Safety of light aircraft and seaplanes

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On an upcoming trip to Fiji we have the choice between either a
seaplane, small light aircraft (about an 8-seater prop) and 40-
seater (I think that's also a prop) to get to a remote island.

Which is the safest option?


-- Tracey Spicer, May 20, 2009


Seaplanes are very expensive to insure because they are prone to mishaps. The water is an uncontrolled environment. There may be a just-barely-submerged log in the water. The waves might be higher than they look. The water is also an unforgiving environment. A sloppy landing that would jolt the passengers on a concrete runway may result in a seaplane tipping over. Mechanically, it is tough to maintain seaplanes that operate regularly in salt water. Putting a turbojet engine on the seaplane would not make it safer. That's why the military went to helicopters for the jobs that they used to do with seaplanes (also because taxpayer money is free).

The 40-seater that goes from runway to runway requires a much lower level of pilot skill for safe operation. It sounds as though you are associating propellers with a lack of safety. A 40-seat airplane very likely has jet engines turning those propellers, so it should be just as reliable as a traditional airliner that you would call a "jet" and that airplane nerds would call a "turbojet".

All of that said, seaplanes are fun and if the operator has been in business for a long time, very likely quite safe. Remember that the pilot has to do this trip several times per day, year after year. If there were a significant chance of a serious accident on an individual trip, nobody would take the job.

I have a seaplane rating, but only 10 hours of experience landing on water, so be glad that I'm not your pilot! Most commercial seaplane insurance requires at least 50 hours of seaplane experience.

-- Philip Greenspun, May 20, 2009

(Answering the followup below)

Yes, the 40-seater should be safer. You'll have two engines instead of what is likely one on the seaplane (though now that I think about it, the seaplane is probably a Cessna Caravan on floats (if it truly has 8 passenger seats) and therefore it too has a jet engine turning a prop, not a piston engine). You'll have a controlled hard-surfaced runway instead of whatever lies underneath the water surface. You'll probably have two pilots in the 40-seater and just a single pilot in the 8-seater (the second pilot catches a lot of mistakes!).

But I wouldn't be worried enough about safety to make it a prime consideration. If one service fits your budget and schedule better, you can probably pick it with confidence.

-- Philip Greenspun, May 20, 2009

Thanks Phil - comprehensive answer!

So, basically, the 40-seater plane would be safer than the seaplane...?

-- Tracey Spicer, May 20, 2009

Thank you so much!!!

-- Tracey Spicer, May 20, 2009