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Seaplanes and Pilots

Seaplanes and Seaplane Equipment

seaplane graphic

The information on this website under the Phase 1 menu tab incorporates information compiled from the first phase of a four-phase project to produce a risk analysis to assess the potential to spread aquatic invasive species via seaplanes. At the conclusion of the project, recommendations will be made to enhance U.S. aquatic invasive species-seaplane prevention efforts. The DRAFT material posted in the Phase I section of the website represents a compilation of material from numerous sources, some of which may ultimately inform the risk analysis. The purpose of compiling this information was to better understand the seaplane pathway and identify key data gaps and information needed to inform the risk analysis. No analysis of this information has been conducted to date as content is refined and additional sources and content are added.

Seaplanes are airplanes designed to take off from and land on water. The Federal Aviation Administration characterizes seaplanes as either flying boats (referred to as hull seaplanes) or floatplanes (FAA 2004) whereas others describe three types of seaplanes: floatplanes, flying boats, and amphibious aircraft (Gudmundsson 2013). The bottom of the fuselage is the primary landing gear of a flying boat whereas floats, called pontoons, are fitted to float planes and serve as landing gear. Floats and hulls are designed to optimize hydrodynamic and aerodynamic performance (FAA 2004).

Seaplane floats must contain at least four watertight compartments about equal in volume (CFR2010title14vol1sec23751) to prevent the entire float from filling with water if it becomes ruptured.

There are two types of floats for planes—amphibious, which have retractable landing gear that allow the plane to land on both water and hard surfaces—and straight floats, which can be landed only on water. Most general aviation and small commercial aircraft have versatile landing gear fittings such that their wheels can be replaced with floats. In many areas of the northern United States and Canada, this is done annually, on a seasonal basis.


Because seaplanes are designed to land on and takeoff from water, nautical terms are used when referencing them (e.g., port and starboard designate left and right, respectively; the nose of the airplane is called the bow; the aft end of the aircraft is called the stern) (Gudmundsson 2013). Nautical symbology is also used when depicting the three types of seaplane bases—those with either no facilities or that have incomplete information (top symbol), civil seaplane bases with fuel and services (middle symbol), and military seaplane bases with fuel and services (bottom symbol) (see figure to the right). 

Nautical symbology for seaplane bases

Pilots and Seaplane Pilots in the United States

There were a total of 789,945 registered pilots in the categories of Student Pilot, Sport Pilot, Private Pilot, Commercial Pilot, and ATP Pilot in the continental United States (50 states plus District of Columbia) as of 1 September 2023 (Airmen Certification System 2023). The table below lists the pilots by eight designated FAA regions - Alaskan, Central, Eastern, Great Lakes, NW Mountain, Southern, Southwest, and Western Pacific. These numbers fluctuate and are published monthly by the FAA.

Several seaplane training schools, websites, and seaplane associations estimate there are 35,000 certified pilots with seaplane ratings[1] in the United States. The FAA requires pilots to have a pilot certificate, a current flight review, currency in the aircraft, a photo ID, and a valid medical certificate – registered pilots without an active medical certificate are not legally licensed to fly. However, the FAA pilot database only identifies pilots that have one or more seaplane ratings; it does not identify active pilots. The FAA U.S. pilot database (2023) lists 257,730 U.S. pilots with ASEL or ASES ratings. There are no expiration dates for seaplane ratings and pilot certificates, however, currently requirements and medical certificates have expiration dates. The FAA does not have an accurate number of pilots that possess seaplane ratings and are actively flying. As of December 31, 2023, the number of rated pilots with seaplane ratings with active medical certificates was 21,329 (Seaplane Pilots Association, pers. comm.). The U.S. Civil Airmen Statistics is published annually and includes information not published in other FAA reports (e.g., estimated active airmen certificates, estimated active women airmen certificates, average age of active pilots, etc.). This database also does not reveal the number or percentage of pilots that possess seaplane ratings that are actively flying.


