About 15 years ago, John Drury was sitting at a local bar in Tavares, Florida, contemplating the future of what was then a “dying town,” when he had an epiphany of sorts. As two people walked up and ordered a soda and an iced tea, he recalls, “I looked at their feet…and I saw Crocs, and seaweed dripping on the floor.”
A pilot himself, Drury suspected they had landed their seaplane at Lake Dora, a short walk from the bar. His hunch proved correct. “They said, ‘We just splashed in, in that seaplane. It’s kind of hard to get from the water to the restaurant…but you get a pretty good hamburger and a pretty good meal here.’”
As the newly appointed city administrator for Tavares, it was just the inspiration Drury needed.
Realizing that the city was uniquely positioned in the center of the state, he thought, “Wouldn’t this be a great refueling location” for seaplanes headed to and from the Florida Keys and the Bahamas?
When he looked for an historic tie-in that would align the city with seaplanes, Drury hit the jackpot. He says he found evidence that in February 1914, Tony Jannus—the world’s first airline pilot—landed his Benoist flying boat on Lake Eustis, on the city’s northeast border. He also discovered that Clara Adams, an early aircraft passenger and advocate for aviation transportation who became known as a “First Flighter” and the “Maiden of Maiden Flights,” landed on that same lake a month later. The discovery was the spark that ignited economic revival for the city.
Sold on the idea of revitalizing the city’s economy by turning it into a seaplane destination, city officials approved an initial $8.3 million bond to create the Tavares Seaplane Base and Marina. The FBO opened in 2010 and today, Tavares is officially branded as “America’s Seaplane City.”
The public-use seaplane base includes on-water and on-land refueling stations that offer 100LL and mogas, a 90-octane non-ethanol fuel favored by seaplanes; a non-towered airport terminal with weather reporting and a unicom; a 60-foot-wide designated seaplane ramp; paved parking with tie downs to accommodate 10 to 12 amphibious aircraft; and a 3,000-foot FAA-approved, east-west runway (FA1) on Lake Dora.
The city was so committed to its vision of establishing “America’s Seaplane City” that in 2012 it passed an ordinance protecting the airport zone from future land use and structural development that might encroach upon its operations.
A business-friendly entertainment district that’s walking distance from Lake Dora was established, as well as an events center, an outdoor stage, and a children’s park with a splash pad that features a life-size aircraft replica. “We took a civic-entrepreneurial approach to government…We felt like if we invest in ourselves, others will invest in us. And they did. Tens of millions of private dollars followed from the dollars that were invested in the city,” Drury says.
Kendall Clutts, the aviation manager for the city, grew up in Tavares. “As a kid, Tavares was just kind of a middle of nowhere, rural town…If you wanted to go out to eat, you had to drive an hour,” he says. Clutts graduated high school in 2012 and was gone for about five years at college and starting his career. When he came back home, he was pleasantly surprised. “It was a 100 percent turnaround. It is a different downtown.”
According to Bob Tweedie, director of economic development for Tavares, since creating the FBO, 24 new businesses, including the lakefront Key West Resort with 64 guest rooms, have opened. The population has also increased from less than 10,000 full-time residents in 2010 to 20,000 today. Some of this Tweedie attributes to natural growth, but he says the city’s enhancements to and beautification of the waterfront, along with the new businesses downtown, also make it a more attractive place to live.
A report prepared by the Florida Department of Transportation, estimates that in 2019 the Tavares airport generated $39.3 million in direct and indirect economic impact for the region. An updated study is planned for later this year.
Tweedie says the seaplane base was a catalyst for upgrading and expanding the city’s lakefront park, its boating facilities and adjacent greenspace, and adding a robust schedule of 24 annual events that “literally bring tens of thousands of people here, both locally and from outside the area.”
Two of those events are seaplane focused. Up to 80 aircraft over a weekend and roughly 1,000 visitors typically show up to the splash-ins, Clutts says. An air boss is hired to help manage arrivals and departures, as well as an aerial display and seaplane contests. The spring Seaplane-A-Palooza event serves as an unofficial kickoff for the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo, a fly-in and airshow held annually at nearby Lakeland. This year’s spring splash-in will be combined with the city’s Planes, Tunes, and BBQ festival and will be held April 1 and 2.
Serious Seaplane Business
Contributing to the airport’s economic impact is Progressive Aerodyne SeaRey, which manufactures and sells two models of light sport amphibious aircraft and an experimental, taildragger flying boat kit.
The company operates its own 3,000-foot private runway (3FA8) on Lake Idamere, three miles southwest of downtown Tavares. President of Progressive Aerodyne, Kerry Richter says the airport is mostly used by the company for demo flights and customers, but they don’t mind if an occasional non-SeaRey aircraft splashes-in either. Formerly located in Orlando, city officials persuaded SeaRey to pick up its chocks and move 40 miles north, shortly after the seaplane base opened in 2010.
“We turned them down twice and they upped the ante. They actually funded the move for us,” Richter says. “It was probably one of the best decisions we ever made. It put us right on the lake, in a nice building and we just taxi to the water and go flying now.”
Tavares is also home to Jones Brothers & Co. Air & Seaplane Adventures, which offers seaplane rides and tours, Part 135 charter excursions—and a Part 61 flight school that trains pilots for high-performance and complex single-engine seaplane ratings.
The former owner of Jones Brothers & Co., Rob Galloway, sold the company a year ago and now serves as its designated pilot examiner. He said the business blossomed over the decade that he owned it, especially on the flight training side. “At the very beginning, back 10 years ago, it was 90 percent sightseeing and 10 percent flight training. We might have done like five students in a year, or something like that. Now, we do more than five students in a week.”
