Building a Better Seaplane Base

An Alternative to Crowded Airports

How do you cope as an ad-hoc charter operator when you are faced with long delays at a crowded airport with limited take-off and landing slots that need to be booked days in advance? Not sure? To answer this question, you need someone who can think outside the traffic pattern.

The Sunday morning after I first arrived in Manila, I grabbed a taxi and headed to the harbour. I am always looking for places to run seaplanes: rivers, lakes, inlets and bays are all potential landing sites. The Manila South Harbour, on that beautiful, faithful day, was perfect – the glassy water gleaming with hope and promise. Dragon boat racers were making the best of the harbour cruising up and down the calm waters with cargo ships peacefully anchored in the bay. My first impression should have told me that this was the perfect place to locate the company’s new seaplane base.

As far as I could tell, from my first excursion, the Manila harbour was promising. The port was large and had been used by Spanish, American and Japanese merchant and navy vessels before, during and after WWII. As I mentioned in other blog posts, the Pan Am Clippers landed in the harbour starting in 1935 and only quit when WWII cut off their flight routes to Manila.

In those days, there was no land-based airport. The seaplane base would have been approved as the only legal landing area for international flights. As in similar Pan AM Clipper landing areas, such as La Guardia in Long Island USA, San Francisco USA, Honolulu USA, Suva Fiji, Auckland New Zealand, and Sydney (Rose Bay) Australia, the approvals would still be valid today. I couldn’t move forward with the idea to reopen the seaplane base, however, until I could find out more about what it would take to do so. I needed time.

It wasn’t until months later, after the first Caravan seaplane arrived, that we began to experience the real difficulty of operating out of a crowded airport. In order to control the flow the Airport Authority issued a limited number of “slots” for both departures and arrivals. The commercial scheduled carriers get first slot priority and only after that the long term charter operators and private jets. Charter Caravan Amphibs were somewhere at the bottom or last on the priority list.

If we can’t get a scheduled departure slot we can only depart the airport between sunrise and 7:00 am. If we miss our window or if the passengers are late that is it for the rest of the day. The airport opens up for VFR arrivals between 9 am and 11 am but if we did return during that window we could not leave again without an approved slot. After that we could only return to the airport again between 4 pm and sunset. There is no way to run an ad-hoc charter or semi-scheduled flight service out of the airport with these restrictions.

That led me back to the harbour. If we could find a place to set up a seaplane base we could depart the airport before 7:00 am and then operate without restrictions until we could return to the airport again after 16:00 pm. All we needed was protected waters and a place for a seaplane jetty.

There were two clues from my first visit that working out of the harbour might not be as easy as the calm waters implied. The first was the bad-ass seawall. A seawall is not necessarily built to protect cities from large seas. In Vancouver, for example, the seawall in Coal Harbour was built to provide a usable living space along the harbour front. During the two years I worked in Vancouver I did not experience any storms that whipped up large enough waves inside the harbour to create a need for a protective seawall.

Vancouver seawall in Coal Harbour
Vancouver seawall in Coal Harbour with the seaplane base in the background.

The one here in Manila, however, seemed to be just that; a protective barrier that implies large storm swells. Since it is such a large harbour I sensed that the regular, up to 20 per year, typhoons that passed close enough to affect Manila could create monster swells inside the harbour precluding seaplane operations.

Manila Harbour protective seawall

The second observation, which led to the same conclusion as the first, was the series of protective breakwaters: two in front of the North Harbour and two situated inside the South Harbour. The smaller inside breakwaters looked battered showing that there had been some serious storms hitting them over the years. You don’t build multi-million dollar breakwaters unless you need them.

Royal Marine Yacht Club breakwater

The dragon boat racers, however, were enjoying the seasonal good weather and it seemed we might be able to do the same as a seaplane operator. After all many seaplane companies only operate seasonally. I would have to investigate further. I did notice, however, that the Dragon Boat paddlers ran their races off the edge of the breakwater which told me that they did not have a home base or jetty.

The second obstacle was that the harbour is located directly under the airport’s approach to Runway 13 used for all domestic VFR arrivals. That includes a fleet of C206s, C172s, Beech Barons, Piper Aztecs and Beech 18s departing the airport before 7:00 am and not returning until the last VFR closing. I had to wonder if there would be objections to landing in the harbour with the airport being so close. Last but not lease there is a 5 mile exclusion no-fly zone around the Presidential Palace that protrudes out over the US Embassy and into the harbour making landings in some winds very restrictive.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s a seaplane.

Several visits to the CAAP didn’t enlighten us and in some meetings they showed reluctance to let us operate from the harbour. Our only hope seemed to be to find a precedent and luckily we had one. Subic Seaplanes had been operating out of the Manila Harbour, with a 1950s Cessna 180 floatplane, for nearly 20 years and even had a small half sunken jetty moored inside one of the smaller breakwaters.

Subic Seaplanes Jetty in Manila

We caught up to Subic Mike of Subic Seaplanes and he explained that the harbour was not an easy place to operate from but he had gotten the seaplane base approvals from CAAP by submitting a map showing the takeoff and landing area. The approved areas didn’t look very realistic especially since the landing area is within the Presidential no fly exclusion circle but an approval was an approval. The overhead approach to runway 13 was not a problem either because the traffic was other VFR aircraft that only came in after 4 pm. Thus the tower didn’t worry about Mike’s coming and going especially since he stayed below 500 ft most of the time.

