Floats or Boats?

What to fly where the sea meets the sky

August 1, 1993

Any pilot would be hard pressed to find a segment of aviation that offers more pure, plain fun than seaplane flying. Whether you take to the water on straight floats, amphibious floats, or in a "flying boat" hull seaplane, water flying opens new horizons to the erstwhile land-based pilot. Pristine lakes that once you could only admire from above while enroute from airport to airport become wilderness landing strips. Most any body of water instantly becomes an emergency airfield, offering safe harbor in the event of engine trouble or lowering weather conditions. Where else could you glide to a safe emergency landing, drop anchor, pull out your fishing rod, and catch a trout while waiting for help to arrive?

"You just have to get out there and experience the excitement of float flying yourself," water flying guru J. J. Frey says in his eponymous little book, How to Fly Floats. "Just once, and you're incurably hooked on a new world.... A world of boats and ATVs, bare feet and sneakers, fishing and camping, the great outdoors, as you've never enjoyed it before...without all the burdens of the restrictive environments that are now being imposed by TCAs, ARSAs, etc."

Water landing sites, from wilderness ponds to lakeside resorts to downtown docks, are almost infinitely more numerous than airports. Although there are restrictions on seaplanes in some places, operations are allowed on many bodies of water — with or without actual seaplane bases — especially in remote areas. And with an amphibious seaplane, you can land at airports, too (or replace your straight floats with wheels if you want to return to ground-bound aviating).

But the most compelling reason to get into flying floats is that it is just a blast to do. Here is a sport that combines the thrill of motorboating with the many joys of flying that we pilots know so well. It's also a chance to combine a bit of nautical skill with your aviation knowledge. And for those of us with a love of wilderness, floatplanes offer unrivaled back-country access.

The seaplane rating is an easy add-on to the private pilot certificate that requires no written exam and can be cranked out in a long weekend (although, like any new rating, it constitutes the proverbial license to learn). Due to their very nature, seaplanes usually operate around pretty places in nice weather, so getting your seaplane rating can be a great way to spend a vacation. We don't have the space here to go into a lengthy description of getting into float flying, but if you're ready to go for it and want more information, see "Challenges: Rock Me on the Water," July 1989 Pilot, or call the Seaplane Pilots Association in Frederick, Maryland, at 301/695-2083. If you do decide to take the time and spend the money to get into water flying, we can vouch for the fact that you won't be disappointed by the experience.

Okay, so you decide to take the plunge (and we don't mean the kind you can take if you lose your balance while bilge-pumping your floats). You earn your seaplane rating and discover that there is a bit of the duck along with that lone eagle harbored deep within your breast. As with any other segment of general aviation, sooner or later, you are going to find yourself perusing the pages of Trade-A-Plane, thinking, "Boy, if only I owned my own seaplane, then I could really have some fun."

If your budget and lifestyle lend themselves to seaplane ownership, you will find that having a choice among different airplanes is no problemo in the water flying world. Nearly every model of light airplane made in any quantity over recent decades has been fitted out with floats at one time or another. And then there are the hulls — amphibs, flying boats, or just boats — full-fledged sea birds designed specifically to spend at least some of their time in the water. Before you decide between a Cub or a 185, between Edo or Wipaire floats, between a Seabee or a Lake amphibian, you face this one fundamental question: floats or hulls?

Ask any seaplane pilot which are preferable, floatplanes or hulls, and you probably will get an unequivocal answer. The answer, though, will depend entirely upon whom you ask. To floatplane owners, the answer is obviously floats. To hull owners, nothing can rival a flying boat. What it boils down to is a "high-wing versus low-wing" type of debate. Although there are notable advantages and disadvantages with either option, the verdict in the floats-versus-hulls debate ends up being largely a matter of personal taste.

A couple of points are generally agreed upon. For one thing, floatplanes, because they sit relatively high off the water and aren't encumbered by wing-tip floats, can coast up alongside just about any boat dock or raft that offers adequate wing and tail clearance. Hulls, on the other hand, can be difficult or impossible to get into many docks, owing to their wing-tip floats and low profile. Many flying-boat owners construct custom U-shaped docks for their hulls. While you can nose up to a conventional dock in a hull-plane, this can get dicey in wind. Either floats or hulls can be anchored or secured to a buoy, and it's probable that a hull — with its lower center of gravity and stabilizing wing-tip pontoons — would be less likely to flip over when anchored or buoyed during a storm.

Although they can cause headaches while docking, where the wing- tip floats and low profile of hulls really pay off is in water taxiing. When a hull is "on the step," the high-speed taxi attitude that most approximates motorboating, it is capable of much tighter turns than a floatplane. Thanks to their tip floats and low CG, hulls are simply more stable than floats when step-turning. In a floatplane, the combination of wind and centrifugal force can make capsizing a real threat when turning from downwind to upwind.