The FAA General Aviation and Part 135 Activity Survey is the only source of information for the federal government to determine the ways people use recreational and business air craft. For the past 20 years, the survey has been conducted by Tetra Tech, which samples more than 80,000 aircraft, or an estimated 30% of all registered U.S. aircraft. The 2022 survey Single Aircraft Questionnaire, Question #12, states: “What type of landing gear system did this aircraft primarily use in 2022? (Check one)  Fixed wheels, retract able wheels, straight floats, amphibious floats, other (e.g., skis), none (e.g., hot air balloon).” However, all survey results published online provide Excel tables of information sorted by only two types of landing gear—fixed and retractable wheels. Sorting this information by straight and amphibious floats would provide significant insights into the total number of seaplanes, how much use occurs on an annual basis, states in which the aircraft are flown and for what purpose, and number of water landings.


Phase II of this project will include working with the FAA and Tetra Tech to a) obtain results of the surveys for the past decade sorted by landing gear, and in particular, straight and amphibious floats, and b) assess the potential to modify, or incorporate one or more, survey questions in future annual surveys to help inform risk assessments for the sea plane pathway and AIS.


[1] An aircraft rating is a flight crew qualification that allows you to operate particular aircraft. The rating(s) you need depends on the type of pilot license you hold and the aircraft you want to fly.

Seaplane Ratings

See Test Standards for Airplane Pilots section, which provides additional context to this section.

Although pilots can obtain standalone seaplane ratings to fly seaplanes, this is rare. Generally, landplane-certified pilots interested in flying a seaplane add a seaplane rating to their existing pilot license.


There are several types of ratings that pertain to seaplanes:


  • Private Airplane Single Engine Sea (ASES)

  • Commercial Airplane Single Engine Sea (ASES)

  • Airline Transport Pilot Single Engine Sea Ratings (ATPSES)

  • Combined Seaplane Ratings (ASES & ASEL)

  • Multi-Engine Sea (MSES)


There is no requirement for an FAA written exam for individuals that seek to obtain a Single Engine Sea (SES) rating if they have a current pilot certificate.

Phase II of this project will include overlaying databases of existing locations of high-risk, priority AIS by region as well as locations of seaplane bases. Seaplane pilots could use this information to assess risk, potentially avoid infested waterbodies, or take steps to ensure their aircraft are decontaminated prior to traveling to another water body. FAA regions will be used to analyze the data to correlate as much information as possible to existing seaplane pilot and seaplane base databases.

colored seaplane graphic

Seaplane Bases

Seaplane bases can serve as sources for AIS, particularly in areas with remote seaplane-accessible waterbodies (Schwoerer et al. 2022). In the short term, ensuring float plane bases are free from AIS is the most effective action that can be taken to prevent the transport of AIS to waterbodies (Schwoerer et al. 2022).


The FAA Airmen Certification System lists 529 seaplane bases in the contiguous United States and Alaska (see table and figure below). On a percentage basis, 76% of all U.S. seaplane bases are in three regions: the Eastern Region (26%), followed by Alaska (25%) and the Great Lakes Region (25%). The remaining five regions comprise a total of 24% of all U.S. seaplane bases. The number and location of seaplane bases may provide an indication of the amount of seaplane use within a particular region.


pie chart showing seaplane bases by region







Western Pacific

Test Standards for Airline Pilots

Operations Handbook cover
Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge cover
Airplane flying handbook cover
seaplane graphic

The FAA publishes Airline Transport Pilot and Type Rating for Airplane: Airman Certification Standards (ACS) (FAASACS11) – 2019 to communicate aeronautical knowledge, risk management, and flight proficiency standards for airline transport pilot certification (ATP) and type rating certification. The ACS includes the totality of airman certification. ACS is the guidance instructors follow to ensure their curriculum meets FAA expectations and their students are prepared for practical tests. ACS also helps to ensure private sector-Designated Pilot Examiners and government FAA inspectors test for the knowledge, skills, and judgment standards the FAA desires on the practical test. The ACS is part of the safety management system framework the FAA uses to mitigate risks associated with airman certification training and testing, and includes the following functional components:

  • Safety Policy that defines and describes aeronautical knowledge, flight proficiency, and risk management as integrated components of the ACS;


  • Safety Risk Management processes through which internal and external stake holders identify and evaluate regulatory changes, safety recommendations, or other factors that require modification of airman testing and training materials;

  • Safety Assurance processes to ensure the prompt and appropriate incorporation of changes arising from new regulations and safety recommendations; and


  • Safety Promotion in the form of ongoing engagement with both external stake holders (e.g., the aviation training industry) and FAA policy division.


