Planes that land on water are some of the most amazing aircraft ever built. To explain what they really are, let’s take a look at seaplanes vs floatplanes.
Seaplanes typically refer to any plane that is able to land on, take off, and operate from a body of water. Most commonly, seaplanes are designed and built to take off from and land on their bellies. Floatplanes are a certain type of seaplane that uses floats or pontoons to operate on the water.
It’s amazing to think about planes and aviation being such a relatively new concept in the grand scheme of things. But in just over a century, we’ve gone from the first successful flight via airplane to now having airplanes that can land on water on a regular basis. In this article, we’ll take a look at seaplanes vs floatplanes so that you can learn everything you want to know about these incredible aircraft.
Our goal with SkyTough is to provide you with only the best, most helpful aviation content that you’ll find anywhere on the web. The only way to do that is to combine our knowledge and expertise with research and the opinion of others in the industry. So when you finish reading this article, you truly know the difference (and similarities) between a seaplane and a floatplane.
What Is A Seaplane?
A seaplane is a type of plane that is most commonly used to land on water. Also known as flying boats, seaplanes are built around their large fuselage/belly, which is often compared to the hull of a boat. The reason for this type of design, as well as for the high-wing configuration, is so that seaplanes can land on and take off from bodies of water. They use this hull-like belly on the bottom of the fuselage as their base as they move along the water.
For all intents and purposes, the term seaplane is typically used as an umbrella term for any type of plane that lands on water, even though the term flying boat is used in official documents and definitions around the aviation industry. So for the sake of this article when comparing seaplanes and float planes, we’ll mostly be referring to flying boats when we discuss seaplanes.
It’s worth noting that although the name has “sea” in it, that doesn’t actually mean that these planes are used only in the sea, but rather any type of water. Seaplanes can operate in oceans, seas, lakes, gulfs, and even some rivers in certain circumstances. Basically any body of water can be a potential landing and take off zone for a seaplane with a trained pilot.
Key Characteristics Of A Seaplane
To help you quickly recognize what a seaplane is, here are some of the key characteristics of them:
- Designed to take off from, land on, and operate entirely on water
- Large, hull-like fuselage belly used to float
- Small floats attached to the wings to promote stability
- High wing configuration since they sit low on the water
- High payload capacity
- Very aero- and hydrodynamic
We’ll get into the details about how a floatplane’s characteristics compare to a seaplane below, but that should give you a bit of an idea.
What Is A Floatplane?
As you may have gathered from above, a floatplane is technically a type of seaplane. Since seaplane is the general term for any plane that lands on and takes off from water, it’s safe to assume that floatplanes are just one type of seaplane. That said, they’re designed to be used entirely differently than the flying boats that we looked at above.
The biggest difference between the two is that floatplanes are constructed with large floats or pontoons on the bottom of the aircraft that act as landing gear. So instead of using the plane’s belly/fuselage to land and move around on the water, these floats or pontoons — similar to what you see on a pontoon boat — provide the buoyancy necessary for operation.
You might also hear floatplanes referred to as pontoon planes for this exact reason, but either term refers to what the planes use to float and operate from the water. While we go through some of this discussion, however, keep in mind that floatplanes are technically a subset of seaplanes, but they’re very different in design and functionality than a flying boat seaplane!
Key Characteristics Of A Floatplane
Just like we looked at some of the main features of a seaplane above, let’s take a look at some of the key characteristics of a floatplane:
- Designed to operate on water but can also have retractable wheels for land use
- Large floats (or pontoons) replace standard landing gear and provide buoyancy
- High wing configuration to avoid the water
- Typically no additional floats on the wings
- Reduced payload capacity
- Less aero- and hydrodynamic
This should give you a quick idea of what makes a floatplane a floatplane, but we’ll get into more detail in the next section.
Seaplane vs Floatplane: Similarities And Differences
As you can see, there are some similarities and differences between seaplanes (as flying boats) and floatplanes, but there are also some distinct differences between the two. Let’s take a look side-by-side.
As you’ve certainly gathered by now, both seaplanes and floatplanes are designed and built to primarily be used on water. That’s what makes them what they are! But there are also a few differences, starting with the ways that the planes float. Seaplanes float directly on their fuselage, whereas float planes use large floats or pontoons for buoyancy.
Both planes also utilize high-wing configurations so that they are able to safely land on water without the wings getting in the way. But speaking of the wings, seaplanes will often have small floats added to the wings to increase stability, but floatplanes don’t need the additional floats thanks to the large ones.
Aerodynamics And Hydrodynamics
One of the most important components of flight that affect how planes fly is how aerodynamic they are. In the case of seaplanes and floatplanes, hydrodynamics are also important since they’re used in water. But since air and water are both fluids, the aerodynamics and hydrodynamics of an airplane will largely be directly related to one another.
The bottom line is that seaplanes are usually more aerodynamic and hydrodynamic than floatplanes. This is almost entirely due to the large floats that floatplanes use. These floats significantly increase the drag on the aircraft compared to the smooth-bellied fuselage that makes up the landing surface of a seaplane.
Whether you’re planning on transporting people or cargo, payload capacity is of utmost importance. In theory, the higher the payload capacity your plane can carry, the more money you’ll be able to make per trip (assuming a fully-loaded aircraft).
That said, flying boat seaplanes typically have a higher payload capacity than a floatplane. This is first due to the large fuselage belly that these planes use to float, which can be used for extra cargo storage. Additionally, thanks to being more aerodynamic and hydrodynamic as mentioned above, the reduced drag directly increases the payload capacity.
The biggest issue facing seaplanes and floatplanes when it comes to longevity is corrosion, especially for planes used in salt water conditions. While you might think both types of planes will suffer the same issues, that’s not actually the case.
Seaplanes have more corrosion issues than floatplanes because they’re designed to float on their fuselage, which is typically made of metal. Comparatively, many floatplanes use composite materials to construct the floats, which do not corrode due to exposure to salt water. So in many cases, a floatplane will last longer than a seaplane simply due to corrosion.
What’s Better: A Floatplane Or A Seaplane?
Perhaps the biggest question on your mind is which type of water-capable plane is better. If you’re in the market for one of these planes to transport either passengers or supplies, should you get a flying boat seaplane or a floatplane? I wish that I could give you a simple answer on which one is definitively better, but it’s much more nuanced than that and will really come down to what you’re hoping to do with the plane and what you want to get out of it.
Although neither type of plane is better than the other in every situation, I will say that floatplanes are typically more versatile than seaplanes. And, for most people, I would recommend a floatplane being the way to go. And here’s why.
The biggest reason for this is that many floatplanes out there are amphibious, meaning they can operate on both land and water thanks to retractable wheels and tires. But, some flying boat seaplanes also have this feature, it’s just far more common on floatplanes. Additionally, this amphibious capability makes transporting and maintaining floatplanes far easier.
A floatplane can be landed on the water and then pull straight up and ramp and onto the land. Even if the seaplane does have retractable wheels and tires, it’s typically faster for a floatplane to get out of the water than a seaplane. And in the aviation business — as well as just about every other business — time is money!
All that said, one of the major reasons to consider getting a seaplane over a floatplane is the increased payload capacity. Due to the large belly and more aerodynamic and hydrodynamic design, seaplanes can carry more weight. This is especially useful for anyone using their seaplane for cargo transportation. So if your main concern is carrying maximum cargo, then a seaplane might be the way to go.
About THE AUTHOR
After spending years watching every video I could find about flying, I finally scratched the itch and got my pilots license. Now I fly every chance I get, and share the information I learn, here.Read More About Joe Haygood