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Seaplanes in Colorado could take off under pilot program

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Ray Hawkins wants to be the first pilot rated to fly seaplanes in Colorado, but first he has to convince state lawmakers that seaplanes are no different than any other form of transportation. Every other state has already reached that conclusion.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife has refused to allow them on state waters, because of concerns over aquatic species from elsewhere taking root in Colorado. They share the same concern about boats, which, of course, are anything but banned.

According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, there are 83,683 registered boats in Colorado and just 38 seaplanes. In other words, you can own it, but you can’t land it on water.

Senate Bill 235 would create a pilot program on two lakes of the state agency’s choosing to determine whether the amphibious aircraft pose a threat. Parks and Wildlife would do inspections to assess the risk of contamination.

The bill is assigned to the Senate  Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee but hasn’t yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Last year, a bill that would have classified seaplanes in state parks as motorboats with wings, House Bill 1315, died in the House Transportation and Energy Committee.

The new bill would require seaplanes landing in Colorado to first have an inspection of aquatic hitchhikers that could be bad for the state’s waters.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife also requires inspections for boats, the ones that don’t have wings.

“It’s just another form of transportation,” said Hawkins, an Aurora resident, a pilot for more than 45 years and a field director for the national Seaplane Pilots Association. “It would be akin to putting up a sign on I-70 at the state border saying, ‘Motorcycles not allowed in Colorado.'”

Hawkins noted the aircraft and aviation are major industries, and Colorado is turning its back on those dollars by turning away precisely the kind of aircraft that are flourishing in competitive outdoor recreation states such as Alaska, Minnesota and Florida.

“To turn your back on a portion of that, really, is nonsensical,” Hawkins said.

A Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce report in 2014 said Colorado has 76 public airports that support 265,000 jobs and an annual payroll of $12.6 billion, accounting for a $36.7 billion annual economic output for the state.

A 2015 report by the Colorado Department of Transportation look at Florida and found that one seaplane base puts about $2 million a year into the state’s economy.

And it’s not just money Colorado is giving up by keeping out planes that can land on water, Hawkins said.

The planes can be adapted to patrol for wildfires and fitted with scoops to attack small blazes before flames can spread, a major hurdle in remote areas where ground crews can take an hour or more to reach.

They also have a use for search and rescue, and that’s beyond the lure they would provide to anglers, campers and other backcountry adventurers to reach remote locations.

“It’s been my opinion that they simply did not want to add seaplanes or allow seaplanes, because they’re afraid of them,” Hawkins said of state agencies. “They don’t know anything about them, therefore have no way of knowing how to manage them.”

A pilot program provided by Senate Bill 235 would give the state the information to decide whether the planes do harm and to develop protocols, as other states have done.

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