The standards include Preflight Preparation for different types of certifications, including “Water and Seaplane Characteristics, Seaplane Bases, Maritime Rules, and Aids to Marine Navigation” (ASES, AMES). Within the ACS for seaplane rating, the objective of Preflight Preparation is to determine the applicant exhibits satisfactory knowledge, risk management, and skills associated with water and seaplane characteristics, seaplane bases, maritime rules, and aids to marine navigation (References 14 CFR part 61; FAAH80832, FAA H80833, FAAH808323; USCG Navigation Rules, International Inland; POH/AFM; Chart Supplements; AIM).

  • Individuals obtain an airman certificate based on the category and/or class aircraft appropriate to the task, e.g., ASES (Airplane: Single Engine Sea) and AMES (Airplane: Multi Engine Sea). To become a seaplane pilot, an individual earns an SES or MES rating on their airman’s certificate or earns a sea plane endorsement in his/her Sport Pilot logbook if flying a sport pilot or light sport aircraft.

  • FAAH80833C is the Airplane Flying Handbook produced by the FAA. The most recent version of the handbook is 2021 (the earlier version, 3B, was produced in 2016). The handbook, developed by the Flight Standards Service, Airman Testing Standards Branch, and aviation educators and industry, provides basic knowledge that is essential for pilots. Updates to the manual include information such as new graphics, new or modifications to existing programs, and safety procedures. Practical tests for FAA pilot certificates and associated ratings are administered by FAA inspectors and Designated Pilot Examiners (DPE) using FAA Airman Certification Standards (ACS), which contain structured areas of operation, tasks, and standards. Practical test consists of the tasks specified in the areas of operation for the airman certificate or rating sought. To pass the test, the applicant demonstrates mastery of the aircraft performing each task successfully, with proficiency and competency, and within the approved standards, and sound judgment (FAA 2021). The pilot must “exhibit knowledge of the elements related to preflight inspection, including which items must be inspected, the reasons for checking them, and how to detect possible defects; inspect the airplane with reference to an appropriate checklist, and verify the airplane is in safe condition for flight.”

  • FAAH808323 is the Seaplane, Skiplane, and Float/Ski Equipped  Helicopter Operations Handbook. This handbook introduces the basic skills necessary for piloting seaplanes, skiplanes, and helicopters equipped with floats or skis. It was developed by the Flight Standards Service, Airman Testing Standards Branch, and various aviation educators and industry. The handbook assists pilots that hold private or commercial certificates and seek to learn how to fly seaplanes, skiplanes or helicopters equipped for water or ski operations. Chapter 4 provides information on seaplane preflight and takeoff procedures. Page 42 of the handbook instructs pilots to, “Remove any water weeds or other debris lodged in the water rudder assembly.” “Noting their position before landing can prevent fouling the water rudders with weeds while taxiing or puncturing a float on a submerged snag.”


Airplane flying over water

FAA Advisory Circulars

The FAA issues Advisory Circulars (AC) to inform the aviation public in a systematic way of nonregulatory material. This advisory circular (AC) provides guidance and information to owners and operators of aircraft concerning their responsibility for complying with Airworthiness Directives (AD) and recording AD compliance in the appropriate maintenance records. Unless incorporated into a regulation by reference, the contents of an advisory circular are not binding on the public. ACs are issued in a numbered subject system corresponding to the subject areas of the Code of Federal Regulations Title 14, Chapter 1, FAA.

There currently exists 763 ACs, two of which pertain directly to seaplanes:


The AC system provides a single, uniform, agency-wide system that the FAA uses to deliver advisory material to FAA customers, industry, the aviation community, and the public.​ ACs can either be revised or changed. A revision is preferable to a change because the result is a document that is completely updated, versus new information that is annotated with a new date.

Incorporating content into AC 91-69A to include hazards imposed on floats and the environment from aquatic invasive species is a potential key next step that will be explored in the next several phases of this project.

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