Difference Between Seaplane and Floatplane

Difference Between Seaplane and Floatplane
Image credit: Team JAS

The words seaplane and floatplane are often used interchangeably, and you might even begin to wonder if there are any differences between seaplane and floatplane.

Of course, there are. They might be used interchangeably, but there are differences between them, as you will soon find out.

The mention of the sea in the word seaplane will immediately take your mind to water. Then you have the plane. Are you thinking what I am thinking? Yes, your guess is as good as mine.

Seaplanes are some form of aircraft that can land, take off, and stay afloat on water.

To float on water, the seaplane must possess some boat-like characteristics, and the ultimate law of buoyancy must be obeyed to the letter.

Unlike the average airplane, seaplanes can move on the water at incredible speeds to generate the lift needed to take off.

Therefore, on water, seaplanes must operate like sea crafts, and in the air, they must function as aircraft. Glenn H. Curtiss built and subsequently flew the first seaplanes in the United States of America in 1911 and 1912.

Going by their names, you might be tricked into thinking that there is no difference between seaplane and floatplane.

As you will soon find out, there are a couple of differences between these two sea crafts or perhaps air crafts.

Seaplanes are convenient means of transport to access small islands if you are not a fan of boat rides. This remarkable invention was adopted by the British in world war 1. The creation of the seaplane led to the manufacturing of the British F-boats.

The British F-boats allowed for the introduction of new missions into their military operations. Tasks include ocean patrols, mines laying, air-to-sea rescue, and antisubmarine attacks.

Seaplanes were then developed for commercial use after the world war. Seaplanes outshone other planes in terms of endurance and range.

The United States Navy developed its water-based NC-4 in 1919, and this plane was the first to cross the North Atlantic through the Azores.

Seaplanes rose to world dominance in the late 1920s, and they were crowned as the most significant and fastest aircraft globally.

Seaplanes have so much versatility and have more use than regular aircraft, and this particular characteristic was demonstrated by the ANT-4 seaplane fitted with floats.

The Soviet flight made its way from Moscow to New York City in 1929. Siberia and Italy followed suit by flying their seaplanes from Rome to Rio de Janeiro, and they also flew from Rome to the city of Chicago. These flights were accomplished in the year 1930.

As land-based airplanes developed with longer ranges, the need for seaplanes by the military and commercial industry reduced.

More land-based planes were used in the second world war than seaplanes.

The development of aircraft carriers dealt a severe blow to the significance of seaplanes in the military world. However, the development of seaplanes continued after the second world war on a smaller scale than before the second world war.

Before discussing the difference between seaplane and floatplane, let us look at both products separately.

With this, we will better appreciate the difference between seaplane and floatplane.

Table of Contents

The Seaplane

The seaplane is designed to land safely on the water, and it can also seamlessly take off from the water. The construction of a seaplane is around a large fuselage, and the fuselage is sometimes referred to as the belly of the aircraft.

The fuselage can be compared to the hull of a boat. This design is peculiar to allow for take-off and landing on bodies of water, be it seas, lakes, rivers, or even oceans. The design also incorporates a high-wing configuration.

Seaplanes move on water using their huge fuselage as the base. To remind you, the term seaplane is an umbrella word for any aircraft that can land on water, and some literature may refer to it as a flying boat.

The Aviation industry and official documents tend to use the term flying boat instead of seaplane, and they mean the same thing.

So, in case you find a flying boat in this article, it refers to the seaplane. Which one do you prefer? Seaplane or flying boat? Read further to know which one I like.

Seaplanes are not only used in the sea. Do not be tricked by the presence of the sea in the name.

They can operate in any kind of water large enough to provide buoyancy, and anybody of water can accommodate the landing and take-off of the seaplane. Just ensure you have a well-trained pilot with you.

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Seaplanes have unique characteristics, and these characteristics give them the functions needed to operate successfully as a sea craft and an aircraft.

Now, let us look at some of these characteristics.

  • Their design allows them to take off, land on, and operate solely on water.
  • The large fuselage serves as the hull for the seaplane allowing it to float.
  • Stability is improved by attaching small floats to the wings
  • The wings have a high configuration since the seaplane sits low on water
  • Seaplanes can carry high payloads. But don’t go loading it with every bit of load you can find. There is a limit.
  • They are designed to be very aerodynamic and hydrodynamic.

The Alaskan and the Canadian wilderness are areas you will find a seaplane. They are needed in these areas due to the many lakes, and it is pretty convenient and even more fun than using boats.

Seaplanes in this area could be chartered to provide prescheduled service or bought for personal use. Whichever you choose, you will not regret spending your money to get one of these. Even operators operate between islands in the Caribbean Sea and the Maldives.

We will discuss how these characteristics stack up against the floatplane later in the article. This was basically to give you a picture of what the seaplane looks like as we progress to explore the difference between seaplane and floatplane.

The Floatplane

Technically, a floatplane is classified under seaplanes, and they are just one type of seaplane since they share the same essential function of landing on and taking off from water.

