The US ditched its last flying boats 38 years ago, but they could still help fill the gaps against China in the Pacific

Coast Guard HU-16E amphibious aircraft
US Coast Guard Grumman HU-16E Albatross amphibious aircraft at Otis Air Force Base in Massachusetts.

  • It’s been nearly 40 years since the US got rid of its last seaplane, an aircraft long seen as outdated.
  • Growing attention on the Indo-Pacific and on China, which is developing its own seaplane, have revived discussion about the utility of amphibious aircraft.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

March marked the 38th anniversary of the retirement of the last US military seaplane. That aircraft, an HU-16E Albatross flown by the Coast Guard, left service 16 years after the Navy retired its last seaplane.

Seaplanes played a vital role in World War II and had been considered essential for naval supremacy. Despite grand plans for them early in the Cold War, seaplanes soon fell out of favor. But recent developments in China have led some to reconsider their utility.

In July 2020, China conducted the first successful sea trial of the AG600 seaplane, also known as the “Kunlong.”

The AG600 – the largest seaplane in the world – took off from an airport in Shandong Province, landed in the ocean off Qingdao, skied on the water for four minutes, then took off and returned safely.

The massive seaplane could put attention back on a type of aircraft the US military has long seen as antiquated.

Essential tools

Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina flying boat
A Consolidated PBY-5A Catalina in flight.

Seaplanes were once essential tools for the Navy. Long before aircraft carriers dominated the seas, vessels known as seaplane tenders were the only way to successfully conduct long-range naval-aviation operations.

They could pick up seaplanes with their large cranes and maintain the aircraft just like a conventional carrier would. The US Navy’s first aircraft carrier, USS Langley, a former collier ship, was converted into a seaplane tender when dedicated aircraft carriers became available in the late 1920s.

Eventually, seaplanes could be launched from the decks of warships, and long-range models could conduct important missions like anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, naval interdiction, and, most importantly, reconnaissance, since they were able to spot enemy fleets while they were still hundreds of miles from friendly forces.

Perhaps the most recognizable American seaplane is the PBY Catalina flying boat. Made by Consolidated Aircraft and adopted by the Navy in 1936, Catalinas helped locate the Japanese fleet at Midway, rescued thousands of downed airmen and stranded sailors, and sank more than 20 Axis submarines.

A British Catalina flown by an American pilot was even responsible for locating the German battleship Bismarck during the Royal Navy’s intense hunt for it in May 1941, seven months before the US entered the war.

Cold War plans

Navy seaplane tender Salisbury Sound Martin P5M-1 Marlin
US Navy seaplane tender USS Salisbury Sound with a Martin P5M-1 Marlin on a crane in San Diego Bay in 1957.

The role of seaplanes had diminished by the end of World War II.

Reduced Axis submarine fleets posed less of a threat, and numerous airbases on the multiple liberated islands in the Pacific allowed the US Navy to use long-range land-based aircraft carrying heavier payloads.

But the Navy didn’t intend to give up on seaplanes. In fact, in the early years of the Cold War, it wanted to create a Seaplane Strike Force with at least three models, in addition to other models already in service like the Martin P5M Marlin.

The Convair R3Y Tradewind, a transport flying boat adopted in 1956, had a maximum range of over 2,000 miles and was capable of carrying 100 troops or 24 tons of cargo. Its tanker version could refuel four Grumman F9F Cougars at once.

But the Tradewind had engine problems, and all 11 were retired in 1958.

Convair R3Y-2 Tradewind refueling Grumman F9F-8 Cougar
A US Navy Convair R3Y-2 Tradewind refueling four Grumman F9F-8 Cougar fighters in September 1956.

The F2Y Sea Dart, also made by Convair, was an ambitious attempt to create an amphibious delta-winged fighter jet.

Capable of speeds as fast as Mach 1 and armed with four 20 mm machine guns or multiple folding-fin rockets, the Sea Dart first flew in 1953 but was canceled in 1957 after a fatal accident.

Perhaps most impressive of all was the Martin P6M SeaMaster. Originally intended to carry nuclear weapons, it was a massive jet-powered seaplane capable of flying at subsonic speeds and traveling some 1,000 miles.

After the development of the Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile, the SeaMaster was repurposed as a minelayer able to drop 30,000 pounds of ordnance and with an 800-mile range.

But ballistic-missile submarines and larger carriers made the Seaplane Strike Force less critical for the Navy, and the SeaMaster project was canceled in 1959.

The AG600

AVIC AG600 Kunlong floatplane
The AVIC AG600 Kunlong floatplane.

Although the US has retired its seaplanes, a number of countries still have them in their inventory.

Russia has started replacing its turboprop Beriev Be-12s with the jet-powered Be-200ES.

Japan, a nation with a long and proud seaplane tradition, operates one of the most advanced models in service, the ShinMaywa US-2, which held the record for world’s largest seaplane before the AG600.

