Seaplane Adventures For Pilots

The Icon A5 and Progressive Aerodyne Searey go head to head.

Progressive Aerodyne Searey in the water
We put the Icon A5 and Progressive Aerodyne Searey to the test to see which comes out on top.Jon Whittle

Flying low and slow seemed normal to me in my early flying career, having been lucky enough at 25 to own my own Aeronca Champ. The little taildragger—“a bag of rags,” one of my buddies called it—allowed me to enjoy the world from “just above” while flying along at a blistering 95 mph.

But the siren call of jets eventually became ­overpowering, as it does for so many others, and I spent the next few decades flying high and fast. Kerry Richter—head of engineering, research and development for Progressive Aerodyne, the company that produces the Searey light-sport amphibious aircraft—says I'm not alone: "Our customers include lots of ATP-rated pilots who want to get back to basics." Richter's company builds the Searey Adventure and Elite seaplane models.

Across the country in Vacaville, California, is Icon Aircraft, maker of the sleek A5—another amphibian that, while similar to the Searey, is a very different machine. But both have the same mission: to provide their pilot's with unforgettable memories splashing in and out the water—a form of flying that is pretty near aviation nirvana in the minds of many adventure-seeking pilots.

A few years ago, my friend Matt and I coordinated a ­seaplane-training weekend to return to our roots. One Friday morning, we headed northeast from Chicago toward Traverse City, Michigan, and Traverse Air. After two days of training and about $1,700 out of pocket each, we both headed back to Chicago with fresh temporary airman certificates proclaiming we were rated for Airplane Single-Engine Sea.

Being an aquaphobic kind of guy—sorry, I can’t even swim—I knew nothing about boats when we arrived in TVC, but I was intrigued by the thought of low and slow on the water, not to mention a fresh aviation education. Our instructor, Tom Brady, got me comfortable pretty quickly with terms like bilge pump and buoyancy, as well as how to deal with currents and plowing and step taxiing. And most important: Once you start the engine on a seaplane untethered from the dock, the airplane starts moving. I promptly realized jamming the tops of the rudder pedals is pointless because seaplanes don’t have brakes. There’s only a water rudder for some help.

Matt and I took turns training in a Piper PA-18 Super Cub on floats. During my first takeoff, I pushed in the throttle of the old Cub and felt the tail end of the floats sink lower into the water although I had no idea why. I immediately felt the increased water resistance against the floats, but I’d been taught to keep the stick back until the Cub gained some speed. That mistake didn’t take long to correct.

I eased off just a bit on the stick, and I felt the Cub reward me by almost leaping ahead now that it had shed some of the water’s resistance. Soon, we were skimming lightly across the surface like a flat stone precisely thrown from shore. I later realized I never really looked at the airspeed indicator at all; with a tiny bit of back pressure on the stick, the Cub left the water. The entire takeoff took no more than 10 or 15 seconds.

Icon A5 side view
Icon added a Seawing just above the A5's main gear for added stability on the water.Jon Whittle
Searey Elite in the water
The rugged Searey Elite handles nicely, even on rough water.Jon Whittle
Progressive Aerodyne facility
Progressive Aerodyne offers customers a range of color schemes on both the Adventure and the Elite models.Jon Whittle

A Fun and Interesting Add-On

With the advent of light-sport aircraft and the Light Sport Pilot certificate, how a pilot earns the right to fly a seaplane has changed some over the years. If a private pilot applicant trains in an airplane ­certified in the standard category—such as the PA-18—the FAA demands a ­traditional training regime, a signoff by an appropriately rated flight instructor and a check ride with an FAA-designated pilot examiner. However, if the pilot holds a Sport Pilot certificate, an airplane-specific logbook endorsement will suffice. Qualifications to fly a seaplane don’t come with a specific hourly requirement. Everything is based on proficiency. On average, seaplane training takes somewhere between six to eight hours of flying time. A quick look at the private pilot Airplane Airman Certification Standards offers a good outline of topics covered during either a check ride or an endorsement session. FAA’s Handbook 8082-23 for seaplanes and skiplanes is a rich resource for people new to seaplane flying, as is the Seaplane Pilots Association.

