I do not anthropomorphize airplanes—don’t give them names, imagine that they have human personalities, or think of them as friends. But the newest Seareys have such different flight characteristics from previous ones that I’m almost tempted to begin doing it now. In any case, I’ve fallen in love with the Searey all over again, almost as if it has suddenly become a real, live person.
The reason is that, since July 2014, all Searey kits and SLSAs come with new Frise-type slotted ailerons that remove virtually all adverse yaw, dramatically lighten the stick force required for roll, and harmonize the controls in such a way that all of the incremental upgrades of the past 20 years suddenly come together in a lovely synergy that transforms the Searey from a great flying boat into a truly sweet flying machine.
I completed building my own “Classic” SeaRey in 2003 (the R was capitalized back then) and have flown it about 1300 hours so far, over most of the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada [“Building a SeaRey,” KITPLANES May-August 2004].
And it has been a great delight—both in the building experience and in the flying. Along the way I’ve upgraded several of its systems as the Searey design has evolved: For example, about five years ago, the kit factory, Progressive Aerodyne, began supplying vortex generators that lowered the stalling speed by about 7 mph, and a year later began including special strut plates that add washout to the wings to ensure that the stall was even more benign. New electric linear actuators make landing gear retraction and extension sure and simple—a matter of flipping a switch. The beefy LSX bulkhead upgrade strengthens that critical part of the framework. And the ACI Searey Landing Gear Alert does better than any other such device to keep the pilot from landing with the gear in the wrong position.
Even without those upgrades, flying a Searey has always been such a delight that it seemed nothing could improve the experience much. Sure, it’s a “rudder” airplane, but a very benign and predictable one. Lead with your feet when turning and it does everything you ask of it.
Love at First Flight
When Helen Woods splashed in at our house in her brand-new SLSA Searey LSX, everything changed for me. Helen was on her way home from Tavares, Florida, to Bay Bridge Airport in Stevensville, Maryland, where she runs the largest Sport Pilot training school in the USA and will use the new Searey for seaplane instruction and Searey transition training.
Her new Searey (now with a lower-case r) was the very first production version with the new ailerons we builders had been hearing rumors about for several months. Naturally I had to fly it, and Helen obliged. With her in the right seat, I taxied down off the beach, flipped the landing gear switch up, and shoved the throttle forward.
Well, I knew it was going to be love at first flight even before the hull broke free of the water on takeoff. It was so easy to correct for gusts that could dip a wing that I wanted to stay on the step and do some of the tight turns the Searey is famous for. And as soon as we were airborne, the stick felt so light—but perfect—that I simply had to roll into a steep turn. I lead with the rudder, of course—until noticing that all adverse yaw was gone and the ball stayed centered, even when I turned with my feet flat on the floor.
There’s a chain of small, uninhabited islands near where I live on the broad James River in eastern Virginia, and I often weave around them in a treetop-level slalom. It’s great fun in my Classic SeaRey, one of my favorite things to do. It was even more fun in Helen’s new Searey. The roll rate was so much faster and the stick force so light that the airplane practically flew itself around the islands.
I was so delighted by the feel of the airplane that I just had to do a lot of steep turns in both directions, level, climbing, and descending—and a couple of wingovers and a chandelle. It took almost no effort to roll, just enough for it to feel good.
Furthermore, the ball stayed centered almost all the time, without any conscious attention from me. But it’s not that I’m a great pilot. The airplane made me look (and feel) good. In my SeaRey Classic, by contrast, the ball sometimes rolls all over the cockpit unless I make an effort to keep it in sight.
Then we climbed to 1000 feet over the water for some stalls. The climb turned out to be needless because Helen’s Searey would not stall. With the power off and landing flaps, I held the stick all the way back, pulling with both hands, while the nose gently rose and sank, rose and sank, and the airplane kept right on flying. I suppose it might have been a stall in some arcane technical sense, but there was no break, the descent rate was about the same as flying at the best glide speed of 65 mph, and the ailerons worked just as if we had been at cruising speed.
