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It's a Plane! It's a Boat! It's a...Sea Plane!

August 24, 2017

When you are out and about boating or hiking near a river, lake, bay cove or flat ocean you may be graced with the sight of a sea plane or sea boat landing. It is inspiring to see them swoop down and land on the water’s surface. At one time these beauties were commonplace along the thousands of mile of shoreline up and down the coast of the United States. Even today they are popular as a way of travel with passengers, explorers, and the military
When humanity walked on land they looked to the magic of the sea. When they mastered boat building and sails they looked to conquer the skies. Leonardo Da Vinci was the first to design an actual aircraft. But there is always some person who wants to dream a little more, push the envelope even harder, and ask questions few are asking. A few years before the age of aviation success, Alphonse Penaud of France had a vision of a flying machine that would function as a boat. He received a patent for a flying machine with a floating fuselage and landing gear in 1876. He never pursued it further.
The first experimental seaplane try was in Austria by Wilhelm Kress in 1893. His attempt was a failure when one of its float skids collapsed and the entire endeavor “sank”!
Experimental European flight with nautical landing ability continued though nothing succeeded. I find it amusing as no one had actually flown ANY type of plane successfully until Dec. 17, 1903. When Wilbur and Orville Wright piloted the first fixed wing aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina; yet the French were experimenting with sea planes? What comes first? The chicken or the egg? Then in 1904-05, the Orville Brothers invented the first patented flight controls, structural designs and improvements. Now the time was ripe for seaplane and sea boats to take flight.
 Before the story continues, let me explain the difference between a seaplane and a sea boat. The names often are used interchangeably but there are differences. A seaplane is a regular plane fitted with skis that are pontoons giving the plane the ability to land on water. Often the skis have wheels so that they can also maneuver on land. If they can land on terra firma and water they are officially called “amphibious aircraft”. Sea planes are generally small craft and it is preferable to land them in calm waters.
The sea boat is quite different in its engineering. They generally are much larger and can even be giants carrying heavy cargo, military equipment or large contingents of passengers.  Its entire fuselage sits directly in the water where as a seaplane never does. The sea boats large fuselage is designed to serve many purposes. It holds the fuel in larger amounts for longer flights. It acts as ballast stabilizing the sea boat in water making her able to land in more turbulent seas. It also performs in the water like a boat due to her displacement of large amounts of water. Wings generally have small pontoons (sponsons) near their outer edges to keep the wings from cutting into the water if the pilot should bank too far when landing.
The first successful seaplane flight was made in1905 by French national, Gabriel Voison. He took off and landed a towed glider on the Seine River. He then tried to build a powered version later but failed. The French continued their experiments and began to achieve success while engineers and inventors in other countries, like Glenn Curtiss in the United States, began to take up the challenge. In 1910 Henri Fabre successfully flew the first practical seaplane. Called the Gnome Omega, it was actually a sea boat. The French continued to make credible progress even holding the first seaplane race in Monaco in 1912.

In America, Glenn Curtiss began to make headway into seaplane and sea boat design by thinking “out of the box” from what the French were achieving.  He invented the “Curtiss Model D’’ that concentrated on having a much larger fuselage centrally located that served as the lower portion of the plane and he added sponsons to the wings. He also was the first to add wheels making the “Curtiss Model D’’ the first truly amphibious craft. This craft proved the ability of planes to land on ships which initiated the reach and power of aircraft carriers. Between 1911 and 1913 Curtiss added models “E” and “F’’ to his lineup and began to call them “Flying Boats”. Glenn Curtiss, with the support of investors, then engineered the America a sea boat which was to try for a cross Atlantic flight in August of 1914 but the project was forestalled by World War I.
           The America and 12 more similar aircraft were then sold to Britain for military purposes. The British upgraded them with powerful Rolls Royce engines. By the end of the war, Curtiss had supplied the British with 64 “Americas” and smaller amounts of other seaplanes and boats while the English, disappointed by certain handling issues with the Curtiss planes, launched their own three engine biplane called the “Felixstowe F.1”. (I’d like to meet the engineer who came up with that name.)
          Meanwhile, seaplanes were being engineered and put in use all over the world. In 1919 a Curtiss NC-4 became the first plane to make the trans-Atlantic crossing with only two stops. It was built on Long Island in Garden City, New York. The British, not to be outdone, began the first commercial seaplane operations to the Channel Islands and in the 1930s sea boat and plane travel routes exploded all over the world with the Pan Am Boeing 314 becoming the upscale work horse of sea boat fleets with the ability to fly to the remotest corners of the world. (I always wondered. If the earth is a sphere, how can it have corners? )

Locally, seaplane and boat bases were built in Long Beach to accommodate the customers of William Reynolds fashionable new resort community and at the Glenn Curtiss base at Flushing Harbor was used to deliver his sea planes to customers and also had land runways and four hangers for storage. Pan Am had the Sands Point Sea Plane Base where the Boeing Yankee Clipper Sea Boats could service the Gold Coast of Long Island and be close enough to NYC to service the customer base of the wealthy that lived there. Curtiss also had a base in Valley Stream. It was still functioning when I was a kid. The Columbia XJLI and amphibious aircraft like the J2F Duck were built there. Today it is Green Acres Shopping Center. The hangers are still there in the back. Some private citizens of means purchased their own seaplanes. William K. Vanderbilt of Centerport, Long Island owned a Sikorsky S-43 that he and his wife, Rose, used to explore the world. It was “state of the art and very comfortable”.
World War II saw an explosion of sea plane and boat activity and innovation especially but not exclusive to the Pacific Theater.  Near the end of the war, Howard Hughes build the largest flying boat ever built-the Spruce Goose. Seaplanes and boats were used in Viet Nam and are presently used in counter intelligence, illegal immigration, and drug intervention.
Through the 1970s there was a sea plane base in Island Park and presently there are bases in NYC at the tip of 23rd street and the East River that sends out sea planes to the Hamptons, Ridgefield Conn, Nantucket, the Jersey Shore and points further east, west, north and south.
Other bases are at Brewer Boatyard

 

 

at Manhasset Bay and Jamaica Sea Airport at Jamaica Bay, Queens, NY. The Jamaica base services transfers from Kennedy International and others on their way to trendy sea resorts and water destinations. There are sea plane bases in Essex, CT (Felski’s) and on Highland Lake in Litchfield (Beavair’s Landing).  New Jersey has its fair share of bases at Highland Heights, Little Ferry, Hackensack River, Allen’s in Brick, and Harrah’s in Atlantic City. The reality is that the main advantage of sea planes and boats is their ability to land and take off from almost any large body of water, be it ocean, river, lake or bay. Bases are needed only for service, long term storage, and fuel.
From Friday morning and to Monday evening in the late spring to early fall there is an explosion of seaplane and boat activity along Long Island’s North and South Shores as weekenders fly to their East End, Fire Island and Massachusetts summer homes. Other flights splash down at points all along the coasts of New Jersey, up the Hudson, the Connecticut and beyond.  When you happen to see a seaplane remember this- It’s just another chapter in the history of flight……and boats.

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