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Living With Your Plane

© 2001 Flyer Media, Inc.

News
The Seafire: Strong economy spurs four-seat amphib’s resurrection

J. Douglas Hinton

2/4/2000 

CLINTONVILLE, Wisconsin — It’s doubtful that very many people have heard of the TA-16 Seafire.

Doubtful but not surprising.

For in addition to the prototype, only three are flying, and another 20 are under construction from plans.

Over the years, the aircraft has also flirted with production status. David Thurston, perhaps the grand master of small amphibious seaplane design, has revived that long-dormant project.

Thurston, who believed the Seafire was too complicated to work as a kit plane, engineered it into a manufactured product 20 years ago, and the first prototype was flown in 1981.

Thurston also designed the Teal and the Colonial Skimmer, which evolved into the LA4 and Lake Buccaneer.

At a distance, one would dismiss the Seafire as just another Lake model. Outwardly they appear the same. Both are boat-hull amphibians with T-tails, shoulder-mounted wings and sponsons. And both have the engine mounted on top of the fuselage with bracing struts.

But hold on; there is indeed something different here. The engine on the Seafire, a 250-horsepower Lycoming O-540-A4D5, is a tractor, not a pusher. It’s aided and abetted by a two-blade Hartzell constant-speed propeller. And like the Skimmer, the nose wheel protrudes somewhat from the hull when retracted.

There’s also something different about the canopy. Unlike the gull-wing, clam-shell canopy of the Buccaneer, the Seafire’s canopy slides to the rear, can be partially opened in flight and is hinged at the rear in such a way that it can be pivoted to either side for stretcher or freight loading.

Finally, the Seafire is larger and offers more performance than the Buccaneer.

But the 1980s were not particularly bounteous in terms of private-aircraft sales. The economy was up and down, but more devastating for aviation was insurance premiums for product liability, which drove up airplane prices.

In any event, Dave Thurston put the Seafire project on the back burner and waited for better times. In the meantime he occupied himself with his Thurston Aeromarine Corp., a consulting service that offers advice on aircraft design, as well as expert witness services in connection with aircraft accidents. Thurston is also called upon as an FAA designated engineering representative (DER) for special engineering work.

Two years ago, believing the time was finally right, he convinced a group of investors to bring the Seafire program back to life. The prototype, which had been sitting outside in the elements for years, was reconditioned at Seagull Aviation Parts in Clintonville, Wisconsin. Corrosion-proofing, in addition to the time-honored alodine coating, included an epoxy primer that was applied to essential parts before assembly.

Thurston reports that about 85% of the data that’s required to submit to the FAA for Part 23 certification is complete. First flight of the revamped prototype is scheduled to take place this month, with final certification expected by September. The aircraft is scheduled for appearances at Sun ’n Fun and Oshkosh, with order books at the ready.

So what are the parameters that will loosen a seaplane pilot’s grasp on his checkbook?

To begin with, a 3,200-pound gross weight with a 1,950-pound empty weight affords a useful load of 1,250 pounds. When all four seats are filled, that’s almost enough for a full fuel load of 90 gallons in the wings, which is sufficient for 1,000 miles with VFR reserves at a cruise speed of 130 knots.

The Seafire’s rate of climb is a respectable 1,100 feet per minute, and landing speed is a modest 48 knots.

Takeoff and landing distances are remarkable. A departure from a sea-level strip at ISA temperature is a mere 1,000 feet over a 50-foot obstacle, with 1,200 feet required for landing under the same conditions. Off the water, 1,200 feet are needed for going or coming.

Why a tractor instead of a pusher?

According to Thurston, the puller is more efficient than the pusher because the blades are not on the receiving end of all the wake turbulence that the engine cowling creates. The only reason the Skimmer had a pusher propeller, Thurston said, is the FAA and its regulations at the time that addressed the proximity of the propeller’s plane to the passenger cabin.

One of the more interesting features of the Seafire, not shared by any of the Lakes, is the steerable nose wheel. It not only makes ramping the aircraft a lot simpler, it also allows for skis in the winter, thereby making the aircraft more versatile — and profitable in commercial operations — when the lakes get hard.

And, said Thurston, the deep V-hull design, step location and hull strakes allow the Seafire to execute high-speed water turns and handle rough water better than any of his previous designs.

Friese-type ailerons offer maximum response in crosswind conditions, and the slotted, manual flaps are designed to meet water-load conditions. For unimproved landing strips, slippery ramps and rocky lake bottoms, the trailing-arm hydraulic landing gear delivers trouble-free, reliable performance.

In fact, in shallow water, the landing gear can be partially lowered to contact the lake bottom and anchor the aircraft to the spot where the bass are biting best.

Full dual controls and independent brakes are standard on the Seafire, with the right-side control wheel easily removable for passenger comfort. Engine and propeller controls are mounted on a centrally located pedestal, similar to the Piper Cherokee. The wing floats, or sponsons, are designed to break away without damage to the wing in case of encounters with logs or other submerged objects. Planing plates on the bottom of the floats prevents the floats from becoming buried during high-speed water turns.

The newly formed corporation that’s bringing the Seafire to certification and market is Aquastar Inc. To date, more than 10,000 hours of design work have been invested in the project. A suitable production facility, encompassing some 30,000 square feet, hopefully with tax breaks and other incentives, is aggressively being sought.

Once the type certificate is received, Aquastar Inc. plans to build 31 aircraft the first two years of production.

While there still has been no decision on whether to sell factory direct or set up a dealer network in the United States, Aquastar has decided to go with carefully chosen distributors for its overseas market. Parts and service will in all likelihood be handled through four franchised regional outlets of existing FBOs, with the factory maintaining a substantial parts inventory in support of the service outlets. Training would also be conducted at the factory level, both flight and technical.

So what are the chances of Aquastar Inc. succeeding in this endeavor? Good to great, in this writer’s opinion. While sales and trades of boat-hull amphibians on the used market continue to be brisk, prices have been pulled upwards by new-airplane prices.

Aquastar’s philosophy seems to be that there’s a market for a quality, pedigreed product that offers safety, reliability, performance and value. Although a price for the Seafire has not yet been established, Aquastar is targeting it at somewhere around $325,000. That would be less than what the “Aircraft Bluebook” says a 1994 model of another popular boat-hull amphibian is going for, and half its new price.

If Aquastar can pull it off, the seaplane community will definitely sit up and take notice.

And perhaps wonder how they can get some stock in the company.

For more information, contact Seagull Aviation Parts, 715-823-8120 or seagull@mail.CLI.earthreach.com.




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