Nature abhors a vacuum. Three years ago, Plane & Pilot publisher Mike McMann saw the SeaMax at the Sebring air show and said, "That's beautiful, let's do a story on it."
I contacted the SeaMax dealer, arranged a demo, jumped aboard, saw how beautifully it handled like a speedboat on water, how nimbly it leaped into the air from land and water, and how easy it was to land. I took tons of photos of it beached on a little island on a Florida lake and thought to myself as I often do, "Man, wouldn't I love to own one of these!"
There were just two problems. The local dealer/owner wouldn't let me touch the controls. I don't mean for stalls, high-bank turns and such. I mean I wasn't allowed to even touch...the...controls! Undaunted, I arranged to fly with the SeaMax U.S. importer. Or rather, attempted to. Never got a reply. In time, I accepted the truth: SeaMax didn't have a viable U.S. presence.
Two years later at Sebring 2012, I was approached by Richard Rofé, a thoroughly likable, high-energy, successful entrepreneur. He had just bought the U.S. distributor rights to the SeaMax from the Brazilian company AirMax. The company has manufactured the sleek, lovely amphib for the last 10 years. In fact, it's the most successful S-LSA amphib by far, with 129 units delivered to 22 countries.
"I Bought The Company!"
Rofé reminded me of the guy in those Remington TV commercials many years back who would grin as he said, "I liked the razor so much, I bought the company!" But Rofe's ultimate journey to becoming the sole U.S. importer (ditto for Canada, Mexico and China) was hardly a direct path.
A few years back, he had looked into the much-ballyhooed, gorgeous Icon A5 amphib, first announced in 2005. He nearly bought one, but changed his mind when he realized it would be years more to get one in his hands. Next, he built a SeaRey amphib kit under Experimental Aircraft Category rules, but had numerous problems, including a very scary in-flight electrical fire. Finally, last year, he looked into the SeaMax. He even encountered the same problem I had: The original U.S. dealers wouldn't let him fly the airplane. He bought the airplane...they still wouldn't let him fly it. And eight months later, the airplane had yet to be delivered to him.
Now one thing you never want to do to a super-enthusiastic go-getter like Richard Rofé is wave a candy bar in his face...then make him wait indefinitely for it. Frustrated, and more determined than ever to have a SeaMax, he flew to Brazil, huddled with the AirMax owners including designer Miguel Rosario, and returned stateside with the distributorship in his pocket. Problem solved.
"And I love it," he crowed during our long, enjoyable flight over Long Island recently...and yes, he let me have the controls. "I have a couple already here. I'm in the process of introducing them to the market professionally, the way they should have been years ago. As a businessman, I couldn't sit idly by while others hyper-marketed products that no one could actually get." Consider that market vacuum filled.
Rofé has flown his SeaMax from his bay- side dock in Great Neck, N.Y., all over the Northeast, down to Florida and to Oshkosh. "I love the way it handles; the plane goes anywhere."
But before he deemed it ready for prime time in the U.S., he worked with designer Rosario to create the M-22 model (which won best S-LSA at Sebring this year). Upgrades include a longer 33' 6" wingspan with new winglets. The current metal, fabric-covered wing design will be all-composite in the near future.
Other changes included stabilizer fins on the outboard horizontal stab for yaw damping; comfortable, adjustable Recaro seats; leather interior including panel and dash cover; a parking brake; tie-down rings; a mooring ball ring in the nose; and nonskid tape for the toe brakes and rudder pedals.
Rofé also convinced the warm-climate-seduced Brazilian designer to install cabin heat for year-round flying, canopy defrosting and other traits essential to cold-climate owners. The system, which taps heat from the Rotax engine coolant, only adds three pounds. Other options:
• all-glass panel (Dynon SkyView and Garmin 696 GPS)
• micro video system with both a tail-mounted camera for viewing the engine in flight and an infrared unit for the bilge
• folding wings
• ballistic airframe parachute
• tinted canopy
The Go-Anywhere Bird
The fabulous utility of amphibs was brought back to me during our demo flight over Long Island. As we winged east over the Hamptons, playground of the über-rich, he waxes happily over how cool it is to walk down from his house, climb aboard and launch right from his own dock. The SeaMax operates from land, sea, grass and snow. It's a real hoot to drive around like a speedboat on the water, too, and gets airborne in short order.
Handling in the air is light and easy. It's a rudder ship for sure: You want to put in some foot entering a turn, but the big, aesthetically beautiful rudder is highly effective. Blocking the pedals with light pressure in the bumps helps minimize yaw.
