An airplane that can go virtually anywhere, do anything, and operate in the most extreme weather—and that could sell for twice what you paid for it after 30 years—might sound like a fantasy. But the iconic DHC-6 Twin Otter, which de Havilland Canada produced, fits that description. It helped launch the commuter and regional airline industry in North America, remains the backbone of maritime coastal patrols for many navies, and serves the mining and oil industries worldwide. It lands on wheels, big tundra tires, straight floats, amphibious floats, and skis. Runways are optional. Nice flat surfaces of any kind are kid stuff. When it’s 60 below in Antarctica and some scientist needs to be medevaced, this is the airplane they send.
Although many are familiar with the various types of aircraft in the world, fewer people know about seaplanes and the crucial services they provide. Seaplanes are fixed-wing aircraft that are capable of taking off and landing on water.
To understand more about seaplanes, it is important to know the two types of aircraft that are considered seaplanes::
- Floatplanes – These seaplanes have slender pontoons mounted beneath the fuselage, and only the floats of these seaplanes make contact with the water, as the fuselage remains above the water. These are usually small aircraft, with a reduced payload, as well as a slower climb rate and cruiser speed.
- Flying Boat – The fuselage, the main source of buoyancy in a flying boat, acts like a ship’s hull to keep the plane afloat.
History of Seaplanes
The first manned and controlled seaplane flight occurred in 1905 in an unpowered biplane designed and built by Gabriel Voisin. The flight occurred on the Seine, and was a towed flight that flew at an altitude of 15 to 20 meters (50-66 feet), and travelled for 600 meters (2000 feet). In March 1910, Henri Fabre, a French engineer, took off from the water, travelling 1,650 feet. Gabriel and Charles Voisin purchased several of Fabre’s seaplanes and fitted them to their Canard Voisin, using them in military exercises from the first seaplane carrier, La Foudre. The United States was a bit slower to learn about seaplanes, as the first flight occurred on January 26, 1911, on the waters of San Diego Bay.
Uses and Operation of Seaplanes
One thing to understand about seaplanes is the important uses and operations of the aircraft. Seaplanes are often used in rescue operations due to their ability to carry rescuers close enough to the water to spot and rescue survivors. In remote areas, such as Alaska and Canada, seaplanes provide charter and cargo services, as wilderness areas often have large lakes that are easier for landing and take-off than the rough terrain. Many flying boats remain in service for fire-fighting duty.
Learning about seaplanes provides an interesting look at aviation, as these types of aircraft provide valuable services to passengers.