doesn't advocate increased regulatory standards nor does the FAA at this point they encourage seaplane pilots to hold themselves and each other to a higher standard. Recurrent and proficiency training is the best way to attain those higher standards.
Cockpit Discipline Necessary in an Environment of Freedom
The seaplane frees us from the usual aviation environment. Somewhat like the good Starship Enterprise, in a seaplane we can go to a mountain lake where no one has flown before. SPA believes as I do that with this freedom of choice comes responsibility to exercise our skills and use good judgment.
SPA cites the accidents whose probable causes were listed as pilot
failure: landing in the water with wheels extended, for example.
Adhering to checklists, as we've said, shows cockpit discipline.
Maybe, just maybe if we can convince the public that we are as
conscientious, as much of an adherent to cockpit discipline as
our airline pilot siblings, it will go a long way toward convincing
them seaplanes or any small plane are safe to co-exist with.
Judgment, A Necessary Element
Adhering to a higher standard and exercising cockpit discipline are inextricably linked with good judgment. Using good judgment may be as simple as acquiring, absorbing, integrating, and using all possible information that affects a flight. (Does this sound like FAR 91.103, Preflight action?)
Some people say you can't teach a person good judgment, but studies
have shown you can change behavior, and essential to changing
some behavior is incorporating better use of one's judgment. The
FAA's Aviation Safety Program introduced at Oshkosh last year
a new concept in exercising judgment the Personal Minimums Checklist.
Explained in an accompanying video by John and Martha King, the
Personal Minimums Checklist gets you to take a hard look at your
flying skills and abilities and encourages you to set your own
minimums higher than the ones required by the FAR. The next step
is to commit them to writing on a free Personal Minimums Checklist
brochure. You can change your minimums as you progress in experience
and proficiency. It's a great concept and is just as useful to
seaplane pilots as land pilots. Of course, the flight instructor
is the first line of offense in instilling a pilot with good judgment,
and learning from our close calls leads us to change behaviors
to those that show the exercise of good judgment. But taking any
commercial or homestudy that emphasizes decision making and common
sense will help you transfer those skills to aviation. Because
we operate seaplanes in an other than normal environment and because
those operations may be subject to stricter public scrutiny, we
particularly need to exercise good judgment and common sense.
Some Conclusions About Seaplanes and Accidents
In its report, SPA comes to several conclusions about seaplane
accidents with which we agree. One concerns the risk of operating
seaplanes on the same water as recreational boats, a typical issue
of concern to government jurisdictions seeking to restrict or
reject seaplane operations.
The accident statistics do not support the conclusion of some communities that seaplanes are dangerous to operate in proximity to boats: three accidents in 13 years. Consider some U.S. Coast Guard statistics cited by SPA: In the same 13-year period of seaplane accidents (195 total accidents with 57 total fatalities, remember), there were 30,000 boat-to-boat collisions resulting in 12,000 fatalities. Unlike pilots, in many states, operators of boats take no special training and receive no certification.
But before I get accused of promoting the aviation industry, let's go over some of SPA's conclusions:
-Over the 13-year study period there were probably hundreds of thousands of hours of seaplane operations with relatively few accidents.
-When accidents occurred they mostly involved only the occupants of the seaplane.
-Collisions between seaplanes and other vessels were rare very rare, as SPA says.
-Even serious seaplane accidents are survivable. Of 438 people involved in the 195 seaplane accidents, 335 received minor or no injuries even when the aircraft was substantially damaged or destroyed.
-Seaplanes have successfully co-mingled with other vessels according to the NTSB accident statistics only three boat to airplane accidents over 13 years.
-The accident statistics also show there is little risk to waterside structures or facilities or other property from seaplanes.
-The fact that seaplanes are more versatile as far as landing sites are concerned may contribute to this safety record, especially when good judgment is exercised in the selection of a landing site.
-The seaplane safety record may be attributable to the fact that the vast majority of seaplanes operate in day VFR.
Even though there were only three boat/seaplane accidents in a
13-year period doesn't mean the possibility doesn't exist. Personal
watercraft are the fastest growing aspect of recreation. Even
if the number of seaplanes doesn't grow, the number of watercraft
they share the surface with will certainly grow, and the potential
for a problem does exist. However, that problem can be addressed
by higher personal standards, cockpit discipline, and good judgment.
Both formal and informal safety education opportunities can be instrumental in addressing this potential problem. Seaplane safety seminars put on by the SPA and the Aviation Safety Program and programs which encourage recurrent training, such as SEAWINGS, show that the industry and its regulators work hard for safety.
Seaplane safety can be made safer. SPA has many suggestions in
this area, which we won't go into here, but suffice it to say
they are a knowledgeable and willing resource for local governments
in designating seaplane operating and parking areas.
We can spend all our time educating seaplane pilots about boaters,
but we can't neglect the other part of the equation teaching boaters
about seaplanes. Brief familiarization on seaplane operation on
the surface of water could be an integral part of boater safety
courses in the U.S.
Back to the Basic Question
Are seaplanes safe? Can they coexist safely with boats? The answer
is a qualified yes. Accident statistics indicate that they can,
but that is not a laurel for us to rest on. Any aspect of aviation
can only be made safer, and we seaplane pilots have a responsibility
to ourselves, our passengers, our pastime, and the public to be
as safe as we can possibly be. We can only change the concerned
citizen's mind by example.
Part 2 in the next issue will deal with noise, which is an understandable concern, but one which other aspects of aviation have shown is workable. For more information about the Personal Minimums Checklist, contact the Safety Program Manager at your local FAA Flight Standards District Office.