In my Classic with the 115-hp Rotax 914 engine, there’s no such thing as a departure stall. At full throttle and the stick all the way back, the nose points up so steeply that the FAA might almost want the occupants to wear parachutes, but the stall never breaks. Instead, the airplane mushes forward and slowly loses altitude.
The difference in Helen’s 100-hp Rotax 912 ULS Searey is that the nose wouldn’t point up quite as steeply, and the airplane climbed at about 400 fpm.
Boaters were waving as we flew past. In my SeaRey Classic, I would respond by rocking the wings. At cruising speed, that requires stepping on the rudder pedal and leaning into the stick, then stepping and leaning in the other direction, while the wings do something that looks to boaters like rocking, but the airplane is actually making shallow S-turns.
In Helen’s Searey, I rocked the wings with just the twist of my wrist, with only thumb and forefinger on the stick—and my feet on the floor. The wings really rocked, too. There was no guessing about that.
A couple of weeks later I had a chance to fly Helen’s Searey again and Buck Bray’s new Searey and my venerable Classic, all on the same day and weather conditions. Helen’s and Buck’s airplanes are both SLSA Seareys. That is, they are Searey LSX kits, but built at the facto-ry, both by the same professional crew. Buck’s was the last Searey SLSA with the old, plain ailerons. Helen’s was the first with the new Frise-type ailerons. (All Seareys have differential ailerons; they go up farther than down.)
That means those two airplanes are essentially identical except for the ailerons. (To be completely accurate, Buck’s has a turbocharged Rotax 914 engine, an engine cowling, and the “Elite” interior package. Helen’s is lighter, with a normally aspirated 912 ULS and no frills. But their airframes and construction techniques are otherwise as similar as any two airplanes can be. So except for the ailerons they ought to fly similarly.)
I used a fish scale to measure the lateral force needed on the stick to cause the airplanes to turn with no rudder input (my feet on the floor). The airspeed in all three tests was approximately the same, about 85 mph.
My Classic needed 10 pounds of fish-scale force to turn it in either direction.
Buck’s needed 11 pounds to turn left and 8 to turn right. (His rudder trimtab needed adjustment.) The average was 9.5 pounds, essentially the same as mine.
Helen’s needed only 2.5 pounds left and 2 pounds right.
Note that those are relative, not exact, figures. It’s a spring-type fish scale with a maximum weight of 22 pounds. I calibrated the scale after the tests, and it was reasonably accurate at the 2-pound weight, but indicated about 0.5 pound too light at 8 pounds.
A few days later I cadged a ride in my friend Matt Tucciarone’s RV-7A and measured his stick force. This isn’t a fair comparison, of course, because the RV-7A is a land plane that can fly nearly twice as fast as any Searey. But it’s one of the most popular kit aircraft in the world, also with side-by-side seating, and is known for its excellent control harmony, so the comparison was instructive, if not entirely fair. I attached the scale to Matt’s stick at about the same distance down from the top as on the three Seareys, my theory being that it would be measuring the hand pressure needed on each airplane.
Matt’s RV-7A required 1 pound in either direction. About 1 pound, that is. We were right at the bottom of the scale, so I don’t claim that the measurements were exact, just that the difference between Matt’s RV and Helen’s Searey was at most 1 pound.
In any case, it was clear that Helen’s Searey turned with only slightly more effort than the RV. Furthermore, it felt lighter, and it seemed to turn with more alacrity. That’s probably because the RV was flying twice as fast at the time, so it’s not surprising that its controls felt stiffer.
In Helen’s SLSA Searey LSX and Matt’s RV, the ball stayed more or less centered for these tests. In Buck’s SLSA Searey LSX and my SeaRey Classic the ball rolled well off to the side because of the adverse yaw.
Buck is next in line for the new ailerons, by the way. They were promised as a free upgrade when he picked up the plane at the factory, just before the new aileron configuration was set. He should be enjoying them long before you read this report.
Flying the Searey
In the latest Seareys, the rudder is still useful. Of course it’s needed for crosswind landings and slipping. And it’s what you steer with on land and water. When step-taxiing in a Searey, you cross the controls by steering with the rudder and using opposite aileron to keep the wings level and the inside float out of the water. It’s something like landing on a land runway in a crosswind. The limiting factor in crosswind landings is the rudder deflection, and in step-turns on water it’s the aileron deflection.