Seaplane flying is similar to flying a taildragger. They both rely on a pilot’s sense of touch, sound and sight. What few gauges I saw in the Cub during training were only necessary to help set up my final approach or be sure I didn’t overspeed the flaps or the engine. After that, it’s pretty much all seat-of-the-pants skills with a lot of eyeballing skills many professional pilots sent to the back of their memory banks long ago.

Besides the fun of never climbing much above 500 feet agl during training, I enjoyed topics I’d never before encountered. Take crosswind takeoffs: They can create an interesting dilemma in a seaplane because the wind trying to raise the upwind wing is also trying to force the downwind float deeper into the water, creating more drag. That can translate into directional control problems.

Then we started discussing glassy-water operations, what a land lover would call calm-wind conditions. I thought those would be easy, but on landing, glassy water actually represents a dire hazard because with no water movement of any kind, depth perception becomes pretty tough. The solution is to set up the final approach with a minimal rate of descent in those last hundred feet, perhaps at 100 feet per minute. Then don’t change a thing. Hold that rate of descent until the aircraft touches the water. Then it’s power to idle and the stick back in your gut until the airplane slows.

I learned to remember to use the bilge pump to rid the floats of excess water that might have seeped between the rivets, and flights in salt water demand the aircraft be washed down after flight. The only drawback I have experienced with seaplanes is finding one to rent if you’re not lucky enough to own one. Renting is not impossible, but it can be tough.

Icon A5 with the canopy open
The A5’s forward-hinged canopy speeds the preflight inspection.Jon Whittle
Icon A5 with folded wings
Folding or reattaching the Icon A5’s wings is easily handled by one person.Jon Whittle

Water Adventure

In April, I made the hour drive north from Sun 'n Fun in Lakeland, Florida, to visit Progressive Aerodyne's factory in Tavares. The plan was to watch how Progressive employees build these light-sport seaplanes and reacquaint myself with the water wings I'd earned a few years earlier in Traverse City. The difference today was that I'd be flying one of Progressive's Rotax-powered Elite LSA amphibians. Later that same week, I also carved out time to visit Icon Aircraft's regional delivery center at Tampa's Peter O' Knight Airport. While I couldn't watch them create an A5 in Tampa, I did get to spend an hour cruising around and on the waters of Tampa Bay and compare and contrast both machines.

Progressive Aerodyne’s big yellow hangar alongside Lake Idamere is neat and tidy. Inside, I was amazed at the wide range of colors they use to paint the company’s new Seareys before delivery—bright blues, greens, oranges and yellows. Searey builds two models: the 90 hp Adventure and the deluxe 115 hp Elite. Owners can build their own Searey or purchase a certified version from the factory. Kerry Richter says the company is selling more ASTM-certified airplanes these days than kits. The Elite I flew comes standard with the Rotax 914 powerplant and a pusher propeller, the Garmin G3X Touch 10-inch PFD and 7-inch MFD, ADS-B In and Out, and the option to fold the wings for transport. The standard Seareys allow for complete removal of the wings. “The foldable option can be handled by one person,” Richter says, “but wing removal demands two people.” He says many Searey customers like to fold the wings and bring the airplane along on their yachts.

The Elite is a solidly designed and built seaplane with visible wing struts that look strong enough to help the airplane absorb the shock of the 12-inch waves the company says are its limit. They use a tapered wing for efficiency and to increase visibility down and behind the airplane. The main landing gear folds up alongside the fuselage, and the tailwheel retracts when the airplane’s ­operating on the water. Flight controls are stick operated. The ­airframe is a single all-metal unit, while the wings and ­control surfaces are covered with Stits Polyfiber painted with Emron. The interior seats looked and felt like those in a high-end sports car.

Richter says there are about 800 Seareys currently ­flying around the world. The airplane weighs about 1,000 pounds empty, carries up to 22 usable gallons of fuel and burns about 5½ gallons per hour at 75 percent power. With a maximum gross weight of 1,430 pounds, two 175-pound people could fly around for a couple of hours with a reserve and have room for a small bag or two.

The Searey Elite’s flaps are electric and offer settings of 10, 20 and 30 degrees. Richter says he uses 30 degrees for takeoff because it offers the shortest water run. As soon as the airplane breaks free of the water, he reduces flaps to 20 and pitches for best angle-of-climb speed at 58 mph. As the airplane continues climbing, he will reduce flaps again to 10 and pitch for best rate of 63 mph. The Searey airspeed indicators are calibrated in miles per hour, not knots.

