No. 2954: A SINGULAR FLOATPLANE
by John H. Lienhard
Today, a singular floatplane. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run and about the people whose ingenuity created them.
Think about the light floatplanes that carry a few passengers and freight
from lake to lake in the Alaskan outback. Most are high-winged planes that ride on two pontoons.
Sometimes the body rides in the water like a boat, with an engine up on the wing.
A conventional float plane in service in western Canada. (Photo by John Lienhard)
But the old US Navy floatplane was quite different. Consider this: We entered WW-II with only seven
aircraft carriers among hundreds of major naval vessels. Radar was embryonic. But ships had to know
what lurked in the large oceans around them.
The solution, evolving since WW-I, was that cruisers, battleships, and even some destroyers, carried
their own airplanes - ones that could take off and land while the ship was moving. If that sounds
tricky - well, more on that in a moment.
Four models, all pretty similar, had evolved by WW-II. All took off and landed on a single
large pontoon, with stabilizing floats under each wingtip. Three companies made them: Curtiss, Vought,
and the Navy (which had its own factory in Philadelphia.)
Curtiss SOC Seagull
, the earliest Navy floatplane still being used in WW-II. It was one of the few
American biplanes that saw action throughout the war. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)
Most WW-II airplanes changed in form as the war ground on. But these hardly did. A few early two-winged
floatplanes served for the entire war. The rest had a single low wing. And all but the last version had
a 2-man crew. You had to know what to look for to tell them apart. They typically cruised at around
125 miles-an-hour. They were not made for aerial combat.
The last of the lot, the single seat Seahawk, had one major advantage. It had the same
sedate cruising speed. But it could get away at over 300 miles-an-hour in a pinch. That was important.
You see, those Navy floatplanes were vulnerable and they suffered severe losses. Staying alive was a big
problem for their pilots.
Now: the moving ship problem: The planes were flung from a catapult rail that ran their speed from 0 to 70
miles-an-hour at release. Returning, they landed beside the ship and ran into a mesh sled in the water.
The mesh snared the pontoon, then dragged the plane along while the ship's crane picked it up.
This Curtiss Seahawk
has caught its pontoon in its mesh retrieval sled and is awaiting the ship's crane
to lift it aboard, while it's being towed. (Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
So how did these planes perform? Well, beyond spotting enemy ship movements, they picked up downed airmen,
ferried the wounded and ferried admirals. They did anti-submarine work, strafed enemy troops during landings,
and spotted targets for their own ships' guns - though that was tricky and their information could be iffy.
In fact, warships often flew them away during naval battles - or even just dumped them in the sea - since
they were dangerously flammable. By the war's end, ships had workable radar as well as the new helicopters.
New technology made that last fast-moving Seahawk obsolete on arrival.
And those odd, single-pontoon floatplanes vanished. I finally got to see one at the Pensacola Naval Air
Museum - hanging from a ceiling - lost among sexier jet fighters and bombers. Today, it is as though those
pretty old airplanes had hardly existed.
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.
Al Adcock, U.S. Navy Floatplanes of World War II in Action. (Color by Don Greer) (Carrolton, TX:
Squadron/Signal Pubs., Inc., 2006): Aircraft No. 203.
See also, the Avalanche Press floatplane site,
this You-Tube movie about the Seahawk in action,
and the Pacific Aviation Museum floatplane site.
See also, the Wikipedia sites for Curtiss SOC Seagull,
for the Vought OS2U Kingfisher,
for the Curtiss SO3C Seamew,
and for the Curtiss SC Seahawk
This episode was first aired on June 30, 2014
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2014 by John H. Lienhard.