Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Flying Floats

Blending water with fire, air and earth

What do pilots talk about at dinner? You guessed it. I was having dinner with a friend the other night and, of course, we started comparing the types of airplanes we loved and favored. Mine were predictably all about performance—the Extra, P51, the Texan II; he, on the other hand, was all about floatplanes, seaplanes, Beavers on amphibs, and thought the Beech 18 on floats was the ultimate cool machine.

I thought to myself, this isn't too exciting. These beautiful, but slow, lumbering bears, shaking the water off their coats as they jump out of the water using sheer power to overcoming gravity. Seaplanes—nah! Not my thing. I like performance.

But later that night, I started thinking about the way my friend's eyes lit up talking about flying floats, and I realized I had perhaps become a victim of my own mentality. After all, some of the best flights I've ever had have been in a floatplane. You might say I had a seaplane epiphany! After all, what's performance, if nothing but relative?

Not long ago while visiting the Smithsonian's Paul E. Garber restoration facility in Silver Hill, Md., I ran my hands over the low-drag corrugated brass wing radiators that covered most of the surface of the wings of what was, in 1925, the world's fastest airplane—the only surviving Curtis R3C-2 floatplane. It wasn't just the fastest floatplane, it was the world's fastest airplane, period. The National Air & Space Museum owns the only surviving R3C-2 that was flown to victory by Jimmy Doolittle in the Schneider Trophy Race.

While doing some research, I discovered that 2013 marks the 100th anniversary of the Schneider Trophy Races. Held 11 times between 1913 and 1931, they were conceived purposefully to encourage technological development in aviation. These races were watched by hundreds of thousands of spectators.

I quote Wikipedia: "The race was significant in advancing aeroplane design, particularly in the fields of aerodynamics and engine design, and would show its results in the best fighters of WW2. The streamlined shape and the low-drag liquid-cooled engine pioneered by Schneider Trophy designs are obvious in the British Supermarine Spitfire, the American P-51 Mustang, and the Italian Macchi C.202 Folgore."

So the wave of technological advancement continued well after the end of the races in 1931. And astonishingly, in 1933 and 1934, the Italian Macchi M.C. 72 set the world's record speed for piston-engine propeller-driven seaplanes at over 440 mph, and today still holds the record! On the jet side, in 1961, the Russian Beriev Be-10, a twin-engine swept-wing jet-powered flying boat, set 12 FAI world records and still holds the official world record for speed in its class, achieving 567 mph. Reno Racers, watch out!


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