The airplane includes two electric pumps to ensure solid fuel flow to the Rotax powerplant. Most important, the Searey includes an electric gear warning system announced with a female voice through the Garmin G3X whenever the flaps are lowered or the airplane slows below 68 mph that confirms the aircraft is good for a water landing or, of course, to check the gear for arrivals on a hard-surfaced ­runway. The airplane includes an electric fuselage bilge pump that can operate when the aircraft is on land. A certified Searey Elite runs about $169,000. Richter says ordering one today means you’d be able to pick it up in about four months.

Searey offers flight training through the 10-member Searey flight instructor’s association located in various places around the United States including Florida, Seattle, Colonial Beach, Virginia, and Stevensville, Maryland. The Searey website also points pilots to locations that will rent a Searey to those who are properly qualified.

Icon A5 interior
Icon A5 Interior - See more information below.Jon Whittle

ICON A5

A. The all-important angle of attack indicator is positioned front and center in the pilot's forward field of vision.
B. The A5 uses a nonstandard altimeter that takes some getting used to.
C. A thumb-operated electric trim control switch sits atop the stick.
D. Standard engine gauges are gathered in one place.
E. Garmin's 796 GPS navigator is removable.

Progressive Aerodyne Searey Interior
Progressive Aerodyne Searey Interior - See more information below.Jon Whittle

Progressive Aerodyne Searey

A. The Searey is available with a Garmin G3X Touch 10-inch PFD.
B. Garmin's 7-inch Touch MFD occupies the center of the panel.
C. Though the Searey's cockpit is more spartan than that of the Icon A5, its control stick looks and feels like it came from a fighter plane.
D. The elctric flaps are ­push-button controlled.

Searey Elite flying above water
The Searey Elite is an economical seaplane to purchase and own.Jon Whittle

On to Tampa

I left Sun ‘n Fun a day early so I could head over to Tampa’s Peter O’ Knight Airport and visit with the folks at Icon Aircraft’s East Flight and Delivery Center, where I caught up with Warren “Angus” Curry, the region’s senior director. A quick glance at the Icon A5’s unique design confirms this LSA is 98 percent carbon fiber. There are no wing struts or outboard sponsons or anything to clutter the pilot’s view from the cockpit. Just an item Icon calls a Seawing for added water stability is visible behind the cockpit. That’s where the A5 hides the main landing gear during water operations. On land, the Icon is a tricycle-gear aircraft with a castering nosewheel. The 100 hp fuel-injected Rotax with a ­pusher-style propeller sits inside a sleek composite nacelle behind the cabin, while the LED landing and taxi lights are smoothly blended into the nose of the fuselage. Folding wings come standard on the A5.

Icon A5 fuselage
The A5’s fuselage looks like it popped out of a 3D printer.Jon Whittle

Curry told me the A5’s empty weight is 1,080 pounds, but it carries a maximum weight of 1,510 pounds, 80 pounds greater than standard LSAs. “We received a waiver from the FAA since the added weight was all focused on safety equipment, like better spin resistance and a ballistic parachute,” he says. The airplane carries 20 gallons of fuel and cruises at about 85 knots, 75 knots with the side windows removed. That means two 160-pound people could depart with nearly full fuel but no baggage. The A5 retails for $389,000.

Look inside the A5’s cockpit, and you’ll think you’re about to hop into a luxury sports car. You’ll also notice that some of the flying-related ­instruments look a bit unusual. At the top of the panel on the pilot’s side, the A5 includes an angle of attack indicator as standard. When I asked Curry about the Icon’s landing speed, he gave me a rough number but admitted that for him, an ex-Navy pilot, he really only looked at angle of attack anyway. The AOA of course is accurate at all weights, speeds and load factors. Keep its needle in the green, and all is good on takeoff and landing.

The A5’s other instruments do take a bit of getting used to. The nonstandard altimeter is graduated in thousands of feet. That means flying along at 500 feet agl barely moves the needle. Of course, no one really flies seaplanes very high, so the point might be moot. The ICON does not include an installed vertical speed indicator, which I thought could make setting up a specific descent rate a little tough. Flight controls are managed by a control stick between each seat. Landing gear, water rudder and flaps are electric and handled with switches on the nicely appointed center console that also includes a removable Garmin 796 touchscreen navigator.