With this, seaplane becomes a general term for this particular sea craft. However, by their design, they are to be used entirely differently from the flying boat discussed above.

The floatplanes have large floats, sometimes referred to as pontoons, at the bottom of the plane, and these floats perform the same function as landing gears for land air crafts.

The floats replace the large fuselage found in flying boats. There is still a fuselage. Of course, fuel has to be stored somewhere.

Instead, floatplanes use the floats or pontoons to move on water and float on the water with the much-needed buoyancy. The floats are essential to keep the floatplanes from sinking to their death.

Floatplanes have more advantages than seaplanes. The fuselage of the floatplanes does not have contact with water, making manufacturing easy.

The floats do not need tight water tightness, impact strength, and hydroplaning characteristics, and these requirements are necessary for flying boat fuselages.

Floatplanes can be manufactured in large volumes, and this is because it is easy to attach floats to even land planes for operation in water.

The wings of floatplanes have more clearance over obstacles such as docks, making it easy to load the aircraft while on the water.

Floatplanes are sometimes referred to as pontoon planes, and this is because of the presence of pontoons on the plane for buoyancy.

As mentioned earlier, pontoons and floats refer to the same component on the floatplane.

Floatplanes may be a type of seaplane, but their design and functionality differ from the flying boat. You may be wondering what they look like right now. Do not worry; keep scrolling down, and you will soon have expert knowledge on the difference between seaplane and floatplane.

Just as we discussed above, some characteristics make the floatplane unique, distinguishing it from other sea crafts and air crafts. When you think of floatplanes, don’t just think of them sitting on water or gliding on water but also think of them as flying through the sky.

Some unique characteristics of floatplanes include;

  • Their design incorporates retractable wheels. The wheels enable the floatplane to operate on land and sea.
  • The floats or pontoons provide the buoyancy to stay afloat. On land, they act as landing gears for the retractable wheels.
  • They still feature a high wing configuration as the flying boats, which keeps the wings free of water.
  • Floatplanes have no additional floats constructed into the wings, and this construction is peculiar to the seaplane.
  • Floatplanes have reduced capacity for payload. So, be careful of what you carry.
  • The addition of floats reduces the aerodynamics and hydrodynamics of floatplanes.

Now, you can appreciate the nature of floatplanes better. In some cases, there is a floatplane variant for many modern aircraft for civilian use, and they become the go-to means of transport for lakes and other remotes landscapes.

Many floatplanes come as third-party modifications with a supplemental type certificate (STC). However, some aircraft manufacturers still construct their floatplanes from the ground up, including flying boats.

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The utility of flying boats has reduced across the years, and some flying boats are used for firefighting. The Chalk’s Ocean Airways kept their fleet of Grumman Mallards running for passengers until December 19, 2005.

The flying boat operations were canceled due to a crash. It was discovered later that the crash was caused by maintenance and not build quality as was earlier speculated, and that saved the flying boats some embarrassment.

The greatest threat to seaplanes was amphibious aircraft. The amphibious aircraft have largely replaced seaplanes in every service form, and Seaplanes need smooth seas to land and take off properly.

Seaplanes do not fair well under high tidal waves or extreme weather conditions. Of course, they could be built to withstand high waves by optimizing the design of the floats or fuselage, the weight, and even the size of the seaplane.

Flying boats can perform better in rough waters and have more stability in water than floatplanes. There you go, that is one difference between seaplane and floatplane. Now, you understand what the seaplane and the floatplane look like, and let us explore their differences in more detail and clarity.

Differences between the Seaplane and the Floatplane

Difference Between Seaplane and Floatplane
Image credit: hartzellprop

There are a lot of similarities between the seaplane and the floatplane. With these similarities, you can use the terms seaplane and floatplane interchangeably.

However, there are differences between these two aircraft that place them on different pedestals.

We will explore the differences in design, aerodynamics, payload capacity, and even longevity. The difference between seaplane and floatplane is subject you need to know to make well-informed choices regarding both.

Before going forward, take a moment and appreciate these two aircraft. Aside from the difference between seaplane and floatplane, they are both incredible feats of engineering that combine the characteristics of a boat and a plane.

This combination allows them to go beyond what an average airplane and an average boat can do. They quickly become the chosen means of transportation for exploring small islands and the adjourning water bodies.

Design

As you have come to understand now from the information you have read, both flying boats and floatplanes are designed and manufactured primarily for use on water bodies. That is their distinct feature, separating them from airplanes and boats.

There are a few design differences between the seaplane and the floatplane. The first and most obvious design difference is in the mechanism for floatation. Seaplanes gain their buoyancy from the large fuselage underneath them.

Floatplanes have floats or pontoons attached underneath them to keep them afloat. The need for high wing configurations cannot be over-emphasized. Both crafts have to keep their wings clear of the water, preventing them from crashing when landing on water.

Seaplanes have little floats attached to the wings to maintain stability on the water. Floatplanes do not need small floats on their wings, and the pontoons are enough to keep their equilibrium.

