Flying boats, seaplanes, floatplanes – no matter what you call them, they're pretty cool. The terms are often used interchangeably, but these three water-faring aircraft all have a different meaning. However, no matter what you call them, it seems a real shame that flying boats aren't as much a part of the Navy as they used to be. In fact, you could say that there's no real place for them in the current Navy at all.
So let's get some facts clarified on the kinds of water aircraft that are hard to find in our modern Navy.
Flying boats are built around a single hull that serves as the plane's floating body and fuselage. Flying boats take off and land on its belly. That's exactly what happened in 1955 in Maryland when the XP6M-1 Seamaster, the world's first jet-powered seaplane, took its first flight.
Floatplanes are also called pontoon planes. Instead of having a hull that can land on water, floatplanes have floats (also called pontoons) that serve as surfaces for take-off and landing.
Think of the Viking Twin Otter. These amphibious aircraft can take off and land on conventional runways, water, and even on skis during snowy conditions. Talk about versatile, right?So why aren't flying boats and seaplanes and floatplanes better utilized in our Navy today? That's an excellent question, considering that Russia and China both have water aircraft and have been steadily perfecting their designs for the last 20 years, the latest versions of the AVIC AG-600 and the Beriev Be-200, proving that both countries know a thing or two about amphibious aircraft.
The First Seaplane of the Navy
During the first World War, the only aircraft available had serious limitations for anti-submarine duty. Seaplanes weren't capable of operating in the open ocean without a support ship, and we're seaworthy enough to survive the cold, harsh conditions in the North Atlantic. Rear Admiral David Taylor proposed building a flying boat with the capability to cross the Atlantic Ocean in 1917 because he recognized that a self-deploying anti-submarine aircraft would be instrumental in the battle for the open seas. However, the design needs to be reliable, intended for combat, not to mention maintainable, and be able to operate both in the air and on the ocean. Talk about having your work cut out for you.
What developed was the largest flying boat ever built. It featured an unusual shape, state-of-the-art engineering, and unsurpassed sea-worthiness. By late 1918, the first NC-1 was constructed and undergoing testing. The war ended before the testing was complete, and the military need for the flying boat ended.
However, Navy leadership was undeterred and continued testing, refocusing efforts to complete testing. In May 1919, NC Seaplane Divisions One set off from New York and made history by crossing the Atlantic Ocean.
After WWI, naval aviation's emphasis was on carrier operations, so patrol-plane development was limited to a shoestring budget.
Unlike Russia and China, our Navy isn't so concerned with making amphibious aircraft. In fact, the XP6M-1 was the last seaplane flown by the US Navy way back in 1955, and it was only built in response to what leadership expected would be needed during the early days of the Cold War. It was never used for its intended purpose.
Flying boats have the advantage of using oceans as runways – good news for the pilot and crew since the ocean can't be cratered by bombs. Atolls, bays, and coves become FOPs for flying boats, making the entire world a battlefield.
The end of flying boats was due in part to the last island campaign of WWII. There were so many military airbases built to meet the Pacific Theater's needs, and most of them had long runways. Long-range land-based planes like the Privateer were able to operate just fine, taking away the need for amphibious aircraft.
The need for flying boats like the NC-1 is long gone, but the need for ingenuity and development continues to remain strong. The Navy continues to make big strides forward – it commissioned eight new ships in 2017 – and though flying boats remain a thing of the past, the push to move forward remains as strong as ever.
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