The Splashy History of Amphibious Seaplanes
September 2, 2015
The oldest and largest seaplane fly-in west of the Mississippi returns to Clear Lake
Many of us are familiar with seaplanes only from watching the old TV show Fantasy Island. When Tattoo yelled, “The plane! The plane!” he was actually announcing the arrival of a Grumman G-44 Widgeon seaplane, an amphibious airplane used by the Unites States Navy and the British Royal Navy during World War II. These seaplanes were capable of both taking off and landing on bodies of water, giving the Allies key advantages to track U-boats and operate planes without the need for airfields. Even one of the most famous planes of all time, Howard Hughes’ celebrated Spruce Goose, was a seaplane.
The seaplanes will fly again at the Clear Lake Splash In (Sept. 25 to 27), the oldest and largest seaplane rally on the West Coast. The shores of Lake County’s Clear Lake, the oldest lake in North America, will host three glorious days of seaplane fly-bys, landings, acrobatic displays and receptions to honor vintage seaplanes and the pilots who fly them.
It’s no accident that Clear Lake hosts the biggest seaplane event in the western US. The large freshwater lake, located a little more than 100 miles north of San Francisco, played an indispensable military role during the seaplanes’ heyday of WWII and the early Cold War era.
Perhaps the Navy’s busiest and most important base during WWII was the Alameda Naval Air Station, the entrance to the Pacific Ocean theater located on the western side of the San Francisco Bay. The Alameda station offered an ideal location for the US Navy to keep its seaplane squadrons—but not exactly ideal weather. The San Francisco Bay is known for episodes of heavy fog and poor visibility.
When landing conditions on the Bay were unsafe for the seaplane squadrons, the vast and wide waters of Clear Lake served as a backup landing spot. WWII pilots were certainly in no mood to just “circle around” until the fog cleared over Alameda. After all, back then a flight from Pearl Harbor to San Francisco took 17 hours.
When the war ended, Alameda Naval Base did not decline in its strategic significance, so neither did Clear Lake. The base was under construction when the US entered WWII and the construction never stopped during the entire war. Several naval commands and service units were shipped to Alameda when the Cold War intensified, with a constant stream of seaplanes still landing on Clear Lake.
Seaplanes are a critical part of America’s past, and while very few seaplanes have been manufactured since WWII, they are also a part of the future.
We don’t know the full extent of the future of seaplanes, but we certainly know their significant past. See where this glorious past took place at the Clear Lake Splash In from Sept. 25 to 27. For the full schedule of activities, or if you’re a pilot and wish to register, visit clearlakesplashin.com/clearlakesplashin/.