"Having owned and flown both, I'm more comfortable with a hull- type airplane. It gives me more of a feeling of security," says Leslie (Spike) Vipond, an engineer at the Federal Aviation Administration's Washington headquarters and proud owner of N6432K, the 1947 Republic RC-3 Seabee shown on these pages.

Although many floatplane owners maintain that floats can handle rough water better than hulls, hull owners tend to agree to disagree. "I think the airplane is extremely rugged. It doesn't porpoise. You have less worry about nosing over.... It's more stable on the water. Stability on the water is important to me."

Vipond flies his Seabee out of a private grass strip adjacent to the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland — fertile territory for recreational water flying. And his is strictly a recreational vehicle, which he uses only for day VFR flying. Over the years, Vipond has owned several float-equipped airplanes and two other Seabees. His current choice speaks to his position on the floats-versus-hulls question.

While Vipond allows that docking can be problematic in a hull- plane, it isn't really much of a drawback for him personally. "Where I go in the bay, you can always find a beach. And you can anchor out. My airplane is more stable when anchored," he says. On gravel or firm sand, he can drop his wheels and taxi out of the water.

"Hull airplanes in general and the Seabee in particular offer a versatility that you can't get on floats," says Vipond, who — ever the diplomat — emphasizes repeatedly that this is just his "personal view."

But a recurring theme for Vipond and other hull pilots is one that appeals more to the aesthetic than to the practical — and it's one to which float pilots can offer scant counterpoint. Essentially, it's this: Flying boats are beautiful.

In a floatplane, the thinking goes, the floats are mere afterthoughts, slapped onto an airframe not originally intended for the purpose with an awkward array of struts and cables. In hull-planes, form meets function in a graceful design meant from the outset to float as well as fly. "Elegance of design," Vipond calls it. "It's just a more elegant design."

Elegance is one thing. Money is another. And one of the first points floatplane owner Bob Siceloff makes when asked about his thoughts on floats versus hulls is that he can save big on insurance simply by taking the floats off of his airplane and putting on wheels. You will pay more for insurance on any seaplane than on a landplane, thanks to the vagaries of mixing it up with boats, jet skis, buoys, and assorted flotsam on any given landing. Amphibians — float or hull — pay the most, thanks to the disastrous results of landing with gear in the wrong configuration. This is made more complicated in amphibians by the fact that you use different gear configurations for landing on water and for landing on land; you don't always land with the gear down. A gear-down landing on water can easily leave the unsuspecting float or hull pilot inverted — and submerged — in very short order. By switching a floatplane to wheels for the part of the year when you don't intend to do any water flying, you pay the higher insurance rates only for the months when your airplane is on floats.

That's one of the main advantages cited by floatplane owners in defending their choice: They can always take their floats off and have a straight airplane. Hull owners are stuck with the bulk and complexity of their airplanes even when operating strictly on land for extended periods. The flying boat is necessarily a compromise between flying and boating that is suited perfectly to neither, many float pilots would say.

"When I bought my floatplane, I also bought a set of wheels, and I'm going to go on wheels in September, from September through April," says Siceloff. "Plus, I like the ability to go on wheels and go into really rough strips in Idaho, southern Oregon, and eastern Oregon."

Siceloff, a self-employed Seattle entrepreneur with timber and other interests, used to own N4151H, the 1989 Piper Super Cub on straight floats that is pictured with this article. Recently, he moved up to N450P, a 1960 de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver. This classic bush pilot's conveyance now serves as an enviable family wagon for the Siceloff clan. The Beaver, complete with its 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney radial, was zero-timed by the rebuild shop at Kenmore Air Harbor in Seattle. Siceloff says it flies a lot like his Cub; you just multiply everything by three. It carries three times as much, burns three times as much fuel, and costs three times as much to insure.

"It's a sweetheart," Siceloff says. "And it's bulletproof." When we spoke in June, Siceloff's airplane had 60 hours on the tachometer, and he was planning a family outing to Alaska. "It's just a blast. It's so much fun."

Siceloff says he never thought seriously about buying a hull- plane. "Floatplanes are so ubiquitous around here. There aren't too many hulls." He echoed the familiar concern about docking an amphib — and he operates mostly out of docks in his neck of the Northwest woods. His main exposure to hulls was in Lake amphibians, and he didn't like the experience much. "I've flown in Lakes a number of times, and it seems like you're practically underwater," he says, adding, "The new Lake Renegades cost about the same as a zero-timed Beaver."

Comparative cost is a subject that's hard to get a handle on with floatplanes. It's not really fair to compare a hull-plane to any airplane on straight floats. Virtually all of the hulls operating today are amphibious, although some strictly boat hull designs have been launched over the years. And when you start comparing hulls to the kinds of airplanes that typically are equipped with amphibious floats — Cessna 206s and the like — the cost for a hull-plane versus the combined cost of an airplane and a set of amphib floats becomes more competitive than it might seem.

