Clamar Floats in Brunswick, Maine, is a niche of a niche of a niche business. First, there’s general aviation — small private aircraft — then there are seaplanes, and then there’s another smaller niche, which is experimental aircraft.
Owner Paul Richards makes floats for those experimental seaplanes, using carbon fiber, kevlar and other cutting edge materials.
“We’re one of the few to make floats out of these materials,” Richards said. “It gives us light weight and strength.”
Traditionally, seaplane floats have been made out of riveted aluminum. The experimental realm that Clamar Floats works in allows for innovation, Richards said.
“The FAA realized 10 or 15 years ago that their existing regulations were so stifling they were stifling innovation,” he said. “The segment we play in gives us flexibility to apply modern technology and supply it to customers who appreciate that and frankly are willing to pay for it.”
Boy are they ever. Clamar Floats will set you back about $ 50,000 for your experimental seaplane.
“The fellow that I bought this business from and moved it down here used to refer to his customers as the lunatic fringe,” Richards said. “It’s not derogatory. These guys have plenty of money. They want innovative technology and they don’t care what it costs.”
Richards moved the company to Brunswick from London, Ontario, in 2018 when he bought it from the original owner, who was 78 years old and had been running the business for 20 years.
The owner wanted to get out of the business, said Richards, who has been a pilot for 30 years.
“I love flying, always have,” he said. “This is the first time it’s been a vocation. It’s always been an avocation.”
Often Richards’ customers will have their experimental seaplane on one side of the hangar and a Learjet on the other side, Richards said. Clamar Floats has its share of celebrity customers, whom Richards declined to name, but one can make an educated guess based on how many Hollywood stars are known to be avid pilots.
Seaplane pilots are adventurous, flying into remote, often wilderness, areas.
“That really is the driver and motivator why people buy these things,” Richards said. “It’s not to get from Point A to Point B. It’s to find a Point B worth getting to that you can’t get to any other way.”
It’s a risky business.
“The surface is unpredictable and at times unknowable,” Richards said. “If you’re landing on a regular surfaced runway you know what it is. Somebody’s maintaining it. Flight data tells you how long, how wide it is, whereas landing on a body of water may be smooth as silk one day and rough the next.”
There could also be submerged objects, trees or something else, that you can’t see. Takeoff can be equally dicey. The airplane is a boat when it’s sitting on the water and an airplane when it lifts off. There’s a point in between, Richards said, when you’re going about 60 mph trying to lift off. If the water is choppy and rough it’s a “perilous place for you,” Richards said.
“There’s a lot of skill and judgment involved,” he said. “If somebody isn’t applying the proper skill and knowledge, it’s dangerous.”
Clamar Floats occupies about 2,500 square feet in a leased building, and has access to another 10,000 square feet. Richards said he does about $ 1 million in business annually. He has more innovation in mind for the floats beyond just the materials. Such as embedding radar altimeters into the floats that would tell you how far off the water you are when landing.
“If you’re approaching a hard surface, a typical runway, there’s both electronic and visual navigation aids that help you get to the ground,” Richards said.
With seaplanes you don’t have those aids, and embedded radar altimeters could fill that role.
Another area Richards wants to innovate in is automating some of the mechanical aspects of flying with floats. There’s always been a problem in general aviation with pilots getting distracted and not following a checklist. Maybe a pilot forgets to put the landing gear down. It makes a mess of the airplane’s belly and tears up the engine when the propeller strikes the ground.
In a seaplane the consequences of forgetfulness are more severe, even deadly if you try to land in the water with the wheels down. So Richards is working on embedding electronics into the float system that would automate retracting the landing gear before touching down on water.
“Any pilot will tell you everything is fine if everything is routine,” Richards said. “Bad things happen when all of a sudden something unusual gets thrown at you.”