With 7,000 seaplane flight hours, Galloway says landing on the water opens up opportunities that aren’t available to regular aircraft. “We get people at Jones Brothers with all kinds of backgrounds and experiences in aviation and most of the time you hear people say, ‘This is the most fun flying I’ve ever done.’”
One of the only challenges to landing at FA1 is boat traffic, which on some weekends can be heavy. But Galloway says, from “your birds-eye-view,” it’s pretty easy to find a good landing lane.
FA1 has a VFR-only approach, and the runway is only open during daylight hours. As in any body of water, it’s important to assess the surface before touching down. “You want to look at water conditions, choppiness. Once you get above 10 knots of wind, you will start to see some white capping… It makes it a bit bumpier of a landing,” Galloway says. “So typically, you’ll want to find an area that’s protected from the wind and try to land there, where it’s a little more calm.”
On the flipside, truly calm wind conditions can make landing difficult, as well. “If you have an extremely calm day, the water is so smooth…it’s actually the most difficult [landing] because you can’t judge where the surface is,” he says. “You have to be trained well to do glassy water landings.”
At Tavares, glassy water is usually not an issue. On most days, the winds range from 5 to 10 knots, which is the “sweet spot” for seaplanes, Galloway says.
Boats and aircraft share the lake—usually amicably, Clutts says. Following a direct hit from Hurricane Irma in 2017, the city rebuilt its docks and beachfront, which allowed it to create some additional separation for the aircraft and boats. The shoreline can now accommodate up to 20 aircraft on floats or up to 60 boats. There’s also a newly refurbished 340-foot dock “that was built with seaplanes in mind,” Clutts says. The rebuilt boat marina, with 80 slips, is now located west of the seaplane base and has its own designated boat ramp.
According to Clutts, who along with his staff hand counts operations (takeoffs) at the FBO, most of the traffic at FA1 is light sport aircraft, including SeaReys, Super Cubs, and Huskies, but Twin Otters and Grumman G-44 Widgeon are also common—and even an Albatross has flown in. The Albatross anchored offshore. The three years prior to COVID-19, operations at the seaplane base averaged roughly 3,000 per year. That number shrank to 1,700 in 2020 when a lot of the local festivals had to be canceled, but climbed back to 2,000 in 2021.
Projected Growth for Amphib Market
Given the healthy state of seaplane sales, these numbers may soon rebound to pre-COVID figures. A 2021 Fortune Business Insights report projects the global amphibious aircraft market will more than double from $159.2 million in 2020 to $358.1 million by 2028, at a compound annual growth rate of 11.7 percent. The report projects the greatest growth for light weight, turboprop aircraft operating in the civil segment, with North America dominating the global market.
Joey Graham, director of sales and marketing at Progressive Aerodyne SeaRey, says he’s already seeing this projected growth. “Last year was the best year Progressive Aerodyne has had in the last four,” he says.
He says the pandemic, which forced people to stay in place and save money, also created a pent-up desire to spend. “As a result of COVID, a lot of people realized tomorrow’s not guaranteed, and they’re finally pulling the trigger on something that for some people has been a lifelong dream and for others it’s a new journey for them,” Graham says.
SeaRey kit airplane sales have also increased. “For most kit manufacturers, sales are way up, with a one and a-half to two-year backlog,” he says.
Kevin Oaks, the seaplane specialist for Aviat Aircraft, manufacturers of the Husky A-1 series—which comes with a float package option—says sales are also up at Aviat. He says 2020 was a record year for Husky sales; 2021 was a close second, and 2022 is starting strong. “Just in the last three to four months, we’ve sold three Huskies directly on floats. We’ve had people order them as seaplanes,” Oaks says. “That’s a good number of them; normally we would do that in a year.”
Florida Seaplane Experience Center
Oaks, who lives and works in Florida, says the Tavares FBO helps him sell more aircraft. “I use the Tavares base as kind of a customer experience center, because it’s very representative of why somebody would want a GA airplane just for recreational use. They’ve got fuel there, restaurants…and a nice wide, paved ramp. Especially for someone who’s more of a novice, it’s a great place to confidently come and go as a destination.”
According to seaplanebase.com, there are 49 FAA-designated seaplane airports in the state of Florida—and 489 in the U.S. Galloway says most of these, however, are not public-use runways.
“A lot of them are, someone has a seaplane and they want a designated seaplane base in their backyard. There are very few that are true public seaplane bases with services.”
Oaks would agree. “[In Florida] I don’t really think there’s anything comparable to Tavares…Perhaps the Miami seaplane base, which is in salt water, is kind of similar, but not as good. There’s a lot of commercial operations in and out of there.”
A Model for Other Communities
Steven McCaughey, executive director of the Seaplane Pilots Association, is admittedly Tavares’ “biggest fan.” He uses the FBO as a model in discussions with other waterfront cities that are considering adding seaplane facilities. “We believe that there’s a lot of potential for other communities to replicate the formula, even if they don’t do it at the same scale as Tavares has done,” he says.
According to McCaughey, it can be challenging for cities to attract state or federal funding to establish a seaplane FBO, as to justify the funding, they require hundreds of operations per month—which is more than most seaplane bases can achieve. Still, he says, the long-term economic benefits can be worth the initial investment, pointing to Tavares as an example.
“Tavares is really my poster child of our ultimate dream of civic support and of the non-flying community supporting seaplanes.”
Fees By the Numbers
There are no daily-use fees for either the dock or seaplane apron at the Tavares Seaplane Base. Overnight tie-down fees, as of January 2022:
- Overnight: $12
- Weekly: $72
- Single engine:
- Overnight: $10
- Weekly: $60
- Light sport:
- Overnight: $8
- Weekly: $48