Seaplanes are powered fixed-wing aircraft capable of taking off and landing on water. These aircraft are generally divided into two categories: floatplanes, which have one or more narrow floats (or pontoons) mounted under the fuselage to provide buoyancy without the fuselage contacting the water; and flying boats, which land using their fuselage (or hull) as its main source of buoyancy. Amphibious aircraft are in a sub-class of seaplanes that have retractable wheel gear that allows operation on both land and from the water via a ramp.
Air service in a seaplane is unique in that it provides passengers the speed of an airplane along with the utility of a marine craft. It also allows pilots to access areas where a conventional landing infrastructure cannot be easily built or is inaccessible with any other type of craft. For these reasons, the seaplane has established itself as a valuable means of air transportation, recreation, and air transport utility.
The first successful seaplane flight took place at Marseilles, France on March 28, 1910 and is credited to the little known designer and engineer, Henri Fabre who’s Hydroavion; Le Canard (The Duck) flew a distance of 500 meters.
In 1911, Glenn Curtiss received the Collier Trophy for his development of the hydroaeroplane, a land plane mounted on floats. He then went on to develop the first successful flying boat with a hull as its entire fuselage, rather than an aircraft’s fuselage mounted on floats.
In the early days of aviation there were few developed airports. Water landings gave access to many locations and boat docks were typically used. As flying boats grew in popularity, they played a vital role in the development of aviation, and the nation’s economy and transportation network. Commercial seaplane operations became a financially viable business and companies and airlines, such as Pan American Airways, pressed for the construction of seaplane bases. Many of the new bases featured floating docks connected to land, ramps for amphibious airplanes, and terminals for both passengers and cargo.
Primarily used for commercial air travel, seaplane bases were heavily utilized for many years, but after World War II there was a gradual decline in use, and by the 1950s they were relegated to secondary service, as land- based aircraft capable of flying greater distances rose in prominence and became the ‘go to’ for air transport. Nevertheless, there are currently some 489 private and public use FAA seaplane bases in the United States.
A seaplane base is considered an airport that is situated in a body of water such as a harbor, lake, river, or inlet where seaplanes, including amphibious aircraft, can take-off and land. These bases provide the aviation, business, and tourism communities an operational base and support the community with economic, employment, and recreational opportunities. A seaplane’s vital utilitarian use extends to disaster recovery, search and rescue, dropping water on forest fires, environmental monitoring, cargo and passenger operations, and many other special tasks.
While private-use seaplane bases may be publicly or privately owned, these bases are used for general and private aviation, but are not open or available for use by the public, or for scheduled airline travel.
Scheduled and non-scheduled intra-state passenger service has proven lucrative where ground transportation or water vessel service is time consuming, or simply does not exist. This is largely the case with public-use seaplane bases located on a city’s waterfront.
One of the oldest airports in New York City was, in actuality, the East River, where the Downtown Skyport was built as a seaplane base in 1936. Located at the foot of Wall Street, between Piers 11 and 12, the Downtown Skyport pre-dated both LaGuardia (1939) and Idlewild-JFK airports (1948) and was primarily used to carry Wall Street executives for a time-saving and simple commute between home and office.
New York Metropolitan Public-Use Seaplane Bases
By the mid-1930s, a seaplane ramp was built at East 23rd Street in New York and the base became part of a marina that opened on April 18, 1962. The New York Skyports Inc. Seaplane Base (6N7), which officially opened for business in 1946, is located on the waterside edge of the Skyport Marina on the East side, off 23rd Street and the FDR Drive.
This operational, public-use sky port is owned by New York City Bureau of Maritime and General Aviation, and is located in the Skyport Marina. It is Manhattan’s only seaplane terminal. Its north/south (water) runway is 10,000 ft. in length x 1000 ft. in width. Pilots must complete a proving flight with an authorized member of the Northeast Seaplane Pilots Association prior to seaplane base use. A 3-bladed propeller is required on all seaplanes and pilots are required to taxi 1,000 ft. off-shore on the Manhattan side prior to beginning takeoff. In addition to general aviation use, New York Skyports Inc. serves as a commercial hub for Tailwind Air, Southern Airways Express and Tropic Ocean Airways who offer chartered, scheduled and seasonal service.
Twelve nautical miles northeast of New York City, overlooking Eastchester Bay, is the operational Evers Seaplane Base (6N6), located at the Evers Marina and Seaplane Base in the Bronx. Founded in the 1930s by the late Carl Evers, the Evers Seaplane Base is a public-use seaplane base, privately owned by Carl Evers son, Charles. Carrying on his father’s business, Charles Evers was quoted in a 2014 New York Times article that his father was a barnstormer and aviator who flew with Howard Hughes and taught Katharine Hepburn how to fly, and that he also earned a good income by flying Wall Street financiers by seaplane from the Downtown Skyport to many vacation destinations.
The Evers Seaplane Base’s all/way water runway is 5000 ft. in length x 400 ft in width and is 4.4 nautical miles from LaGuardia Airport. A busy seaplane base for general aviation, charter flights, and as a seaplane storage facility in its early days and through the 1950s, the base had five ramps and about 40 seaplanes. By the late 1960s, however, the Evers Marina has substantially shifted its operations to more of a harbor for fishing vessels, recreational boating and storage facility. Today’s aviation maps show the marina as one of the last seaplane bases in the metropolitan region.
The Sands Point Seaplane Base (7N3) is a public-use seaplane base fronting Manhasset Bay and owned by SHM Capri LLC (at the Brewer Capri Marina) two miles northwest from Port Washington, Long Island. In the late 1930s the first regular commercial transatlantic airline service in the United States began in Port Washington with Pan American Airways Martin and Boeing flying boats alighting regularly at Manhasset Bay. A general aviation seaplane base, its two water runways, 1W/19W and 12W/30W, are both 6000 ft. in length x 300 ft width. All landings are made at 2,000 ft. from shore, unless in an emergency.
New York Metropolitan Private-Use Seaplane Bases
The EDO Seaplane Base (4NY2) is a private-use seaplane base located in College Point, Queens and is owned by the EDO Corporation. The EDO Aircraft Corporation was formed in 1925 and named for its founder Earl Dodge Osborne. EDO was the principal producer of aircraft floats that were developed for a multitude of popular civilian aircraft, and after the outbreak of World War II, EDO products shifted to military aircraft with their leadership in the field continuing well into the 1970s.
Less than a mile from LaGuardia Airport, its water runways in the Flushing Bay are NE /SW ; NW/SE and N/S are 10000 x 500 ; 10000 x 500 and 5000 x 500 ft., respectively. This private facility is used to support EDO’s seaplane base operations.
Pvt Sealanes-Jamaica Bay Seaplane Base (NK30) is a privately owned seaplane base located along the Mill Basin Inlet, on a peninsula abutting Jamaica Bay in Brooklyn. In operation since 1980, NK30 is 6.2 nautical miles from John F. Kennedy International Airport.
This private-use only seaplane base utilizes two water runways 5000 ft. in length x 500 ft in width. Operations are conducted in accord with Visual Flight Rules, with permission required prior to landing
While there are only a few remaining seaplane bases in the immediate New York metropolitan area, the versatility of seaplane bases extends to all 489 public and private sea-based airports around the United States.
Whether for public, private or commercial use, seaplane bases are especially useful for private and charter transport, as these bases can increase the capacity of land-based airport operations by reducing congestion. This is especially relevant in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, where private flight operations have seen a substantial leap in popularity both during the pandemic and due to its fall-out in today’s post-pandemic environment.