If you need convincing that LSA represent a valuable adjunct to traditional GA models, look no further than the amphibian world. There, you can buy an LSA capable of setting down on land or water for about what amphib floats alone cost for some Part 23 aircraft. Italian aircraft manufacturer Tecnam has already sold many pilots on LSA and sport aircraft, with more than 3,500 of its products operating around the globe. Now, the company has taken on the realm where water and sky meet with its P92 SeaSky, which joins an already formidable fleet of LSA amphibs. Development of this end of the market has doubtless benefitted from the increased weight limit LSA seaplanes enjoy—1,430 pounds versus the 1,320 pounds for other LSA—a standard the FAA adopted to keep LSA regulations consistent with rules for European microlight aircraft.
While several seaworthy LSA employ the hulled flying boat model (e.g. the Aventura, SeaMax, SeaRey, Super Petrel and the in-development ICON A5), the SeaSky puts Tecnam's proven P92 Echo Classic LSA atop amphibious floats in place of the aircraft's usual tricycle undercarriage. The result flies something akin to a classic Piper J-3 Cub on floats, updated with side-by-side seating in a comfortable cabin and the added utility of being able to touch down on solid land, something even the most ardent seaplane pilot can appreciate.
"That means you can go out and do all the floatplane flying you want, and then go to just about any land-based airport and get fuel," said Tristan Raab, Tecnam's SeaSky demo pilot, noting, "You can't go to just any lake with a floatplane and expect to fuel up—you've got to really plan it."
Raab should know. In addition to corporate work, his extensive seaplane CV includes stints flying Beavers on floats for Seattle-based Kenmore Air and instructing at Jack Brown's Seaplane Base, the noted training facility in Winter Haven, Fla. I met Raab on the flight line at Sebring Regional Airport (SEF) during the annual U.S. Sport Aviation Expo in January, where the SeaSky was making its Expo debut.
The P92 looks good on floats, with enough heft not to appear diminished when hoisted astride pontoons. The airframe is basically all aluminum (wingtips and cowl are composite, and the ailerons are fabric), but the Tecnam-made floats are composite; the company took fabrication experience gained through development of its carbon-fiber airframe for the P2008 and P2010, and created its own amphibious floats.
Made from vacuum-cured carbon fiber, the floats feature a flat top with a nonslip grip coating for firm, stable footing. A pneumatic compressed air system, lighter than a hydraulic system, controls landing gear extension and retraction. (The maintenance-free pneumatic system also eliminates the potential for hydraulic fluid leaks.) A manually operated reserve pump provides backup. The landing gear components are anodized Avional CNC-machined, and the pontoons are reinforced to survive a gear-up landing or two on turf or hard surface.
All marine rudder control and lift cables have been eliminated from the surface of the pontoon, replaced by a solid push-pull rod routed through the float that deploys and retracts the water rudder, powered by the landing gear's pneumatic system and operated by a separate control knob. Removing the cables eliminates the surprisingly considerable drag that they can generate, as well as hazards associated with trip wires.
"When you're hopping out onto the float, hoping to get to the dock and grab a rope and get it tied down, the less you can trip over, the better," Raab said.
The SeaSky has been flown with either two- or three-bladed ground-adjustable Sensenich propellers, but the three-blade is now standard. "It gets a lot more pull and a lot more power out of that Rotax engine," Raab said of the tri-blade, "so it's going to help get on the step a lot quicker and get off the water quicker, as well."
Inside the SeaSky, the 44-inch-wide cabin provides ample elbow room and storage space for carry-ons behind the forward and aft adjustable seats. Standard panel equipment is day-VFR steam gauges on the left side with digital engine monitors on the right. Optional glass panel packages are available. It's a simple configuration that fits the rugged utility style of the aircraft and its primary mission of providing freshwater access.
The 98 hp Rotax 912 ULS engine fires up immediately, but taxiing, which requires differential braking for steering, takes a little practice. Once cleared for departure, full power provides sufficient rudder authority to keep the SeaSky pointed straight down the runway—or wherever you want the nose if departing from water. Lifting off took a little more back pressure than anticipated, but electric trim on the stick makes adjusting control pressures easy in any phase of flight.
