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What Is a Floatplane?

A floatplane is designed to take off, land, and taxi in water.
Specially designed floatplanes may be used to help fight forest fires.
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  • Written By: Ryan Capizano
  • Edited By: Angela B.
  • Last Modified Date: 22 November 2014
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A floatplane, often referred to as a seaplane, is an amphibious aircraft designed to take off, taxi and land on water. Many floatplanes also feature wheels for landing on runways or grass strips, thus enhancing their functionality. Floatplanes are most often used as general aviation aircraft but some are designed to carry passengers commercially. During World War I and World War II, the floatplane was used for reconnaissance, rescue and attack missions. After the advent of modern radar, their use as a military aircraft was widely discontinued.

Two specific designs of floatplane exist: the single float and double float. Single-float aircraft feature one large pontoon under the aircraft with a small pontoon hanging under each wing to provide stabilization during water operation. The double-float configuration is the most common design with two pontoons under the fuselage. This type of design enhances stability, operation in rough water, and passenger and cargo loading. A variation of the floatplane, known as the flying boat, uses its oversize hull to provide buoyancy.

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Floatplanes are versatile aircraft, but their bulky design has several major drawbacks. For one, they are less aerodynamic than their conventional counterparts. Their large surface area and oversize pontoons increase drag, therefore increasing fuel burn while decreasing its useful range. A more dangerous safety record also follows the floatplane and, in response, rental and insurance costs far exceed that of land-based aircraft. The aircraft's most significant advantage is its ability to land virtually anywhere there is water, grass or pavement.

To operate a floatplane, the pilot must complete a training program and receive a specialized license. To operate floatplanes with one engine, the pilot is required to hold a single-engine sea license. Floatplanes with more than one engine require a multi-engine sea license. These licenses are issued by certified flight instructors who have received specialized training in operating amphibious aircraft. It is important to note that most flight schools will not allow pilots to fly floatplanes solo because of high insurance costs and the rate of accidents involving pilots with little experience.

One popular use of the floatplane is to transport outdoor enthusiasts such as hunters or fishermen to remote locations inaccessible by conventional aircraft. Other functions include search and rescue, transport of supplies to remote areas, and scenic tours. Specially designed floatplanes are used for combating large-scale forest fires, because they are able to land on a body of water to refill their tanks.

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