Icon builds airplanes to order and, as of the end of June, had shipped more than 100 airframes. Curry says a new airplane would take about five months to build and be ready for delivery. Icon also offers flight training for a Sport Pilot certificate and Icon A5 logbook endorsement.

Progressive Aerodyne Searey Elite on the water
Pilots barely know they’re on the water when the Searey is on the step.Jon Whittle

Progressive Aerodyne Searey

Price as Equipped $169,000 Engine Rotax 914 UL (115 hp)
Propeller Warp Drive, 3 blade Seats 2
Length 22 ft. 5 in. Height 7 ft. 2 iN.
Interior Width 46 in. Wingspan 30 ft. 8 in.
Wing Area 158 sq. ft. Max Gross Weight 1,430 lbs.
Empty Weight 1,000 lbs. Payload 365 lbs.
Useful Load 430 lbs. Max Useable Fuel 22 gal.
Max Rate of Climb 950 fpm Max Speed 98 ktas
Max Range 317 nm Stall Speed, Flaps Up 40 kcas
Stall Speed, Full Flaps 35 kcas Landing Over 50 Feet 860 ft.
Beached Icon A5 seaplane
Not too many seaplanes can double as a picnic table after you beach them.Jon Whittle

Icon A5

Price as Equipped $389,000 Engine Rotax 912iS (100 hp)
Propeller Sensenich three blade Seats 2
Length 21 ft. 9 in. Height 7 ft. 7 iN.
Useful Load 430 lb. Wingspan 34 ft. 9 in.
Wing Area 135 sq. ft. Max Crosswind 12 knots
Max Gross Weight 1,510 lbs. Empty Weight 1,080 lbs.
Payload 370 lbs. Max Usable Fuel 20 gal.
Max Operating Altitude 15,000 ft. Max Rate of Climb 616 fpm
Max Speed 95 kcas High Speed Cruise 84 kts
Max Range 427 nm Stall Speed, Flaps Up 45 kcas
Stall Speed, Full Flaps 39 kcas Best Angle of Climb 46 kIas
Landing Over 50 Feet 1,150 ft. Takeoff Over 50 Feet 1,060 ft.

A Little Water Flying

Flying two airplanes for the same story presented a challenge because, while each is designed for the basics of fun on the water, they’re really aimed at different customers. The Searey is an older, more basic seaplane design where everything about the machine is out there in the slipstream to create drag—the wheels, the sponsons, the wing struts. The Icon looks as if it emerged from a 3D printer with hardly a sharp edge anywhere. The Searey flies faster than the Icon, but that’s because it has a more powerful engine. The A5 was created for a more affluent pilot who loves the clean, smooth lines of, say, a new foreign car and is ­willing to write the ­appropriate check, while the Searey looks more rudimentary, even though its ­performance is anything but.

I flew each airplane about an hour and saw things in both that I really liked. They are highly maneuverable and an absolute joy to fly down low. Parts of the canopy of both aircraft are removable to make flying on a warm day more comfortable. If I were dropping in to a fishing spot, that would be easier to handle in the A5 because the canopy, hinged at the front, can be fully opened when the aircraft is anchored. But portions of the canopy can also be opened in flight.

The A5 offers sure handling on the water, although there is nothing to quibble about when it comes to the Searey. The A5 can turn on a dime in the air and is extremely easy to fly, which was an early design goal. In truth, the A5 is the superior airplane, and it isn’t even close. It looks better, it flies better, and it’s built better. It also costs more, and therein lies the dilemma for buyers. If money was no object, the A5 is the toy you’d want to own. Otherwise, the Searey is the one you’ll happily settle for.

While I liked the cockpit ­visibility of the Searey, the Icon’s cockpit sits much farther forward of the wing, meaning you’d best be wearing a hat if you’re out in the sun for long, but the view is spectacular. And, of course, the A5 has nothing hanging beneath the wing to obstruct the view either. The Searey cockpit is a bit more restricted and sits beneath that big wing. The price difference between the two airplanes, however, is considerable, with the Icon costing more than twice the price of the Searey, which would make it the choice for someone on a tighter budget who stills wants an impressive new seaplane. The choice, of course, is yours to make.

Why not join us on Flying ­magazine's YouTube channel and experience a bit of our Searey and Icon adventures?