Pilots expect seaplane comeback

November 29, 1992|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

CLAIBORNE -- Every time Ken Guinness takes his privat plane soaring over the tidewater creeks and fields in these environs, he winds up landing in the water.

The wet touchdowns are intentional, though, because the 1947 Cessna Mr. Guinness bought two years ago is a seaplane outfitted with two watertight floats serving as its landing apparatus.

While seaplanes have been around almost as long as airplanes, they are relatively rare in Maryland, despite the state's enormous Chesapeake Bay and many waterways and lakes.

"There used to be more, but when sailing became such a big business, all the seaplane bases were turned into marinas," said Mike Forster, the president of Bay Bridge Aviation on Kent Island and the owner of a 1978 Taylorcraft seaplane.

When he isn't racing motorcycles or boating in the Caribbean, Mr. Guinness uses his two-seater Cessna to train other pilots in seaplane flying or to give sightseers and photographers bird's-eye views of the Eastern Shore.

A graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, Fla., the 30-year-old pilot said he prefers seaplanes over wheeled aircraft that require a solid landing base.

"It fits my personality," he said. "Seaplanes go back to when flying attracted the pioneers. It's more free-spirited."

Seaplane enthusiasts say their craft shouldn't be confused with amphibious planes, which are equipped with floats that contain retractable wheels for ground landings. Amphibians are heavier than "straight float" seaplanes, although float planes can take off on wet grass or mud if necessary.

Mr. Guinness said seaplane pilots and passengers enjoy the water takeoffs and landings because the aircraft mixes the pleasures of flying and boating.

"The land-based aircraft is a slave to its environment," he said. "With a seaplane, you don't go to an airport. You go to a spot where aircraft are not normal. We encompass two things -- the excitement of flying and the beauty of the water."

Seaplanes like Mr. Guinness' Cessna, which was built in Kansas and once saw service in the rugged back country of British Columbia, are regulated by two sets of federal guidelines, depending on whether they're in the air or in the water.

"Once you touch the water, you become a boat," said Mr. Guinness. "Once you are airborne, you become an aircraft."

Mr. Guinness said most seaplane pilots are sensitive to boaters and waterfront property owners and try to keep their planes from interfering with other people's activities.

He said he avoids frightening birds because they could pose a hazard to the aircraft.

"Gulls are pretty good navigators, but Canada geese are another matter altogether," he said.

While there are nearly 5,000 seaplanes registered in the United States, only 20 are in Maryland, according to the national Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Most commercial seaplanes operate in Alaska and along the Gulf of Mexico. Recreational seaplanes -- used to ferry sportsmen in and out of the wild -- are found primarily in Minnesota and Maine.

Seaplanes are not abundant around the Chesapeake Bay because upkeep is high and the bay's salt water quickly corrodes the expensive metal floats, said Tom Korzeniowski, AOPA's director of media operations.

"Despite all the water, it's not really that attractive to seaplanes."

But to seaplane aficionados such as Mr. Guinness and Mr. Forster, the specialized aircraft is due for a comeback in Maryland.

Both men said they see a market for an air taxi service from the rural Eastern Shore to Baltimore, Washington and Wilmington. And both said they are often asked to instruct other pilots who want to receive their seaplane ratings.

Mr. Forster, a former U.S. Navy pilot, said the demand for seaplane rentals and flight instructions has increased steadily since he began offering lessons 14 years ago.

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