Frenchman Henri Fabre’s name might not ring a bell to most people. But it just might to pilots operating aircraft that use lakes and rivers as their runways. In 1910, Fabre was credited with the first flight of a powered seaplane at Martigues near Marseille, France. Oddly, Fabre was not even a pilot when he flew his gangly looking Hydravion aircraft just over a mile. The airplane’s plywood floats were so elegantly designed more than a hundred years ago that they created additional lift once the aircraft was airborne. Fabre’s seaplane flight was followed a year later by another similar event, this flight by American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtis at the controls of his Curtis Model D. Curtis’ airplane employed a central float and outboard sponsons for stability. So radical was Curtis’ feat in early 20th-century America, he was awarded the first Collier Trophy for flight achievement.
Within 25 years of those first flights, enormous flying boats such as Pan Am’s Clippers became renowned for their luxurious trans-Pacific and trans-Atlantic flights. Today, operating on the water has become the realm of smaller aircraft such as the Cessna Caravan on floats or the Super Viking (an updated version of the famous de Havilland Twin Otter), not to mention a host of single-engine aircraft that often traded their factory-installed landing gear for a set of enormous pontoons. Many of today’s floats include retractable landing gear that transforms them into versatile amphibious machines able to operate from both hard-surface runways and the water.
A major player in design and construction of aircraft floats is Wipaire, a family-owned business based at Fleming Field (KSGS) in South St. Paul, Minnesota. The company, also operating from the nearby Wipline Seaplane Base (09Y), has been creating the successful Wipline series of floats since the early 1960s, when the company evolved from Wiplinger Aircraft Service under the guidance of company patriarch Ben Wiplinger. The original Wiplinger Aircraft Service focused on converting surplus military Douglas DC-3s and Lockheed Lodestars into corporate aircraft for companies such as 3M.
A Family Business
Ben purchased his first seaplane in 1951, and the company’s focus on aircraft at home on the water began. He began testing his first set of floats on the Cessna 180 he purchased in 1961. Those first floats were created with a metal bonding system that reduced the rivet count and saved weight, as well as incorporated another of Ben’s simple yet unique ideas: a flat surface on top that made stepping into and out of an airplane both easier and safer by keeping everyone’s feet dry.
Succeeding Ben was his son Bob, known to all as Wip, the company’s chairman of the board. He remembers his early days at the airport and becoming involved in the business. “When I was 4 or 5 years old, I began running around Fleming Field on my tricycle. By 10 or 12, I was fueling DC-3s and Lodestars in addition to the little airplanes.” He soloed in a Piper Cub at age 15 and, by 1978, began running Wipaire Aviation Services, before he spearheaded a name change to Wipaire. The new company gained a reputation as practical problem-solvers for well-known pilot pain points.
Wip says it was a natural strategy: “My dad was a born mechanic. He was a tinkerer and an inventor who built his first airplane, a Pietenpol.” In addition to a handful of ratings, including seaplane instructor, Wip trained as an aeronautical engineer. He says, “The main thing that really got Wipaire moving was the amphibious floats we crated for the Cessna 206,” when at the time, “none of our competitors had such a thing.” Wipaire pretty much owned that market segment for about 10 years.
The company began creating metal floats for larger aircraft such as Beavers before eventually moving on to the Cessna Caravan, which created long-term success. “In 1985, we moved on to Twin Otters.” Wip, like his dad, is the guy who created many of the company’s somewhat radical solutions. “I’m a brainstorming sort of the guy,” Wip says. “[But today], I come up with an idea, sketch it out, and then let the other guys crunch the numbers to see if it will work.”
Like his dad before him, Wip’s son Chuck, now the company president and CEO, grew up around Fleming Field. “I turned 16, got a driver’s license and started working at the airport, turning wrenches on airplanes. I soloed on my 16th birthday, before I even got my driver’s license, in fact.” Chuck earned his private pilot certificate on his 17th birthday. “I took my private check ride in a 172 on wheels, and then went down to the seaplane base and got in a PA-11 on floats and did my seaplane rating. And then I moved on to my engineering education.”
He mentioned one possible regret along the way: “I never did take the A&P practical test.” Chuck has managed to keep Wipaire’s practical problem-solving philosophy intact, but he says: “Honestly, it’s just entrepreneurship because my dad enjoys dreaming up new products and stuff. I don’t get into that a whole lot myself at this point. For me, though, it’s really obvious when Wip comes up with these things and how he does it. He just kind of looks at an airplane and decides what it really needs most.”
Chuck says it’s also about being smart about the company’s design efforts for Wip’s ideas, such as “using good products for primer and good quality paint.” Good design is also about thinking ahead to lubrication where it’s needed, “because preventative maintenance is the best way to reduce corrosion, as well as watching for galvanic corrosion.” In this case, galvanic corrosion happens when two dissimilar metals begin to react with each other while immersed in water. “People ask us why we don’t use stainless-steel hydraulic fittings everywhere, for instance,” Chuck says. “We tell them that screwing those stainless-steel fittings to an aluminum bulkhead fitting will make those fittings corrode relatively quickly.”