Besides, it will just be a waste of resources, and the small floats would be redundant.

Aerodynamics

Aircraft designers aim to reduce drag as much as possible in their design. Drag causes instability, and higher fuel consumption as more force is needed to overcome it. Designers invest a lot of time into the aerodynamics of their aircraft.

While in the air, aerodynamics is essential to seaplanes and floatplanes. However, hydrodynamics have to be considered when they land and move on water. Both aerodynamics and hydrodynamics of the seaplane and floatplane have a strong relationship.

Because of their design, seaplanes usually have more aerodynamic and hydrodynamic advantages over floatplanes. The large pontoons used on floatplanes introduce drag to the floatplane as it flies through the air.

The smooth fuselage on seaplanes has less drag and is even more stable than the floatplane when moving on the water. Wow, you have learned so much about separating seaplane and floatplane. Read on for more.

Capacity for payload

Hold that thought before you think you can place the same load on both the seaplane and the floatplane. They can both carry payloads, and they can both carry passengers, but there is a difference regarding their maximum payload capacity.

Most operators of seaplanes and floatplanes want to make as much money as they can per trip, and they load up their planes with passengers. However, it is not just space you have to consider, and you have to consider the weight.

Seaplanes or flying boats can typically carry more payload than the floatplane, which is a crucial difference between seaplane and floatplane. The large fuselage on the seaplanes can carry extra cargo.

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Most importantly, the reduced drag obtained from the large fuselage of the seaplane allows for more payloads to be carried. This way, you still maintain optimum fuel economy despite the additional cargo.

Durability

This is a crucial deciding factor for many buyers. They want a seaplane that will stay operational long enough for them to make as much money as they want or enjoy their tour as much as they want.

Corrosion is the biggest challenge facing both seaplanes and floatplanes. These aircraft continuously contact water as they accelerate to take off or decelerate to land. It even becomes more evident in saltwater-like oceans.

You may be tempted to think that both the seaplane and the floatplane will experience corrosion the same way. For corrosion, there is a difference between the seaplane and the floatplane.

As seaplanes are designed to land and float using their fuselage, they are more susceptible to corrosion, and the fuselage is metal, after all.

Metals do not fair well when continuously exposed to water, and rust is a significant concern for metals.

Floatplanes have floats that are mostly made out of composite materials. When exposed to water, composite materials do not rust and do not react with water elements.

In terms of corrosion, floatplanes will outlive the flying boats. You may wonder why composite materials are not used to make fuselages, and I ask myself the same thing. Hopefully, advances in technology will cater to that.

The future of seaplanes and floatplanes

Seaplanes and floatplanes may be fading away, and their sightings are getting fewer by the day. However, the future may shock you.

Many potentials are yet to be tapped in the industry, and the future is different and offers more promise.

Land airports are becoming problematic, and their impact on the environment has been a call for concern in recent times.

Noise has been a significant problem for these airports, and newly developed legislation on noise has placed huge constraints.

The land is even becoming more difficult to find for the development of airports, especially those already situated in highly urbanized cities. The airports have to stay as close to the cities as possible.

In responding to these challenges land airports face, developmental concepts in transoceanic seaplanes have been carried out.

This is intended to reduce the stress on land airports and still provide a convenient means of traveling.

These developments have conceptualized flying wings to replace the age-old fuselage-wing configuration. The flying wing configuration has greater efficiency in aerodynamics than the fuselage-wing configuration.

New designs estimate the following dimensions for the seaplane having a length of eighty meters with a height not exceeding 20 meters.

The wingspan is pegged at 160 meters. These dimensions are two times larger than the maximum dimensions of the ICAO set code for F aircraft, currently the largest.

To better visualize its size, think of the Airbus A380, which is currently the largest commercial aircraft in the world. The Airbus A380 has a wingspan of 79.75 meters and a length of 72.73 meters. The Airbus A380 now has a capacity of 853 passengers.

These new developments will allow seaplanes to carry up to 2000 passengers. The wingspan of the Airbus A380 halves the value estimated for the new seaplanes and floatplanes.

With such sheer dimensions, it is evident that it will be challenging to adapt land infrastructure to accommodate them.

The problem of space does not exist at sea. There is a lot of free space available to accommodate these types of aircraft. By design, the engines of these new seaplanes will be situated above the wings. This will help to reduce the noise emission from the engines.

Noise pollution will not be a problem if these seaplanes land and take off from the sea. They will be far away from the population.

Hence, normal operations will not be constrained as they are for land airports.

There is more aerodynamic efficiency for these large-sized aircraft. Operating in large swell conditions will be easier. Floating breakwaters may be used where necessary.

They are very much feasible, even for the high seas.

Despite the difference between seaplane and floatplane, they are the most environmentally friendly aircraft. They do not require huge infrastructural development for their run as they use the surface of the water for landing and take-off.

Maybe, one day in the future, transoceanic seaplanes will ply routes covering Barcelona, New York City, Hong Kong, Beijing, Japan, Africa, and many others. They might just be the break land airports need.

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