On a sunny morning last week, Steve Kent sneaked into New Jersey in a seaplane. This required some planning, since his Cessna is very loud and not particularly sneaky. Taking off from a little airport in Warwick, N.Y., Kent popped over the treetops of Bellvale Mountain, descended into a deep glacial valley and dipped his plane’s pontoons into Greenwood Lake, a skinny body of water that wears the state line between New York and New Jersey like a belt on its hips.
Landing a few hundred feet short of the line, just inside New York State, Kent taxied into Passaic County at 26 knots.
“We call this ‘skip taxiing,’ ” he said. “It’s just like skipping a rock across the water.”
Kent executed this complicated (and entirely legal) maneuver because on most lakes and rivers in New Jersey, seaplanes are allowed to operate only as boats. They may float on the water, but they may not take off or land. Due partly to that quirk in state law, and factors including an aging pilot population and the rising cost of seaplane ownership, Bergen County has changed from a national hub for seaplanes to a virtual no-go zone in just one generation.
“They were very active here. It was common to see a seaplane in the sky,” said Steve Riethof, vice president of the Aviation Hall of Fame of New Jersey, next to Teterboro Airport. “In this area it’s become a rarity.”
In the decade after World War II, the Hackensack and Passaic rivers were home to 50 seaplanes stationed at six different bases, according to H.V. Pat Reilly, author of “From the Balloon to the Moon,” a 1992 book about New Jersey’s aviation history.
The decline of North Jersey’s seaplane culture reflects shrinking interest nationwide in general aviation involving small private planes, local pilots say. There are now 174,883 active airplane pilots with private flying certificates in the United States, a 7 percent drop from 2012, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Steve Hedges, spokesman for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, said much of that decline can be attributed to the aging out of pilots who were trained during World War II and the Korean War.
Modern seaplane pilots face economic hurdles. For instance, the pontoons on Kent’s plane weigh 470 pounds, which means his little four-seat Cessna burns more fuel and carries less cargo. His pontoons have wheels that can be extended for landing on ground and retracted for landing on water, which creates its own risks, Kent said, since habit and training teach most pilots to always keep wheels down for landing.
“You pay a lot more insurance, a lot more gas, a lot more maintenance,” said Kent, 51, the New York field director for the Seaplane Pilots Association. “Insurance companies have an issue with things that can sink.”
State law also discourages people from landing seaplanes in New Jersey, pilots said. In most states, including New York, seaplanes can land on nearly any body of water the pilot can see from the air, said Steve McCaughey, executive director of the Seaplane Pilots Association. But New Jersey law requires pilots to land only at state-licensed airports, and the law applies to both land and water, said Steve Schapiro, a spokesman for the state Transportation Department. Licenses must be renewed every year.
“The assumption about New Jersey is it’s just not open,” said McCaughey, whose organization was founded in Little Ferry in 1972 and now is headquartered in Florida. “It’s just generally not seen as a seaplane-friendly state.”
Bergen County was home to a thriving culture of seaplane pilots and enthusiasts starting just before World War II. For many it was a both community and a way of life that peaked in the 1970s, began to wane in the 1980s, and today is nearly extinct.
The places where the community gathered had names nearly as lovely and magnetic as the planes themselves. There was Sky Harbor Seaplane Base and Dawn Patrol Flight School. Pilots called the Meadowlands “Edo Meadow,” after a prominent manufacturer of seaplane pontoons. The biggest hub was Tracey’s Nine Mile House, a restaurant by the Hackensack River in Little Ferry.
Shea Oakley, executive director of the aviation hall of fame, and David Baldwin, New Jersey field director for the Seaplane Pilots Association, both remember their parents bringing them when they were children to Tracey’s to eat lunch and marvel at the planes.
“I used to go there with my dad every few months for a special dinner,” said Baldwin. “I don’t remember the restaurant or the food, but I remember the seaplanes.”
The international Seaplane Pilots Association was founded nearby, at a card table in the hangar of the Little Ferry Seaplane Base, before it moved to its current home in Florida.
Flying seaplanes in Bergen County required guts and a steady hand. During the cold winter of 1940, flight instructors at the Mellor-Howard Seaplane Base in Ridgefield Park managed to keep the school open by sending students onto frozen Overpeck Creek wearing ice skates. When seaplanes landed on the ice, the volunteers grabbed hold of the wing struts and dragged their skates across the ice to slow the planes and prevent the pilots from ramming the shore, Reilly wrote.
Just upstream, the Little Ferry Seaplane Base and Lambros Seaplane Base in Ridgefield Park faced each other across the Hackensack River, sharing one runway. In the skies above, seaplane pilots were jostled by faster and bigger planes bound for Teterboro and Newark. The seaplane pilots had to avoid all the other traffic, and coordinate the takeoffs and landings of two different seaplane bases, without radar. Most of the planes didn’t even have radios, Riethof said.
Southbound planes taxied on the Hackensack under the Route 46 bridge between Little Ferry and Ridgefield Park to begin their takeoffs; planes landing from the north buzzed low over the bridge deck, “and I’m sure the motorists were quite frightened,” Riethof said.
Nor were the conditions especially inviting. The seaplanes landed on brackish water, but most pilots worried more about pollution than salt.
“The water probably has more oil in it than salt,” said Bruce Dunham, who owned the Little Ferry Seaplane Base until the early 1990s, when he sold it.
Despite the surroundings, seaplanes were a glamorous way to travel. On Fridays in the summer, Dunham regularly carried 200 people daily between lower Manhattan and weekend houses in the Hamptons and Fire Island, he said. Come weekdays, Dunham would fly in the opposite direction, picking up celebrities including Billy Joel, Donna Karan and Liz Claiborne at their waterfront homes on Long Island. He’d take them into Manhattan in the morning and back home at night.
“Those are the people I dealt with on a daily basis,” said Dunham, now an FAA flight examiner in Florida. “Some of those people were good friends.”
One by one, Bergen County’s seaplane bases closed. The Mellor-Howard base lost its runway to a new bridge that carried the New Jersey Turnpike across Overpeck Creek, Reilly wrote. After World War II, the GI Bill paid for thousands of returning soldiers to attend flight school, Reilly said, but as the federal money dried up, seaplane base owners retired or switched careers.
For a while, Dunham’s operation in Little Ferry was the last seaplane base in North Jersey with regular flights. Demand for charters was high, he said, but the rising costs gradually drove him out.
“Airplanes that I was able to buy in 1970 for $35,000 are now $500,000. Insurance went up, regulations go up,” he said. “I moved on to different things.”
Today few reminders of the region’s long seaplane history remain, and they are hard to find. Tracey’s is abandoned, but a small hangar with a chipped green roof stands out back. By the water, a faded yellow sign with the outline of an airplane encourages visitors to report security hazards. The old corrugated concrete ramp, which pilots used to drive their seaplanes from the river onto land, is littered with tree branches and empty Pepsi bottles.
“Most of these seaplane bases are going away,” said Frank Reiss, a seaplane flight instructor on the Wallkill River in New York who used to fly out of Little Ferry. “It’s sad to see.”
As Bergen County’s seaplane bases closed, their licenses lapsed. Nine seaplane bases still have licenses in New Jersey, including one in West Milford, one in Ridgefield Park and a third in Little Ferry, Schapiro said. Only the Little Ferry base is open for public use, but no planes landed there in 2014, state records show.
That may be due partly to the dilapidated dock, which lists hard to shore, and partly to the fact that many seaplane pilots view New Jersey as inhospitable.
Angel Cortes owns the NOVA flight school in Morristown. He may be New Jersey’s newest seaplane pilot — he received his FAA rating to fly seaplanes two weeks ago, he said. He did it “truly just for fun” and has no intention of buying or even renting a seaplane in the future.
“It’s really fantastic. Everybody should do it at least once in their lives,” Cortes said. “But I would never fly a seaplane in New Jersey. The biggest reason is that the state represses it.”
Steve Kent bounces along the surface of Greenwood Lake in his beige Cessna, which according to New Jersey law is just a boat with wings.
“I’m basically an overpowered canoe,” Kent said.
Other boaters smile and wave, and Kent waves back. He eases off the throttle and idles into Moosehead Marina, on the western shore a mile south of the state line. John Link, the marina’s owner, stands at the end of a dock for personal watercraft. Kent throws a rope to Link, who pulls the seaplane in. At the far end of the marina is Link’s own seaplane, a white-and-blue Cessna 172. Unlike Kent’s plane, which is amphibious, Link’s is a “straight float” with no wheels, which means it can land only on water.
“I’m not aware of any other straight float planes left in New Jersey,” Link said. “If I wasn’t at the marina, I wouldn’t be able to have a seaplane.”
The seaplane community is so small that Kent and Link knew each other by name and reputation even though they had never met until now. They stood on the dock for a few minutes and talked about this romantic, endangered sport.
“Financially this plane is a boondoggle for me,” Kent said. “We’re not talking about logic here. It’s purely an emotionally driven adventure. When you take off and see your own wake from the air, that’s special. It makes it worth it.”
Back in the plane, Kent restarts the propeller, eases out of the marina and skip-taxis north. An FAA chart loaded onto an electronic tablet shows an icon of his plane hurtling toward New York, and for a moment the state line appears fatter than his little plane.
Safely across the line, Kent draws on the power and pulls the yoke into his belly, pulling the right pontoon from the water first, then the left. His plane again a plane, Kent looks behind to see a wake that ends in water and sky.