Chuck explains: “The company’s grown on us a lot as a family over the last 10 to 15 years, so I’ve spent a lot of time building a more professional leadership team. I’ve also tried to run a very fun company; we’re just not a suit-and-tie kind of place.” Chuck says his business expertise evolved from mentorship and jumping into the deep end of the pool. He says that exposed the places the company needed outside expertise to grow, so he hired a vice president of operations to run the manufacturing and the services side of the company, as well as a separate vice president for business services who covers the administrative, HR and financial sides of the house, a vice president of engineering, and a vice president of sales and marketing.
Creating the Fire Boss Mod
People who live in regions of the world prone to wildfires have become used to seeing giant C-130 or DC-10 aircraft swoop into areas trying to douse the flames of a major fire by precisely dumping thousands of gallons of water in one spot. Those big aircraft demand a considerable amount of time and money to load and dispatch to a site for a 30-second fire run, however, which is why they’re typically brought in when a huge fire is already raging out of control.
The people at Wipaire saw a need—to create a less expensive water bomber to help squelch a fire while it’s still small—as another one of those consumer pain points—and went to work to create a solution. Their answer was the Fire Boss modification to a stock Air Tractor AT-802 powered by a 1,600 hp Pratt & Whitney Canada turboprop. While aircraft able to skim the surface of a nearby lake or river to use that water on a blaze aren’t new, the use of a much less expensive single-engine aircraft like the Air Tractor is.
Once Wipaire-designed floats are installed on the Air Tractor 802, the aircraft is ready to attack a local blaze with very little outside help or preparation. The pilot lightly skims the surface of the water, and the Wipaire-designed scoops quickly fill the airplane’s big water tank to help a local agency try and contain a fire while it’s still small. Air Tractor’s website says an 802F Fire Boss scooper air tanker can “deliver up to 14,000 gallons per hour for extended attack or ground support when using a local water source.” Slightly more than 110 Fire Boss aircraft are in use around the world in Canada, Chile, Argentina, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, Australia, Indonesia and Spain, as well as in the US.
As usual, there’s a story behind the creation of the Fire Boss. Wip says he once approached Air Tractor founder Leland Snow with the idea of adding Wipaire’s unique brand of floats to the airplane to transform it into a fire bomber. “He kind of laughed at the idea at first.” Surprisingly, Wip doesn’t seem to take people scoffing at his ideas personally and actually accepts them as a challenge. “We took a set of Twin Otter floats and chopped them down, and figured out how to add the scoops,” he says. “It took about a little over a year to complete the STC.”
People quickly saw the value in the Fire Boss airplanes and bought them, but then, Wip says: “Pratt came out with a bigger engine that we put in, and that made a really good airplane. They’ve been selling really good ever since all over the world.” He explains a fill-up run from the cockpit. “The pilot touches down on the water at about 60 to 70 knots. They lower the scoops and go to full power, and just sit there at that speed scooping water until they get the amount they need, and then just take off and head to the fire. The pilot never slows down. They can grab 800 gallons in about 13 seconds.”
The forces involved in fast taxiing at 60 or 70 knots and adding nearly 5,000 pounds of weight in just a few seconds demands some serious training to develop a competent fire-bomber pilot. Most Fire Boss customers use pilots with previous Air Tractor time, even if they’d never flown fire suppression, believing it’s easier to train them than to try and teach a fire-bomber pilot how to fly the Fire Boss from zero time.
For many years, Wipaire handled the training of new Fire Boss pilots, which sometimes presented its own challenges because the standard aircraft is a single seat. Wip remembers teaching a Spanish pilot to fly the airplane. The pilot didn’t understand English well enough to fully comprehend the training. The trick turned out to be the instructor pilot sitting in a boat on the water with a handheld radio and a translator next to him. The instructor gave the instructions to the translator, who then repeated them in Spanish to the pilot. Wip says, “The time delay made for some interesting instructional sessions, but we ended up getting through it.”
Another new project for Wipaire is working toward certification of carbon-fiber composite floats for the Twin Otter fleet. Wip says, “We just got finished with all the structural testing.” He says these sealed floats offer a few operational advantages. “The pilot no longer needs to pump them for water before each flight. They’ll also weigh 350 pounds less than metal floats, and they’re actually stronger too.” Wip says the engineering staff tested them to 2.5 times their maximum load, and they didn’t break. The FAA only requires testing to 1.5 times the maximum load to achieve certification.
Today, Wipaire builds floats for the venerable Piper Cub (Wipaire model 2100), the Cessna 172 and the Maule series (model 2350), the Cessna 180/182 (model 3000), the de Havilland Beaver (model 6100), the Cessna Caravan series (model 8750), the Air Tractor AT-802 that becomes the Fire Boss aircraft (model 10,000), and the de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter, including the updated version now produced by Viking in British Columbia. After 35 years, Wipaire remains the only company delivering floats for the Cessna Caravan series.
