Why Is Colorado the Only State That Bans Seaplanes?

Ray Hawkins was just a junior in high school when he piloted his first flight: a BC-12D Taylorcraft, single-engine monoplane over a grassy Florida field. Fast-forward 46 years — after a twenty-year stint in the United States Air Force and a second career with the Federal Aviation Administration — and Hawkins, who now lives in Aurora, still has a passion for aviation. “When you’re sitting in the cockpit of the aircraft and you’re above all of the fray of the ground, it’s somewhat liberating,” he says. “You get a feeling of freedom.”

Over the course of more than four decades, Hawkins has renewed his flight certification dozens of times. When his license was up for renewal again in 2011, Hawkins elected to add a seaplane rating to it. “I started looking around, and I found out the closest place they had any kind of training at all was Lake Havasu City, Arizona,” he remembers.

As his search continued, he found hundreds of licensed seaplane pilots with virtually no use for their certifications in this state, and numerous seaplanes sitting idle in Colorado due to a ban on the specialized aircraft in state-controlled waterways. “I found out that even if I got the rating, I couldn’t use it anywhere in the state,” he says.

Colorado is the only state in the country with such a ban, which was instituted years ago over concerns that lakes and rivers were already overcrowded and that state waters needed to be protected from invasive species.

State waterways are a limited commodity in high demand, and Colorado’s swelling population has discouraged officials from allowing seaplanes, says Colorado Parks and Wildlife spokesman Matt Robbins. The potential spread of aquatic hitchhikers by seaplanes also poses a threat to state waters, he says.

“Colorado is a landlocked state and essentially a high desert, so most seaplane use would come from out-of-state seaplanes or seaplanes that had been in out-of-state waters,” Robbins says. “This exponentially increases the chance of spreading aquatic nuisance species in Colorado.”

Hawkins, a field director with the Seaplane Pilots Association, argues that the state’s concerns “have been addressed 49 different times in 49 different states, except for Colorado.” Seaplanes are nothing more than a powerboat that arrives at the water in a slightly different manner, he says, and the state should apply the law equally. “We feel like it’s discriminatory against seaplanes,” Hawkins adds.

Hawkins obtained the CPW’s boat-launch density data for the past decade for all state lakes that allow power boating, and only three were too busy for seaplanes during peak times. Even if every boat was pulling a water-skier — an activity which demands the most space — there would still be room for several seaplanes to land safely at the same time, he says. “Even during peak times at John Martin Lake, we could have almost twenty seaplanes simultaneously take-off and land, and still not come close to capacity,” Hawkins adds.

No matter how you look at the data, Robbins says, there’s a difference between launching a boat and landing a seaplane: “We have regulation for boats; we don’t have regulation for seaplane.”

As for the hazards of invasive species, Hawkins points out that the boating community has an inspection process that could be applied to seaplanes.

In fact, Steve McCaughey, executive director of the national Seaplane Pilots Association, says his organization proposed a plan to address Colorado’s concerns about invasive species, but the state refused to even consider it. “They didn’t want to have an intelligent conversation,” McCaughey says. “As a policymaker, you are obligated to do a reasonable exploration of the topic. All we are asking for is fair and equal access.”

Under McCaughey’s proposal, seaplanes would be inspected and decontaminated if needed at the departure airport, then given a 24-hour window to travel directly to the destination without any stops, with GPS logging the travel path. The seaplane would also be inspected upon arriving at the airport. According to McCaughey, some airports in Colorado have pledged to train employees and get the equipment necessary for the program, and the seaplane association would provide the supplement to the state’s guidebook.

While the state has also cited concerns about safety, a study conducted by the Seaplane Pilots Association examined data from the National Transportation Safety Board involving seaplane accidents over a thirteen-year span, from 1983 to 1995; it showed that there were 338 accidents involving seaplanes, 195 of which were water-related and three involving seaplanes and other vessels, each of those three resulting in fatalities.

But there are many more incidents involving just boats, and Hawkins argues that seaplanes are safer, since pilots must be licensed. “The seaplane pilot has to show to a designated examiner his ability to navigate not only in the air, but also on the water, and be able to see a situation developing and avoid it on the water as well as select a proper landing area to avoid conflict with boats,” Hawkins says. “A boater doesn’t have to do that.”

Pilots complete at least sixty hours of training in the certification process; a boater must be sixteen and complete an online course before getting on the water.

Last month, the Colorado Legislature’s Transportation and Energy Committee killed legislation that Hawkins had hoped would finally open state waterways to seaplanes, essentially treating them like powerboats. Aggressive state Parks and Wildlife officials clouded the committee’s judgment, he claims. Still, Hawkins and fellow enthusiasts are optimistic about the future of seaplanes in Colorado and say they plan to introduce a new measure next session.

In the meantime, after years of lobbying the state, seaplane pilots may have finally found a home in Colorado. Crowley County Commissioners gave the okay for a splash-in seaplanes event at Lake Meredith in southeastern Colorado on May 14, with the possibility of opening the lake indefinitely to the aircraft. But that event was postponed because of weather, so for now, seaplanes are still grounded in the state.

And that's a shame, Hawkins says, because seaplanes are unique aircraft that can be used for search-and-rescue missions, to evacuate victims after a boating accident, to fight forest fires — or simply to explore Colorado’s great outdoor offerings:  “We want to be the best possible neighbors, friends to the environment, to the lakes and to the parks.”
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