Land takeoffs typically are over before most pilots new to Seareys are ready. You open the throttle and press lightly on the right rudder pedal. Just about when you start to think of lifting the tail, the airplane levitates from the three-point position and is climbing. (This is why Searey builders are cautioned not to do fast-taxi tests unless they’re prepared to go flying.)
Kerry Richter, the Searey’s designer, likes to do hands-off water takeoffs in the LSX version of the Searey. He trims the elevators up and opens the throttle. Done!
For us mere mortals, however, taking off from water is a little more complicated: Check that the landing gear is up. (You can’t get on the step with the gear down, no matter how hard you try. Ahem. So I’m told.) Flaps to 20 degrees. Let the engine idle so the airplane will point itself into the wind. Open the throttle. Eight to 12 seconds later, you will have accelerated to flying speed—about 50 mph—and you’ll be airborne.
In flight, visibility is excellent. The swept parasol wing is above and behind your field of vision, and with no engine up front, the nose slopes away so you’re hardly aware of it ahead of the instrument panel. Visibility could be improved only by making the hull transparent.
The sliding canopies can be closed or open any amount you like, for ventilation or photography—or just for enjoying the view. You can fly with your elbow out in the breeze if you wish, though you won’t feel crowded in the 44-inch wide cockpit, even with two large occupants side-by-side.
A hidden benefit of the sliding canopies is that you can get out in the event of an accident, whether on land or in the water. Almost every other seaplane has either doors or a clamshell “coffin” canopy to trap you inside. That’s why the leading cause of death in seaplanes is drowning—but not in Seareys.
On land, a Searey is one of the most benign taildraggers, so runway landings are generally straightforward. You approach at about 65 mph and land. There are two surprises, however: One is that the airplane is light in weight and has a high-lift wing, and it has all that seaplane stuff out in the wind, so it loses speed quickly when you round out with the power off. The other is that your butt is only about a foot above the runway. The two conditions combine to surprise the unwary.
On the other hand, the Searey has surprisingly good crosswind capability. Because it’s a pusher, the prop is only about eight feet ahead of the rudder, and the rudder is large, so yaw control is better than on almost any other airplane. If you sense that the airplane might want to turn around, open the throttle and it will straighten right out. The official demonstrated crosswind capability is 15 mph, but many of us have landed in 20+ knot crosswinds without difficulty.
Landing on water is simple to describe: You land it like any seaplane, but it takes some finesse that comes to most seaplane pilots only with suitable transition training. Note that to fly any seaplane you must have a seaplane rating if you’re a private pilot, or a seaplane endorsement if you’re a Sport Pilot. Most landplane pilots can get the rating or endorsement in about 5 or 6 hours of dual instruction. Searey transition training will typically require another 10 hours to make you safe and to satisfy your insurance company. You’ll also need a tailwheel endorsement unless you’ve been flying conventional gear long enough to be grandfathered in.
Taxiing from water onto a beach demonstrates why Seareys have tailwheels: A nosewheel would dig into a soft surface, such as sand, or hang up on rocks. The Searey’s tailwheel just rolls merrily along. And because it retracts with the maingear, it doesn’t catch waves on takeoff or landing.
Evolution of the Searey
The first SeaRey kits were sold in 1992. At first they were powered by the 65-hp two-stroke Rotax 582, but soon the engine of choice became the 80-hp four-stroke Rotax 912 UL. A few years later most SeaReys were powered by the then-new 100-hp 912 ULS or the 115-hp turbocharged Rotax 914.
Early SeaReys had a relatively flat hull that was great for getting onto the step on smooth water and making tight step-turns like a Jet Ski. To improve rough-water handling it was replaced by a hull with a deeper V, referred to as the “B” hull. By 2001 a further refinement in the hull shape, the “C” version, with a considerably bluffer bow and a double-V step (downward and backward) became the standard that is still in use today. It allows for smoother entry into the water and is much more buoyant in the nose, giving excellent control on the water and with better rough-water capability, while still allowing for tight step-turns.