The company also created a host of other aircraft accessories, such as the in-house-designed laser gear advisory system to help stem the number of gear-down water landings, the industry’s most prominent source of accidents. For the Cessna Caravan, Wipaire produces an extended baggage modification, a single-point refueling system to speed turns for commercial operators, new interior options, gross weight increases, boarding ladders and steps, and the Blackhawk engine upgrade that swaps the Caravan’s stock PT-6A-114 for a brand-new 140. There are also gross-weight increases for other aircraft (such as the Super Cub), single-point refueling and a three-blade prop upgrade for the Quest Kodiak, and an executive interior upgrade for the Twin Otter. The company also recently expanded its paint booth at KSGS.
Looking to the future, Chuck says: “I don’t think that we’re any different than anyone else in the current environment with COVID and unrest and everything else. You’re kind of always worried about what the world economy’s doing and what it means to us, so we’re wading our way through it all and adjusting as we need to in order to make sure we’re not caught off guard.” So, how has Wipaire managed to produce such a wide range of products aimed at the floatplane world? Wip smiles and says, “We like to screw around with airplanes.” Clearly, the 199 people the company employs love supporting that strategy.
Best Practices for Floatplane Operations and Maintenance
Aircraft owners probably fear discovering corrosion on their land-based airplanes more than just about anything else, short of bending their airplanes along the way. When an airplane regularly operates in the water, operational and maintenance risks increase.
Steve McCaughey is pretty straightforward about it. “Every day you take your seaplane out, you’re risking that being a very expensive day.” McCaughey is the longtime executive director of the Seaplane Pilots Association and a pragmatic observer of the industry. Remember that old proverb, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? Harry Shannon thinks there’s no better strategy for maintaining a seaplane. As an experienced A&P seaplane technician, Shannon knows corrosion can be the kiss of death for any seaplane, even when the airplanes are washed down after a flight. He owns the Bartow, Florida-based Amphibians Plus maintenance shop.
Of all the demons waiting to eat a seaplane alive, nothing is much worse than salt water, Shannon says, especially the warm salt water found in the Caribbean. “It acts a little like warm battery acid.” Aircraft operators in these waters can plan on maintenance costs related to corrosion that are “triple or quadruple those of aircraft used in fresh water.” Shannon spoke to that electrolysis issue Chuck Wiplinger touched on—in this case, an amphib docked in fresh water near Orlando where the water contains significant amounts of tannins. “The main gear actuator was routed near a stainless-steel line because none of the metal was supposed to corrode. But after days, weeks and months went by, we found electrolysis between the aluminum actuator and the stainless line attempting to eat holes in the actuator.” The easy solution was to replace the actuator, but that simply avoids the problem. Shannon says, “The best solution was to replace the hose with a Teflon and stainless-steel braid to remove the dissimilar-metals issue.” One of the big mistakes seaplane operators make is not doing enough prevention. Consider the lubrication issue. “If it moves, it needs regular, repeated lubrication,” he says. “And not just annually, if you expect [a part] to be functioning at the next annual.”
McCaughey has been around seaplanes for 30 years and knows that when you use a hard-surface runway, “you’re pretty much assured you’re not going to drop into a big pothole or hit a tree. But operating a seaplane in an active river where there might be runoff that drags branches and other debris into the waterway, that debris can rip the skin open on the floats.”
He teaches pilots a simple trick to avoid a common issue: leaky floats. “When I park the aircraft on the water, I go back an hour later and re-pump the floats.” He says it’s important to remember how many pumps it took to empty the floats before the previous flight. “Just because the floats were good when I took off, doesn’t mean that I didn’t hit a piece of rebar or a concrete block beneath the surface of the water. If all of a sudden I get five strokes of the pump out of the compartment that I usually get one stroke out of, I know something important has changed.”
Another operational problem: “It’s been a very bad year for gear-down water landings. With a gear-down water landing, there’s a good chance it’s going to be fatal and generally is a write off on the airplane.” McCaughey says the solution all comes down to pilot discipline because some 80 percent of pilots earn their seaplane rating in a straight float airplane without amphibious gear. But most pilots later buy amphibs, he says. “Are they qualified to fly an amphibious airplane? Not really. But they’re certified. There’s a dramatic difference between flying hulls and flying float aircraft. In my safety seminars, I probably revisit gear position once every six minutes.”
McCaughey believes the majority of gear-down landing accidents probably start from the fact that the pilot never raised the gear after takeoff. He says, a gear alerter or indicator should only go off because the pilot failed to do everything they should have. “It’s a last resort. Never depend on the advisory to confirm your gear is in the right position. You should know before the gear advisory system ever warns you—because you’ve done your checklist. Remember, this is a zero-fault procedure.”
This story appeared in the November 2020, Buyers Guide issue of Flying Magazine