The AG600 was designed by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the same outfit behind most of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s aircraft – including its stealth fighter.

AVIC AG600 Kunlong floatplane
The AVIC AG600 Kunlong floatplane.

Development of the AG600 began in 2009, with construction starting in 2014. It was unveiled in 2016, and its maiden flight was in 2017. China expects to finalize and deliver it by 2022.

The seaplane is 120 feet long and has a wingspan of 127 feet. It is reportedly capable of carrying 50 passengers and reaching a top speed of 310 mph and a range of 2,800 miles.

The AG600 will be a multi-purpose aircraft expected to conduct search-and-rescue and transportation operations. It is also able to carry up to 12 tons of water and disperse it over 4,000 square meters to fight forest fires.

The AG600 would be particularly useful in the South China Sea, operating between the numerous fortified islands China has built in recent years.

A seaplane revival

Japan amphibious aircraft seaplane Iwakuni
A Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force US-1A amphibious aircraft prepares for a water landing in Iwakuni, Japan, January 8, 2013.

China’s development of the AG600, as well as the US’s greater focus on the Indo-Pacific region and its many islands, have brought the benefits of seaplanes back into the limelight.

Since they operate on water, seaplanes do not have to worry about the destruction of their airfields or bases.

Whereas landing craft rely on bigger logistical vessels to reach their destinations, seaplanes with large carrying capacities could disembark large numbers of troops and perhaps even light vehicles directly onto beachheads if rapid deployments or reinforcements on islands are necessary.

As aerial refuelers, seaplanes could extend the range of carrier aircraft, freeing up valuable space and pilots aboard US aircraft carriers. Seaplanes’ ability to be refueled by ships or submarines at sea could also extend their own ranges.

There are of course trade-offs. Seaplanes have historically been outperformed by land and carrier-based aircraft, which are faster and more maneuverable. Seaplanes also aren’t likely to last long against enemy aircraft. Moreover, to get the most out of a seaplane force, the Navy would likely need seaplane tenders, of which it has none.

But with greater attention on the challenges of operating in the Indo-Pacific region, and with China’s renewed interest in the aircraft, there’s reason to give the practical and tactical applications of seaplanes more study.

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The rise and fall of Pan Am

Following is a transcript of the video.

Irene Kim: Pan Am was once the largest international airline in the US. In 1970 alone, it carried 11 million passengers to 86 countries worldwide. Pan Am is also known as the pioneer of multiple features of modern air travel, and it also holds cult status for its iconic aviation style. But after 60 years of flight and decades of financial turbulence, Pan Am went bust. So what happened?

Pan American Airways was founded by two US Air Force majors. It began as an airmail service between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba, in 1927 and was the United States’ first scheduled international flight. Within a year, aviation visionary Juan Trippe took the controls, and Pan Am introduced its first passenger services to Havana. An ad campaign cosponsored by Pan Am and Bacardi successfully encouraged Americans to fly away from alcohol prohibition in the US to drink rum in the sun in Cuba. And Trippe quickly expanded Pan Am’s network.

By 1930, Pan Am was flying routes through most of Central and South America. Crucially, it used a fleet of flying boats, or clippers, to land aircraft on the water at destinations that didn’t have concrete runways for traditional planes. Since they flew seaplanes, Pan Am pilots wore sea captains’ uniforms, a decision that still influences aviation uniforms today. And there were far more important innovations that Pan Am developed in its early days of flight.

David Slotnick: Everything from things we take for granted today, like air traffic control and different flight procedures, different ways of forecasting the weather, of flight planning. Pan Am was the first airline to fly around the world. They actually set a few different records about that. They were the first to fly from the US across the Pacific. It was really a lot. They launched this international service that really helped define what we have today as just regular air travel.

Kim: By 1958, Pan Am offered regular flights to every continent on the planet except Antarctica, giving itself the title of “The world’s most experienced airline.” Pan Am’s modern fleet of pressurized aircraft could fly smoothly above turbulent weather, which provided a comfortable experience for passengers. Its lavish cabins were staffed by a multilingual, college-educated flight crew who served luxurious meals like steak, Champagne, and caviar.

Commercial: On October 26, 1958, Pan Am becomes the first American airline to fly jet aircraft. A Pan Am Boeing 707 streaks from New York to Paris in eight hours. The world enters the jet age.

Kim: The powerful new jet engines, which could fly nonstop over long distances, allowed Pan Am to introduce daily flights to London and Paris. And with the introduction of economy class, Pan Am opened the world of air travel to tourists, not just the rich and famous. In 1970, Pan Am carried 11 million customers over 20 billion miles. Thinking that air travel would only continue to grow, Pan Am invested half a billion dollars in a large fleet of Boeing 747 jetliners.

But this would turn out to be a big mistake.

In October 1973, the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries declared an oil embargo against nations, including the US, that were supporting Israel in the Yom Kippur War. By the end of the embargo in March 1974, the price of oil had risen by more than 400%. This hit Pan Am harder than other airlines because of its exclusively long-haul flights, which required more fuel.