Purists will cringe at the expression, “Land-O-Matic,” but it has been applied to Seareys more than once. In a C-hull Searey you can shove the stick full forward while step-taxiing at 30 mph and not go swimming. Not many other seaplanes will allow that. (Caveat: no seaplane is safe to fly without suitable transition training, even if the pilot already has a seaplane rating and considerable experience.)
In 2010 a new version called the LSX was introduced. It has a stiffer wing construction, larger tail surfaces, a different elevator trim mechanism, and beefier construction in a few places, mostly with the expectation of meeting the industry standards for Light Sport Airplane certification.
The most recent round of improvements was to meet the criteria for factory-produced SLSA airplanes. So now there are many more options for pilots who want a Searey:
• Buy a kit and build it yourself in about 600-900 hours (800 for mine) and register it as Experimental/Amateur-built.
• Buy a kit and build it at the factory with expert guidance; register it as an Experimental.
• Buy a factory-built SLSA Searey and fly it home.
The Kit and Construction
A Searey kit comes in one big crate, 4x3x16 feet, containing everything except engine, battery, avionics, and wiring. You can pick up the kit at the factory and skip the crating charge, but everyone loves that crate. And upside down it makes a good workbench.
The framework is aluminum, and all parts are bolted together with standard aircraft AN hardware. Progressive Aerodyne makes most parts from readily available stock, so unlike most other airplanes, many Searey field repairs are possible with a visit to a good hardware store.
The hull and fuselage skin is fiberglass (or optional carbon fiber) in three large pieces that you assemble with blind rivets and bolt to the framework. Some trimming is needed, but all of the fiberglass layup is done by the factory. The wings and tail are covered with Poly-Fiber fabric, which is considerably lighter than either metal or composite. It also gives you a magic moment when you shrink it with an ordinary clothes iron: All of a sudden, the fabric gets drum tight, and it’s then that you know the airplane really will fly.
The manual describes every step in the construction process and contains photos of most steps. All you really have to do is follow the instructions and—assuming there are no parts left over—you’ll have a real, “live” Searey. (Name it if you insist.)
No special skills are needed, just common sense and patience. No special tools are required, either. Two wrenches (3/8- and 7/16-inch) and a pop-rivet gun will get almost all of a Searey together. The fabric is standard Poly-Fiber system, which needs only a paintbrush or two, a calibrated clothes iron, and an entry-level spray gun, preferably HVLP to reduce overspray. In a pinch you can do without the spray gun and use brushes for the whole job.
A Searey can be built comfortably in a two-car garage, although it can be done in a one-car garage or equivalent space. Just be sure there’s a way to get the completed fuselage out! Lars Barfod built his Searey in a basement in Oslo, Norway—but first he measured very carefully.
Progressive Aerodyne has been producing Searey kits since 1992. More than 600 kits have been sold, and about 500 Seareys are currently flying worldwide.
The company was founded in 1991 by Kerry Richter, his partner Paige Lynette, and Kerry’s father, Wayne Richter. All three of them got their start by designing and flying ultralights. Kerry’s Cobra ultralight was very popular, and he was later involved in the project that produced the innovative Buccaneer flying boat amphibian. When he designed the SeaRey in 1991, it was already an evolved airplane, and that is why it flew so well right from the start.
Until recently most of the Progressive Aerodyne employees have been Richter relatives, but a few years ago they were joined by Adam Yang as CEO, and with the introduction of the factory-built SLSA version, a number of like-minded others.
In 2010 Progressive Aerodyne moved to a comfortably large facility on Lake Idamere, near Tavares, Florida, about 20 miles north of Orlando. It’s a charted seaplane base (3FA8) with a concrete ramp that enables visitors to taxi up from the water, and it ensures that all Seareys built at the factory—whether SLSAs or Experimentals built with factory guidance—make their first flights with water takeoffs.
Don Maxwell retired from teaching in a college to build his Searey and has flown it more than 1300 hours so far, a lot of that barefoot. He lives on the James River in Virginia with his wife Carol and his flying machine.