Rofé likes the center stick because he can put his iPad (or lunch) on his lap during long flights. I flew from the right seat and found roll pressures, even left-handed, to be light and response quick. Throttle lever on each side panel is nice, too, like a Piper Cub. The pitch response balances nicely with roll forces. The electric pitch-trim button mounts on the stick, and it's well damped, not super touchy like you find on some LSA.
SeaMax is an easy bird to fly. We didn't do stalls—it was a very hot day, and Rofé was cautious about overheating his baby's engine. He swears it's as docile a beast as most LSA and describes its stall as a nose-high float that recovers as soon as you ease stick forward.
The rudder takes a little bit of flying to get right: There's noticeable adverse yaw with that big wing out there. That trait isn't nearly as pronounced as the Allegro LSA, though, and easily managed with the proper light push on the pedals.
On the water, the high-aspect-ratio rudder moves that pretty tail around smartly. I remember having a ball as the Florida owner carved one sharp turn after another on a crocodile-infested Florida lake. Amphibs are really a hoot. And SeaMax's rigid Kevlar/composite hull handles the wavelets like a big, strong Four Winns runabout. I know: I've got one."
On the ground, it has the shortest turning radius of any LSA I've flown. The canopy pops all the way up on two, not one, hydraulic pistons, so air circulates freely even on hot days. It was near 100 the day we flew, yet a nice breeze kept us from frying in the cockpit during engine runup. Good ventilation and side vents on the canopy really help in the air, too.
A plug for the pusher configuration: The Rotax 912, mounted on a pylon behind you, means no prop blast, sand and grit flying around at you on the ground and enhanced visibility in the air.
More on the viz: You sit just slightly aft of the leading edge. The lowish panel and short nose deliver a forward view that's wonderful. Although the cabin is comfortably wide at nearly 47 inches, there's great downward visibility. Lean forward just an inch or two, and you're looking back at the leading edge. There's sufficient headroom for someone 6' 3"...a bit more if they recline, which the seats enable.
A little eyebrow window behind your shoulder brings good viewing to the rear and down, handy for checking gear up or down for water or turf landings. Mirrors on the wingtip sponsons help you verify that the three green lights on the panel are telling the truth about the nosewheel and mains.
There's tons more virtues to extol about the SeaMax. "Handsome is as handsome does," in this case, means the amphib is as sweet in the air, on land and water (and presumably snow, too—you can fit it with skis) as it looks like it would be.
Dreamed of owning an amphib S-LSA? Don't want to wait for other models to become S-LSA certified? Richard Rofé has one right now that's ready to go—he's delivering. And he'll even let you fly it on the demo!
Duck Feet Vs. Flying Boats
Pilots avidly defend the merits of the particular aircraft they fly. Some seaplane (floats-only) pilots, hoping to graft the same land-anywhere chops to their birds as amphibians like the SeaMax come by naturally, don't always realize at first they're also increasing risk.
Seaplane-seasoned pilots can and often do forget to retract wheels on water landings after converting to wheeled floats. Wheels-down water landings aren't casual miscues: They often lead to fatalities because such rigs frequently capsize immediately and passengers get trapped underwater. That nasty tendency also drives insurance rates dramatically higher—you can even get coverage. Hulled amphibs like the SeaMax have main wheels behind the CG, which makes them less likely to capsize.
Amphib floats can be more challenging to land and handle on the ground, too. And brakes fail more frequently since they're immersed in water for long periods of time, which calls for increased maintenance (lubrication of gear-well doors and brakes, etc.).
Crosswinds present problems, too. On water, pilots can almost always set down into the wind. On land, amphib float planes give away some crosswind capability to land-only planes. Poorly executed crosswind landings more readily cause gear-collapsing side loads, too.
Floats also reduce roll response, since all that mass acts like a pendulum. Likewise, the higher center of gravity makes for more vulnerability to wind during ground handling.
Finally, many amphib float systems don't have shock absorption built in. Hard landings can send a strong jolt through the airframe. Amphib wheels are usually smaller than those on landplanes, too, providing less shock absorption even if just from the tires, along with more wear and tear on brakes.
Does that make amphibs like the SeaMax inherently safer? Boat-hulled planes have their own set of challenges, such as more easily shipping water into the cockpit in rough seas and lower ground clearance on land. The bottom line is, know the risks you're taking on before you succumb to "Gotta have it all!" fever, whatever type of airplane you fly, because in aviation, there are always trade-offs.