The history of seaplanes began in the late 1880s in Europe where the first patent was filed, and it was some time before the first successful flight was completed. The seaplane is a unique craft in that it requires the buoyancy and strength to be able to take off and land on water, a requirement that proved challenging for early designers.
Designs have typically split into ‘flying boats’ where the floatation is provided by the main body of the plane, and ‘seaplanes’ where there are pontoon ‘floats’ attached (usually two) to the body of the aircraft.
Today they’re mostly used for scenic charter flights and search and rescue services in coastal or remote locations. Let’s take a look back at this unique craft and discover the history of seaplanes.
Early history of seaplanes: Late 1880s
The Frenchman Alphonse Pénaud filed the first patent for a flying machine with a boat hull and retractable landing gear in 1876. However it was Austrian Wilhelm Kress who is credited with building the first seaplane, the Drachenflieger, in 1898 – but it wasn’t capable of flying. On 6 June 1905, Gabriel Voisin took off and landed on the River Seine with a towed kite glider on floats.
Henri Fabre is recognised as completing the first successful powered seaplane flight. On 28 March 1910, the Frenchman flew this plane known as the ’Gnome Omega-powered hydravion’. Fabre’s first success inspired other aviators, and he went on to design floats for several other flyers.
Start of the boom in the history of seaplanes: 1910 – 1920s
1912 signalled the start of the boom for seaplanes. A key driver was the first hydro-aeroplane competition held in Monaco in March 1912, featuring aircraft using floats from early pioneers of the day including Fabre, Curtiss, Tellier and Farman. This led to the first scheduled seaplane passenger services, at Aix-les-Bains, using a five-seat Sanchez-Besa from August 1912. The French Navy also ordered its first floatplane in 1912.
From 1919 the first commercial ‘flying boat’ services began starting up. The British Government formed the state-owned Imperial Airways of London (IAL), which became the international British airline, providing passenger and mail-transport links between Britain and South Africa using seaplanes.
A Curtiss NC-4 seaplane became the first aircraft to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1919, crossing via the Azores. Of the four that made the attempt, it was the only one completed the flight marking a major milestone in the history of seaplanes.
Meanwhile, the pioneering ‘flying-boats’ began serving with almost all of the Allied forces as reconnaissance craft, patrolling the North Sea, Atlantic and Mediterranean Oceans. In Italy, more than 240 seaplanes were built for military use. Towards the end of World War I, seaplanes were flown by Italian Navy Aviation, United States Navy and United States Marine Corps airmen. The seaplane was also popular with German forces, with aircraft manufacturing company Hansa-Brandenburg building flying boats from 1916.
The golden age in the history of seaplanes: 1930s – 1940s
The 1930s to 1940s were the era of the ‘flying boat’, and a golden age in the history of seaplanes. Flying boats made it possible to have regular air transport between the U.S. and Europe, opening up new travel routes to South America, Africa, and Asia. Dubai was one of the stops for the IAL route connecting England to ‘British India’. Today we use the same location for our scenic tours of Dubai as the original flying boats of the 1930s.
In areas where there were no airfields for land-based aircraft, seaplanes could stop at small island, river, lake or coastal stations to refuel and resupply. The Pan Am Boeing 314 “Clipper” seaplanes brought exotic destinations like the Far East within reach of air travellers and came to represent the romance of flight.
By World War II the military value of flying boats was well-recognised, and every country bordering on water operated them in a military capacity during the war. They were used in various tasks from anti-submarine patrol to air-sea rescue and gunfire spotting for battleships.
Post war history of seaplanes: 1950s – 1970s
After World War II, the use of flying boats rapidly declined for several reasons. The ability to land on water became less of an advantage due to the increase in land-based runways during World War II. The speed and range of land-based aircraft also increased, so the commercial competitiveness of seaplanes diminished.
Several craft fell victim to the circumstances. The Hughes H-4 Hercules, which was development in the United States during the war was the largest seaplane to ever fly. However post-war cutbacks and the disappearance of its intended mission left it no purpose. The technically advanced Saunders-Roe Princess first flew in 1952. Despite being the pinnacle of flying-boat development, none were sold. Of the three Princesses that were built, two never flew, and all three were scrapped in 1967.
Bucking this trend, in 1948 Aquila Airways was founded to serve destinations that were still inaccessible to land-based aircraft. The company operated flights out of Southampton to several destinations in Europe. Sadly the airline was short lived, finishing operations in 1958.
The British Overseas Airline Corporation (formerly Imperial Airways of London) had already ceased flying boat services out of Southampton nearly a decade earlier in 1950, marking the end of an era in the history of seaplanes.
Recent history of seaplanes: 1970s – 2000s
The U.S. Navy continued to operate flying boats (mainly the Martin P5M Marlin) until the early 1970s. There were few significant seaplane moments during this period apart from one exception.
On 18 December 1990, Pilot Tom Casey completed the first round-the-world flight in a floatplane with only water landings using a Cessna 206 named Liberty.
Today seaplanes play a crucial role for many rescue organisations, such as coast guards, thanks to their efficiency and their ability to rescue survivors on water. They are also popular with scenic tour operators who use them for scenic flights and private charters.
In 2016 China built the world’s largest seaplane – the AG600. Primarily designed for marine rescue and forest fires, the plane is 37m long with a wingspan of 39m. While this falls short of the Hughes H4-Hercules (which is 66m long and has a wingspan of 97.5m), it is the largest in operation today. With the design of seaplanes continuing to evolve, this unique craft still captures the imagination of enthusiasts worldwide.
Fly with us!
Did you know that Seawings seaplanes take off and land from the very same spot the original ‘flying boats’ used in Dubai back on the 1930s? Experience the history of seaplanes today and take a scenic flight with us. We have three Cessna 208 Caravans in our fleet, you can find out more about these planes here.
We fly to 24 locations across the Middle East, and offer an award-winning scenic flight over Dubai. Get in touch to find out more and book in your seaplane flight today!
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