Indiana may open lakes to public seaplane access

March 26, 2009

After a decade of advocacy, and with support from pilots and nonpilots alike, Indiana is showing signs it may open five lakes to public seaplane access.

Support for making the lakes public-use was unanimous at public meetings held by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in February. The move would more than double the number of public seaplane bases in the state, which has unusually stringent rules for seaplane landing spots. Indiana currently has only four designated public-use seaplane bases, out of 750 lakes.

While many states have a policy of “open unless prohibited” for seaplanes, Indiana regulations classify waters as “closed unless permitted.” Randy Strebig, founder of the Indiana Seaplane Pilots Association, has been working for more than ten years to make state waters more widely accessible to aircraft. He said the restrictions imposed by the Indiana DNR, which controls the lakes, are based on safety concerns that show a misunderstanding of seaplane flying. Such concerns have not been supported by studies of lake use by aircraft and boats, he added.

“They don’t understand the view that we have from the sky,” Strebig said. Pilots land safely because they “understand the equipment. They understand the environment. They understand when to go and when not to go, and it works.”

Strebig has been demonstrating that seaplanes can share lakes safely with boats since 1998 by opening lakes to other pilots in the only way that has so far been permitted – by granting access to private-use lakes on a case-by-case basis. The five lakes under consideration for public-use status are among 17 state-owned “private use” bases for which Strebig has been acting as airport manager, allowing pilots to land on them if they contact him first. Strebig always grants permission to land on the lakes under his supervision.

The arrangement is not ideal, Strebig said, but it allows transient pilots to stop at Indiana lakes when they would be otherwise prohibited. He said recent progress has been possible because new leadership at the Department of Transportation and DNR has recognized that private landing areas on public bodies of water are unfairly restrictive.

Seaplane pilots in the state hope that changing the status of the five lakes could be a first step toward eventually making Indiana regulations more in line with those of other states. They are proceeding with cautious optimism, however. Steve Whitney, who has been working with Strebig on the issue, said any new restrictions such as bans during certain hours of the day or closing of any of the remaining 12 private-use airports “would be essentially a step backward.”

Indiana DNR has given no indication that it would impose new restrictions; in fact, it has demonstrated growing confidence in seaplane pilots. In 2003, the department allowed a splash-in at Pokagon State Park in Angola, and the now-annual event has operated successfully ever since, with 20 to 30 seaplanes coming in to busy Lake James where Strebig is based.

Whitney attributes widespread support for opening the lakes among nonpilots in part to Strebig’s personal policy of giving rides to anyone who asks. People are more receptive to seaplanes on their lakes as they learn more about the planes. Strebig estimates he has given hundreds of rides over the years and said he gives the rides because he wants to share his passion for flight – “just to put these people in the airplanes and see the smiles of young and old people alike.”