Slotnick: They were the launch customer for the Boeing 747. At the time, that was a great airplane for them to buy. That was the right choice, but the oil crisis really changed things for Pan Am. It was all of the sudden the wrong plane to have. It wasn’t the most efficient. It was flying routes that really weren’t selling that well because demand for travel was going down, and that was a very difficult time. But when they made the decision to buy the planes, who would’ve known?

Kim: While Pan Am’s operating costs skyrocketed, the economy slowed, and America’s appetite for international air travel greatly reduced, leaving Pan Am dangerously overcapacity, with huge, half-empty jets taking to the skies. As a result, between 1969 and 1976, Pan Am lost about $364 million and was estimated to be $1 billion in debt.

Pan Am had long hoped to add domestic flights within the US to its operation and even talked to a number of domestic operators, including American and United Airlines, to propose a merger. But rival airlines convinced the US Congress that Pan Am threatened to monopolize US aviation, and the Civil Aeronautics Board repeatedly denied Pan Am permission to operate domestically. But in 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act was passed into United States federal law, meaning the government could no longer control airline routes. Pan Am was now allowed to acquire a domestic system, and it hastily purchased National Airlines for $437 million.

Barnaby Conrad III: It cost a tremendous amount of money to acquire this particular airline, to get the routes. They obviously made a choice. They couldn’t build from scratch. They needed to go out and buy something. You basically had two cultures going on: Pan Am, very worldly, sophisticated, international. Then you had National Airlines. They were sort of puddle jumpers. They were considered country pilots, so there was a mix of culture that didn’t work there. Then you had different kind of aircraft, and so mechanics had never worked on certain airplanes. I think there was a mismatch there too, personnel, different airports. Just in general, it was really a small southern airline that was matching up with an international airline.

Kim: Within a year of the National Airlines purchase, Pan Am lost $18.9 million, even after selling its iconic Manhattan head office for $400 million. Pan Am continued to self-liquidate to offset its losses. In addition to trading its hotel chains, it sold its entire Pacific division to United Airlines.

But Pan Am still had a global reputation as the flagship US airline. However, this claim to fame would attract a devastating terrorist attack above the skies of Lockerbie, Scotland.

Kenny MacAskill: On the 21st of December, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 took off from Heathrow. It was bound for New York. It was never scheduled to either touch down or land in Scotland. A bomb that had been placed on board accordingly blew up over a small town in the southwest of Scotland called Lockerbie. 259 people all aboard the plane were killed, passengers and crew, and 11 citizens in the small community of Lockerbie were also killed. Pan Am were held culpable and negligent in failing to have adequate security measures. You can have some sympathy for Pan Am, because their defense, if it was a defense at the time, was simply that they had carried out the normal security measures that the entire aviation industry did. But the courts took the view that that was inadequate. They had failed to properly secure the airplane, and as a consequence, a bag had got on board that shouldn’t have been on board in the first place. But Pan Am, you can say, took the hit metaphorically as well as literally for an industry where security standards had not got up to speed.

Kim: The Lockerbie bombing cost Pan Am more than $350 million and proved to be the final blow to the once giant airline.

Just two years later, on January 8, 1991, Pan Am filed for bankruptcy.

After a bidding war, Delta Airlines purchased the majority of Pan Am for $1.4 billion, acquiring its European routes, its northeastern shuttle routes, 45 jets, its mini-hub in Frankfurt, Germany, and its flagship Pan Am Worldport terminal at JFK International Airport. Pan Am hoped to emerge from bankruptcy court, but after realizing it was losing $3 million per day, Delta stopped its cash advances. After failing to raise money from other sources, a phone call was made to Pan Am’s head office on December 4, 1991. The message was: “Shut it down.”

Conrad: Pan American Airways went bankrupt, and they shut down services. It broke people’s hearts, really, not just the people that worked for the airline, but for many other people that flew it and knew it, and it was the flagship airline of America. Pan Am, this legendary airline with its legendary logo, was the second most recognized trademark in the world at the time. A group of friends of mine actually bought those trademarks, and, in fact, I was one of the investors in that group. We bought those trademarks. Unfortunately, Charles Cobb, who was the largest investor, wanted to start the airline again, and we said, “But it didn’t work last time.” We parted ways. He bought us out. He slapped the Pan Am globe on this airline, which is sort of like putting the Pan Am globe on a Greyhound bus. It lasted a couple of months, and it crashed. All the other attempts to do something else with the trademark have failed.

Kim: But Pan Am’s legacy continues to be felt almost 30 years after its collapse. Its innovations remain the pillars of modern air travel. Its brand style has survived throughout the decades as an iconic mid-century fashion statement, with products featuring its sleek, retro logo still being sold. And the Pan Am lifestyle is still romanticized in TV and movies. But the airline itself remains grounded.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in February 2020.

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