To be sure, the price tag on a new Lake can be off-putting. Prices start at $334,800 for a standard-equipped Renegade 250 and go on up from there, although used Lakes can be had for considerably less than that. But if you're talking new, there really is no basis for comparison, because Lake is the only game in town for new hulls, and Cessna hasn't turned out a new floatplane in years. (Unless, of course, you want to count the turboprop Cessna Caravan on floats.) Some limited-production airplanes, like the tube-and-fabric Maules and Aviat Huskies, still are available new on floats, of course.

One place to get some idea of prices is — where else? — recent issues of Trade-A-Plane. There was a 1977 Cessna 185 on amphibious floats offered for $124,500, a 1983 T206 on amphib floats for $155,000, a 1978 180 on amphibs for $95,000, and a 172 on straight floats for $58,000, for example. On the more modest end, you could pick up a Taylorcraft on straight floats for less than $20,000. (Straight floats are the obvious way to go for low-price water flying — many basic kitplanes even have float options — but the utility of a floats-only airplane is pretty limited in most environments.) A large number of used Lakes was up for sale, with a few 1970s-vintage airplanes offered for less than $50,000 and 1980s- vintage airplanes from the high $80,000 range up to around $200,000. Used Seabees ranged from $21,000 for an airplane that was apart for shipment to $78,000 for an intact one. (One big factor in Seabee prices is whether the airplane has the original 215-hp Franklin engine — widely regarded as a clunker — or an upgraded engine like Vipond's 250-hp Continental.)

The Aircraft Blue Book-Price Digest, meanwhile, lists prices on used Lakes anywhere from $14,000 for 1950s airplanes on up to practically new prices for practically new airplanes. Seabees aren't listed in the Bluebook, nor are float-equipped airplanes. The volume does give some background on float prices, however. It lists float prices of anywhere from $14,000 up for low-end straight floats appropriate to a J-3 Cub, for example, and in the $20,000 range for straight floats appropriate to a Cessna 172. Amphibious floats go from the $30,000 range for a Skyhawk or Maule, for example, on up to $174,000 for a Cessna Caravan 208. Mid-range amphibious floats that could be used on a Cessna 185 or 206 are listed anywhere in the $50,000 to $80,000 ballpark.

Cost, of course, is only one factor to consider when seeking your dream airplane. With all the attention paid to the unique-to-seaplanes concerns of water taxiing and docking, it can be easy to overlook the most basic consideration: What about flying qualities? As in any other aspect of the float-versus-hulls question, it depends on whom you ask.

"In the air, it flies just like an airplane. You don't notice any extra drag," says Bruce Rivard, vice president of Lake Aircraft, Incorporated. "That's unlike floats, where you know you've got those big canoes hanging under you."

According to Rivard, the Lake has the advantage of acting like an airplane in the air and like a boat on the water. Its low CG allows easier water handling; you can even pop the hatch and paddle it like a canoe. A mandatory one-week, 25-hour-minimum training course for all new Lake buyers ensures that they learn and master any different nuances in handling and helps keep a rein on insurance costs.

J. J. Frey, mentioned earlier as author of the ubiquitous How to Fly Floats, also is vice president for float operations of Edo Corporation, a leading float manufacturer. While he generally gives the nod to hulls in the step-taxi category, he says the question of flying qualities deserves a definite checkmark in the floats column. "The majority of floatplanes were not designed as floatplanes but converted," Frey says. "They have flying characteristics similar to aircraft pilots are already used to."

The addition of floats to a standard landplane design imposes obvious drag penalties, of course, and the amount depends entirely upon the type of aircraft and the float installation. Suffice it to say that an airplane equipped with floats will climb and cruise a lot slower than one without floats — about 10 to 15 percent slower, according to Frey.

One factor that accounts for different handling qualities is the powerplant arrangement, Frey says. Most hulls are of the pusher configuration, which can require some getting used to, he says. For example, pylon-mounted pushers pitch down with the application of power and pitch up when you pull power off. Although a pilot transitioning from, say, a 172 on wheels to one on floats will have to get used to the added drag and the greater height on flare and touchdown, it still flies pretty much like a Skyhawk.

As with all generalizations, there are no die-hard rules that set floatplanes above flying boats — or vice versa. A lot depends simply upon which one trips your trigger. One pilot might think taxiing up to the beach in his amphib, with the hatch open and waves lapping the sides of the cockpit, is just the coolest thing since air conditioning. Another might like riding high in his or her floatplane and being able to tie up at the local dockside restaurant for lunch. One of the good things about general aviation is that it offers something for just about everyone. The best way to decide the floats-versus-hulls question is to fly both, and decide which suits your personality. Then make up your own mind, based as much upon visceral appeal as on practical considerations, what it will be: floats or boats?