On retraction, the front gear on each pontoon swings up to a horizontal position and pulls back into the float, leaving the front tire exposed as a bumper. The rear wheels pull into the float. Two sets of green gear lights in the center console below the throttles indicate whether the wheels are completely retracted or extended, while a red light signals the wheels are transitioning. Raab advises pilots of all amphibs to pull the gear up after every takeoff—even after a water departure when already retracted—to keep in the habit of paying attention to the gear position. With airspeed bouncing around 75 to 80 knots, we climbed out at about 500 fpm.
Expo features twice-daily demo flybys performed by the exhibitors' aircraft along runway 17/35 at 500 feet. A left turnout from 01 requires maintaining visual contact with the demo activity, and the big wraparound windscreen and the large Lexan panels that take up most of the P92's cabin doors' surface area provide excellent visibility. Seats are positioned in line with the leading edge of the wing, reducing the visual obstruction common to high-wing aircraft.
Lake Jackson, seven miles west, serves as Expo's seaplane base and water ops demo area. Whether we'd actually be able to land there was questionable. The winds that kicked up that morning persisted into mid-afternoon, and the lake was reportedly topped by whitecaps. We headed north at 2,500 feet to check out the sky end of the SeaSky's performance, giving the gusty breezes time to calm.
Expo's aircraft display area has no shortage of LSA that present themselves as glass-paneled, cross-country touring vehicles, but this isn't one of them. We were cruising at 90 knots indicated, some nine knots below the cruise speed of a P92 trike. "It's not made for getting anywhere fast," Raab says. But stability and docile handling characteristics are more important than speed in a floatplane.
Even getting bumped around by gusts as we were, the P92, properly trimmed, flew straight and level almost hands free. Raab pushed the nose down and then released the forward pressure to illustrate its positive stability, and the SeaSky quickly resumed level flight at our initial altitude, just as it did after he pulled the nose up and released the pressure. Adding power for steep turns to the left and right, the SeaSky needed little control pressure on the stick to hold altitude, though the electric trim system is ever ready to assist.
The SeaSky proved very maneuverable in slow flight, as well, an essential characteristic when you're making flybys to inspect a potential landing spot on the water or maneuvering around terrain on final for a secluded lake. I imagined we were landing on one now, elevation 2,500 feet, as I pulled back on the stick, power at idle, holding the nose up, two notches of flaps in, working the rudders as the stall horn beeped at about 40 knots indicated. At the stall break, the P92 simply mushed straight ahead, and we had only lost 100 feet by the time I pushed the nose down, put in the power and arrested the sink.
"Use the rudders, keep it coordinated," Raab said after the fact, as if reciting the Golden Rule of stalls. "So many people don't use their rudders."
We turned toward Lake Jackson, gradually descending to 1,000 feet. The wind hadn't let up much, but the lake is the inbound reporting point for Expo's VFR arrival procedure, so whether we landed on Jackson or not, it was on the route back to Sebring. Our call to the Expo Seaplane Base Unicom got no response.
"You can see we've got some whitecaps out there," Raab said as we came up on the shoreline. "If you're a commercial operator and you want to do one takeoff, one landing, that's okay," he said, sizing up the conditions. "But if you're out there teaching…" He shook his head as if remembering all the bumps and jolts he had received while instructing on a choppy surface.
We decided to make some low approaches, simulating a water landing. As we briefed, Raab emphasized the need to pay particular attention to the landing gear position. A gear-up landing in a retract can be embarrassing and expensive, but a gear-down landing in an amphib can be fatal. "You've got to be careful," he said. "You have to separate yourself from the airplane and think, 'What am I doing?' No matter how exciting it is, and people yapping around you, if you don't make the right decision, you're either scraping the bottom of the keel, or you're upside down underwater—and that's a dangerous thing."
Our approaches took us by the Sunset Grill, the popular waterfront watering hole adjacent to the Seaplane Base, typically packed with LSA enthusiasts during Expo, but appearing deserted on this cold, windy afternoon. How nice to be able to set down at a spot like this or thousands of other places that pilots without floats can only dream about. But not today. Some might say we didn't get the real picture of the SeaSky if we never landed on water, but we did experience another priceless benefit of amphib LSA—being able to fly on a day when any LSA with straight floats would be grounded.
Base price of the P92 SeaSky is $147,000 with basic instrumentation without radio. Packages with radio begin at $157,000. A float retrofit kit for Echo Classics is available for $38,000. N209TA itself is a converted Echo Classic. Straight floats are also available.