The final analysis is that “If Mike can do it so can we.” His jetty was in the section of the harbour managed by the Cultural Center of the Philippines. For a few months we managed to carry out a few flights from the harbour by using Mike’s jetty but eventually we had to commit to getting our own space along the banks of the seawall.

After flying over the harbour and walking the breakwaters I figured that the area within the CCP (Cultural Center Philippines) was the safest. Even though it wasn’t possible to land behind the breakwater during large wave conditions at least the dock and seaplane would be safe. Plus passenger transfers would be safer if the dock and seaplane aren’t bobbing around.

As it turns out the larger breakwater was built for the Manila Yacht Club (Marina) where commercial operations are not allowed. The CCP area, however, was open for business and we were able to secure a location.

CCP breakwater in Manila South Harbour

After many months of negotiation we leased a newly completed section of seawall inside the breakwater. Now I just needed a passenger transfer station – better known as a jetty or dock – designed for seaplanes. A jetty designed for boats simply does not work for seaplanes. For a better understanding of what a passenger transfer station entails I have copied some definitions from our operations manual below.

Passenger Transfer Stations
There are many types of wharves, jetties, platforms, docks, floats, rafts and ramps used to transfer passengers and freight. The deciding factor for using any particular station is the ability to transfer the passengers safely while maintaining control of the seaplane.

Fixed Dock, Wharf or Jetty
At fixed stations the infrastructure remains stationary while the water level may change according to tides or seasonal water level fluctuations.

Floating Platform
A fixed wharf or jetty may have a floating platform attached that will rise or fall with the water level changes.

Floating Raft
A raft or platform may also be anchored out in open water and “float” along with changing tides or water levels.

For the sake of clarity any fixed station will be called a Fixed Jetty and a floating station will be called a Floating Platform. The term “dock” will be used when referring to either and “docking” will be the act of tying up to a passenger transfer station.

The biggest mistake marinas or new seaplane operators make is to build jetties or buy docks designed for boats. There are several differences.

Marine jetties are built to accommodate displacement hull shapes, such as sail boats, which are usually wider at the gunwale than at the waterline with a very shallow dead-rise thus boats can use fenders draped over the gunwale to protect it from high dock sides. The seaplane float, on the other hand, is narrow at the top and widens toward and under the water line. Thus when a seaplane docks at a marine dock the low-to-the-water floats will slip under the marine jetty instead of beside it providing no protection.

Boats also sit higher in the water and the dock surface needs to be high to accommodate easier passenger boarding over the gunwale. The seaplane dock height needs to be much lower than that for a boat. The top of the dock should be no higher than the highest part of the aircraft float deck. A passenger should only need to step up a few inches from the seaplane float to the dock float.

The lower deck of the jetty also allows pilots and passengers to walk under the seaplane wing without hitting their heads on the flap hangers or wing struts. Higher docks are uncomfortable or downright dangerous when you have to keep ducking to keep from smacking your forehead on the aileron.

The seaplane dock has to have fenders or bumpers, usually car tires, installed at least 12 inches above and 12 inches below the water line. That way the wider part of the float hull, just below the water line, will park against the cushioning rubber tire. Tires also work well because they are not very wide which ensures the passengers don’t have to make a big step from the float to the dock.

Some companies resist using tires because they might look industrial or utilitarian and or they might rub black marks off on the floatplane’s paint. The tires can always be painted or sprayed with tire black to prevent scuffing but I find that once installed no one notices the tires. They just become a part of the landscape.

Next I had to decide how to build the dock and what kind of material to use. Of course that wasn’t easy because for one its’ tough to get the right kind of building material in the Philippines including basic 2x4s or 2x6s. For another there were very few companies that had the experience to build a dock like we needed. Most of the jetties in the Philippines were large concrete monsters and the rest are made of bamboo – a readily accessible material but very awkward to work with and not very durable.

I only found one marina that had a workable solid floating jetty with a concrete top, but the contractor was impossible to get a hold of. We never did get in contact with him.

After going around in circles for several months trying to get a contractor to reinvent the wheel I discovered that EzDock had a supplier in Manila. I had used EzDock in Nigeria and it worked great even when riddle with 50 caliber bullet holes. The sections are modular so I could design the shape almost anyway I wanted. To keep costs down we started with just enough room to park two Caravans at any one time.

I gave EZDock our design and a few months later when the sections came they had the dock installed in two working days. Suddenly we had a seaplane base.

The seaplane base, however, should be not just a place for seaplanes. The harbour should have yachts, speed boats, dingys, canoes and sail boats zipping along the water ways.

There should a walkway, restrooms, restaurants and a coffee shop. It should be an inviting place for passengers and the general public to hangout. Unlike an airport the seaplane base can be open to the public to come watch the seaplanes come and go. The walkway along the breakwater should be filled with push bike riders, mothers with babies in strollers, lovers holding hands and locals just hanging around on Sunday mornings.

With the proper support and development the water front can go from this…

To this….

A lively friendly community center where you can also conveniently catch a flight to your favorite island resorts or home town communities. At Air Juan we carry out daily flights to Busuanga, Coron, Palawan, El Nido, Boracay and many other otherwise hard to reach island communities.

Equally important is that the Dragon Boat Paddlers now have a home to race from. Seaplanes, yachts, sail boats and dragon boats all mix with ease making the water front a fun and lively place to be.

When in Manila come on down to the new seaplane base and have a chat with one of our friendly pilots: Filipinos, Canadians, Americans and even an Aussie and a German. Better yet book a flight and come explore the islands with us.

About John S Goulet

Air Transport Pilot, consultant, writer, blogger and photographer with 45 years in Professional Aviation.
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