Seaplane Safety


  • Acquiring a seaplane class rating affords access to many areas not available to land-plane pilots
  • Adding a seaplane class rating to your pilot certificate can be relatively uncomplicated and inexpensive
    • However, more effort is required to become a safe, efficient, competent "bush" pilot
  • Seaplane pilots must be aware of collision hazards unique to their operation
  • Understanding right-of-way rules will help mitigate theses hazards
  • Still, other safety considerations that pertain to operating an aircraft over water must be observed
  • Finally, just because you can land on water, doesn't mean you should

Seaplane Operation Collision Hazards:

  • The natural hazards of the backwoods have given way to modern man-made hazards
    • Except for the far north, the available bodies of water are no longer the exclusive domain of the airman
    • Seaplane pilots must be vigilant for hazards such as electric power lines, power, sail and rowboats, rafts, mooring lines, water skiers, swimmers, etc.

Right-of-Way for Water Operations:

  • Seaplane pilots must have a thorough understanding of the right-of-way rules as they apply to aircraft versus other vessels
    • Seaplane pilots are expected to know and adhere to both the U.S. Coast Guard's (USCG) Navigation Rules, International-Inland, and Right-of-Way Rules for Water Operations
    • The navigation rules of the road are a set of collision avoidance rules as they apply to aircraft on the water
  • A seaplane is considered a vessel when on the water for the purposes of these collision avoidance rules
  • In general, a seaplane on the water must keep well clear of all vessels and avoid impeding their navigation
  • The CFR requires, in part, that aircraft operating on the water "...shall, insofar as possible, keep clear of all vessels and avoid impeding their navigation, and shall give way to any vessel or other aircraft that is given the right-of-way..."
    • This means that a seaplane should avoid boats and commercial shipping when on the water
  • If on a collision course, the seaplane should slow, stop, or maneuver to the right, away from the bow of the oncoming vessel
  • Also, while on the surface with an engine running, an aircraft must give way to all non-powered vessels
  • Since a seaplane in the water may not be as maneuverable as one in the air, the aircraft on the water has right-of-way over one in the air, and one taking off has right-of-way over one landing

Seaplane Safety Considerations:

  • A seaplane is exempt from the USCG safety equipment requirements, including the requirements for Personal Flotation Devices (PFD)
    • Requiring seaplanes on the water to comply with USCG equipment requirements in addition to the FAA equipment requirements would be an unnecessary burden on seaplane owners and operators
  • When operating a seaplane over or into remote areas, appropriate attention should be given to survival gear
    • Minimum kits are recommended for summer and winter, and are required by law for flight into sparsely settled areas of Canada and Alaska
  • Alaska State Department of Transportation and Canadian Ministry of Transport officials can provide specific information on survival gear requirements
  • The kit should be assembled in one container and be easily reachable and preferably floatable
  • The FAA recommends that each seaplane owner or operator provide flotation gear for occupants any time a seaplane operates on or near water
  • 14 CFR Section 91.205(b)(12) requires approved flotation gear for aircraft operated for hire over water and beyond power-off gliding distance from shore
  • FAA-approved gear differs from that required for navigable waterways under USCG rules
  • FAA-approved life vests are inflatable designs as compared to the USCG's non-inflatable PFD's that may consist of solid, bulky material
  • Such USCG PFDs are impractical for seaplanes and other aircraft because they may block passage through the relatively narrow exits available to pilots and passengers
  • Life vests approved under Technical Standard Order (TSO) TSO-C13E contain fully inflatable compartments
  • The wearer inflates the compartments (AFTER exiting the aircraft) primarily by independent CO2 cartridges, with an oral inflation tube as a backup
  • The flotation gear also contains a water-activated, self-illuminating signal light
  • The fact that pilots and passengers can easily don and wear inflatable life vests (when not inflated) provides maximum effectiveness and allows for unrestricted movement
  • It is imperative that passengers are briefed on the location and proper use of available PFDs prior to leaving the dock

Waterway Jurisdiction:

  • Unless they are under Federal jurisdiction, navigable bodies of water are under the jurisdiction of the state, or in a few cases, privately owned. Unless they are specifically restricted, aircraft have as much right to operate on these bodies of water as other vessels
  • To avoid problems, check with Federal or local officials in advance of operating on unfamiliar waters
  • In addition to the agencies listed below, the nearest Flight Standards District Office can usually offer some practical suggestions as well as regulatory information
  • If you land on a restricted body of water because of an inflight emergency, or in ignorance of the restrictions you have violated, report as quickly as practical to the nearest local official having jurisdiction and explain your situation
  • Jurisdictions Controlling Navigable Bodies of Water

    Authority to Consult For Use of a Body of Water
    Wilderness Area U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Local forest ranger
    National Forest USDA Forest Service Local forest ranger
    National Park U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service Local park ranger
    Indian Reservation USDI, Bureau of Indian Affairs Local Bureau office
    State Park State government or state forestry or park service Local state aviation office for further information
    Canadian National and Provincial Parks Supervised and restricted on an individual basis from province to province and by different departments of the Canadian government; consult Canadian Flight Information Manual and/or Water Aerodrome Supplement Park Superintendent in an emergency


  • The FAA recommends that seaplane owners and operators obtain Advisory Circular (AC) 91-69, Seaplane Safety for 14 CFR Part 91 Operations, free from the U.S. Department of Transportation, Subsequent Distribution Office, SVC-121.23, Ardmore East Business Center, 3341 Q 75th Avenue, Landover, MD 20785; fax: (301) 386-5394
  • The USCG Navigation Rules International-Inland (COMDTINSTM 16672.2B) is available for a fee from the Government Printing Office by facsimile request to (202) 512-2250, and can be ordered using Mastercard or Visa
  • Review your seaplane safety knowledge by taking the Air Safety Institute's "Invasive Species" quiz
  • Still looking for something? Continue searching: