One person's efforts to reopen Colorado lakes to seaplanes is providing a case study for those who are working to expand general aviation.
By Rick Durden | January 15, 2017
Flying a seaplane off of the water is well up there on the list of the most purely fun things to do in aviation. When you take one of the most enjoyable of human endeavors—flying—and combine it with zipping across the water, you get a rush that’s tough to beat when engaged in doing anything that’s legal.
The great news is that you can alight on public waters (with some conditions) in a seaplane in 49 states. The Seaplane Pilots Association publishes a list of seaplane flight schools and state-by-state water flying information.
The bad news is that one state, Colorado, bans seaplanes from all public waters. This is the story of one person’s efforts to reverse that ban and again allow access. While it’s a work in progress, in my opinion, it’s a textbook guide for anyone seeking to expand aviation access or fight against limitations.
I Just Want to Fly a Seaplane in My State
Ray Hawkins was a CFI before he even graduated from high school—and no, he did not spend three of the happiest years of his life in ninth grade—he's that kind of overachiever. He went on to spend 20 years in the Air Force and is now employed by a federal agency with an aviation connection. When it came time for his flight review a few years back, Hawkins decided that adding a seaplane rating would be an enjoyable way to meet his recurrent training requirement. What he thought was going to be just a matter of calling to schedule dual with a local operator turned into a task that has been going on for some six years. Not only could he not find seaplane instruction within his home state, he discovered that seaplanes had been banned from the public waters somewhere during the arm-waving, sky-is-falling fear of airplanes engendered by the attacks of 9/11.
Hawkins contacted the state agency responsible for the ban, Parks and Recreation, to discuss it, its basis and to see what would be involved in getting it overturned. As he worked his way up the chain of command, he repeatedly met with flat refusals to reconsider the prohibition. In the meantime, Ray started reaching out to Colorado pilots who had seaplane ratings, seeking support in his pursuit of water access for seaplanes. He established the Colorado Seaplane Initiative.
During a meeting of the Parks and Recreation commissioners, Hawkins proposed a minimal demonstration of seaplane operations—one airplane, one hour. The commissioners directed a subcommittee to come up with procedures for the demonstration. After some delay, the committee reported that it would be impossible and hypothesized a parade of horrible things that would happen should seaplanes be allowed on lakes in the state, claiming that the lakes were overcrowded with boats already, that seaplanes would bring invasive species into the state’s lakes and that seaplanes could not mix safely with boats (despite them doing so for generations on much more crowded lakes in other states).
At a subsequent meeting, Hawkins sought to speak in response to the reasons that employees Parks and Recreation had used to justify a seaplane ban. He brought Steve McCaughey, executive director of the Seaplane Pilots Association to give a presentation on safety and how seaplane pilots protect against transportation of invasive species. Hawkins was given a full three minutes to present his facts; McCaughey was not even allowed to speak. Hawkins realized that he was up against closed minds.
Colorado is known for its outdoor recreation. Its citizens engage in it at a level nearly unmatched in any other state—its regularly ranked as one of the two or three least obese states in the nation because of that fact. Seaplane flying is incredibly attractive to outdoor sport enthusiasts—outdoor recreation types are the target market for the new Icon A5 amphibian. While the altitude of some of the state’s lakes have to be considered for seaplane operations, the scenery and availability of outdoor recreation in the mountains make seaplane operations an excellent match.
Seaplanes and mountain lakes are a great combination for outdoor recreation.
The next step for Ray Hawkins was to seek legislation to allow seaplanes on public waters in the state. He did his homework and found that Texas had passed what he considered to be common sense regulations for seaplanes on public waters in the state. He used it as a model for legislation for Colorado. With limited knowledge of state legislators, Hawkins recognized that for his proposed legislation to even get introduced, much less go anywhere, he would have to retain a lobbyist who was respected on both sides of the political aisle. He also recognized that a bill identified with one or the other political parties would stand little chance of passage in today’s polarized atmosphere, so he would do his best to get bipartisan support for seaplane access legislation. Hawkins found Kelly Sloan, a lobbyist with a political consulting firm who had access to and could speak with legislators for both political parties.
Lobbyists don’t work for free. Hawkins began fundraising to pay Sloan’s fees. At the same time, he found a privately owned lake whose owners liked the idea of seaplanes on their lake and would work with Hawkins to make it happen. He organized a seaplane splash in on Lake Meredith in southeastern Colorado to take place in the summer of 2016.
