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Chances are high that most (if not all) of the planes that you’ve flown in have landed on a runway. But what are planes that land on water called?

Planes that land on water are typically referred to as seaplanes. Technically, seaplanes are one type of water-landing aircraft that are known as “flying boats”, landing on their belly like a boat in the water. Floatplanes are a type of seaplane that uses floats or pontoons to land and operate on water.

Being able to land a plane on water is something that might have seemed largely impossible not too long ago. So how do they do it and what are these planes called? In this article, you’ll learn the answers to both of those questions and more. So sit back and relax, you’re about to learn everything you’ve ever wanted to know about planes that land on water.

Everything in this article has been vetted for accuracy and completeness to ensure that you’re getting the best information you can find on the web. This article combines our own aviation knowledge and experience here at SkyTough with the input and opinions of others in the industry, including pilots of seaplanes and floatplanes. So we’ve got you covered!

Table of contents


How Do Planes Land On Water?

As you can probably imagine, you can’t just simply decide one day while flying a plane that you want to land it on the water instead of on a runway. For the vast majority of aircraft that weren’t designed specifically to do that, this would result in nothing but a crash landing — or something that should only be done in an emergency if there’s nothing else to land. So how do some planes land on water?

The major change in the design of the plane that allows some of them to land on water comes down to the landing gear, one of the major parts of an airplane. On most aircraft, the landing gear will include wheels and tires that allow the pilot to land on the runway and taxi around the airport. To land on water, planes need to have different landing gear.

These planes need to be able to land on, move on, and take off from bodies of water. So their landing gear needs to be suitable for water instead of a runway. In most cases, this is done by using two large floats or pontoons under the aircraft, similar to how a pontoon boat would look. These types of planes are called floatplanes. A less common type of plane lands on its belly rather than pontoons, and those planes are known as seaplanes.

What’s the Difference Between a Seaplane and a Floatplane?

Even though the terms seaplane and floatplane are used as synonyms in many parts of the world, there is a key difference as you just read. But let’s dive into it a little more so that you can get a better idea of what these different types of planes are and what they’re used for.

What Is A Seaplane?

Here in the US, the term seaplane tends to get thrown around a lot more and is commonly used to refer to any type of plane that lands on water, regardless of how it actually accomplishes that landing. But as mentioned above, seaplanes are a specific type of plane that lands on water. Another way you might have heard seaplanes described are as “flying boats”.

Seaplanes get that nickname due to the way that they’re built and how they are designed to work. These planes are built around a single hull, just like an actual boat on the water. This hull is used as the plane’s fuselage and also the floating body that it lands on and takes off from. So if you see a plane come in for a landing on water and it doesn’t have floats or pontoons, have no fear! If it’s a seaplane, it was designed to do exactly that!

What Is A Floatplane?

This is likely the type of plane that you were picturing in your mind when you were thinking about planes that land on water. It looks like a typical plane except that the landing gear, as mentioned above, has been replaced with large floats or pontoons instead of wheels. This specialized landing gear enables the airplanes to land on, taxi around, and take off from the water.

Unlike the flying boat seaplanes above, the hull or fuselage of a floatplane is not designed to touch the water. The floats themselves should handle all of that on their own. What’s interesting about many floatplanes is that they have interchangeable landing gear. So the floats can be removed and replaced with conventional landing gear for normal runways or even skis for landing on snow and ice.

This adds versatility to the aircraft and makes it suitable for nearly any landing situation, something that a seaplane cannot do (since it lands on its belly).

Can Seaplanes And Floatplanes Land On Normal Runways?

The only way that seaplanes or floatplanes would be able to land on normal runways is if they’re equipped with interchangeable landing gear and have the floats swapped out for normal landing gear with wheels and tires. Since seaplanes don’t really have any sort of landing gear and floatplanes have floats or pontoons, they cannot simply land on a normal runway if something goes awry.

In fact, a plane like this trying to land on a normal runway would be more dangerous and even worse than a regular aircraft making an emergency landing on water. In the worst instances, a normal aircraft can attempt to land on water if they have no other options, and they’ll do so like a pseudo seaplane, landing on the belly of the aircraft.

But a seaplane or a floatplane that needs to make an emergency landing would be far better off looking for any sort of body of water. The belly of the seaplane or the floats of the floatplane would very likely be immediately torn apart upon landing on a normal runway. For these reasons, and for what they’re typically used for, seaplanes and floatplanes don’t typically venture too far inland.

The vast majority of the time, these types of airplanes are over water, so the need to attempt an emergency landing on land or a normal runway wouldn’t come up. Thankfully!

What Are Amphibious Aircraft?

So if seaplanes can’t land on normal runways, that keeps their use fairly restricted, right? They can only really go where there are suitable bodies of water to operate from. There has to be some sort of aircraft that can do both — takeoff and land in water or on land. That’s where this last grouping of airplanes comes in: amphibious aircraft.

Amphibious aircraft are simply seaplanes and floatplanes that have been retrofitted with standard landing gear that is retractable. Well, it doesn’t necessarily have to be regular wheels and tires, since they can also be fitted with skis for landing on snow and ice. But these aircraft really have two sets of landing gear, that for landing on water, and that for landing on land.

While this may seem like a no-brainer and adds valuable versatility to any sort of seaplane or floatplane, there are downsides. Creating an amphibious aircraft requires the plane to have extra weight and complexity, reduced fuel range, and more cost. So if the use of the planes is not expected to outweigh these disadvantages, then a regular airplane or a regular seaplane (or floatplane) would be chosen instead.