Hawkins and Sloan found legislators who wanted to expand recreational activities for their citizens to include seaplane access to public waters. A bill was introduced in early 2016. It was assigned to the Transportation committee and came up for hearing in June—about the same time as the splash in was to happen, so there was increasing public interest in the bill and a good turn out of supporters for the committee hearing.
The committee hearing did not go well. The opposition to the bill—personnel from Parks and Recreation—came in with overwhelming force, primarily citing the concerns with invasive species. It is a very real concern—Colorado has very strict inspection laws for recreational boating to protect against invasive species that have done serious damage to lakes in other states. While several states have inspection requirements for seaplanes to protect against invasive species and Hawkins’ bill addressed the issue, supporters were unable to overcome some of the legislator’s reliance on the opinions of Parks and Recreation. The committee voted the bill down 8-5. The good news was that the vote did not go along party lines.
Seaplanes have been mixing with boats successfully for generations.
The seaplane splash in at Lake Meredith proved to be a big success. The invasive species inspection was conducted at a nearby airport (limiting access to amphibians) with a senator who supported the access bill doing the first inspection. Four seaplanes were in attendance—not bad for a first of its kind event in a state that bans water access.
In the wake (sorry) of the event, Lake Meredith became the first seaplane base in Colorado since 9/11. It is privately owned, so a pilot seeking to land on it must get permission and sign a waiver of liability.
With the dawning of the new legislative session in 2017, Ray Hawkins and seaplane access supporters are continuing fundraising to help push the access bill toward passage and have gathered additional supporters—the bill is expected to be introduced soon.
Supporters have also gathered facts in anticipation of what will be a fight with Parks and Recreation at the legislative committee level. They have experts on invasive species risks and how those are dealt with for seaplanes in other states. The will be showing the training course put together by the Seaplane Pilots Association and AOPA for seaplane pilots on inspecting their airplanes for invasive species and preventing their transportation. They will be pointing out that pilots, unlike boaters, are used to inspecting their craft before each operation—that there’s nothing magic about adding an invasive species inspection to the preflight—so a pilots can complete training to conduct such inspections and do so before landing on Colorado waters. They will be seeking testimony or affidavits from regulatory officials in other states as to how they have successfully prevented transportation of invasive species by seaplanes and how pilots self-certify such inspections.
Parks and Recreation officials have argued that pilots simply won’t obey the law regarding invasive species inspection. However, as Hawkins has pointed out, pilots are currently obeying the law not to land on Colorado waters. They’re demonstrating that they are law-abiding, so what evidence is there that they won’t obey the law to inspect their aircraft for invasive species as part of their preflight?
Hawkins and supporters are also prepared to address safety concerns by pointing out the extent of training and testing required to obtain the necessary certification to operate a seaplane versus the lack of training to operate a boat. They have obtained data on the concentration of boats on Colorado lakes and will be able to provide evidence, not supposition, that the addition of seaplane operations will not overcrowd the lakes. They will also be able to provide evidence of the rate of drunk boating compared with the nearly infinitesimal rate of pilots operating impaired.
If seaplane flying were any more fun it wouldn't be legal.
I’ve been involved with several matters in which pilots have sought to expand airports or protect airports from having operations limited or shut down. I’ve seen all sorts of approaches to those issues—from pilots showing up at town hall meetings and saying that anyone who is against the airport is an idiot (not particularly effective), to well-organized, fact-based presentations that recognize the concerns of the “antis.” I think Ray Hawkins’ initial, individual action on a step-by-step basis with the agency responsible for the ban and then moving to a professional approach to creating legislation to overturn the ban while simultaneously fundraising aggressively to support seaplane access and holding events to increase public awareness and support for seaplane access is the way someone who wants to accomplish something in support of aviation is most likely to be effective.
Ray Hawkins and his supporters have a lot of work ahead of them during the legislative session. I wish them great success.
By the way, this year the number of Colorado seaplane splash ins has been doubled this year: there will be one on May 20th at Lake Meredith Seaplane Base (Ordway, CO) and one on July 15 at Kenney Reservoir, Rangely, CO. About the author: Rick Durden holds an ATP with type ratings in the Douglas DC-3 and Cessna Citation, is a CFII and seaplane instructor and the author of The Thinking Pilot’s Flight Manual or, How to Survive Flying Little Airplanes and Have a Ball Doing It, Vols. 1 & 2.