Putting a boat hull on an airplane creates a few tradeoffs that prospective buyers should understand. For one thing, it doesn’t make for efficient aerodynamics, so don’t expect blistering speed and edgy handling. You also wind up with a complex airplane and face the costs of maintaining retractable landing gear and a constant-speed propeller. There are also the expenses of keeping a boat alive and well.
While it’s impossible to predict what you’ll shell out in preventive and unexpected maintenance, we’ve talked to enough owners who assert that you should combine the typical costs associated with a complex single and then square the sum to get an accurate number for owning an amphibian. Oh yes, and you get to own an airplane that can sink.
The good news is that Lake Amphibian owners tell us that, almost without exception, they love their airplanes. They happily put up with cruise speeds well below book (we’ve used book numbers in the graphic on the opposite page—owner feedback says to take them with a healthy helping of salt), the challenges of maintaining an engine set way up in the air and insurance requirements for serious initial and recurrent training. In return, you have the ability to land at some of the most scenic places on the planet—and where no land airplanes can alight.
After seeing some of the photos of Lakes in their natural environment sent in by owners, in addition to our own experiences flying a Renegade, we understand the appeal.
Model History, Market
The Lake evolved from a design developed by Grumman, the maker of now classic multi-engine flying boats, as a potential entry in the civilian market after World War II. The company built a prototype but decided not to go any further, letting two of its engineers—Dave Thrust and Herb Lindblad—take the design, which Grumman called the Tadpole, and start building it in 1948 in Sanford, Maine, as the three-seat 150-HP Colonial C-1 Skimmer.
Ten years later, they made it a four-seater with a 180-HP engine and called it the C-2. In 1960, they extended the bow and wings and dubbed it the Lake LA-4. About 250 Skimmers and LA-4s were built before production ended in 1962. There were some company changes that saw the manufacturing side become a separate entity, called Aerofab, from the sales and service side, an arrangement that continued until production stopped. The type certificate was acquired by Consolidated Aeronautics (Conaer) in 1963, which moved its corporate headquarters to Texas but kept the factory in Maine.
The Lake Buccaneer (LA-4-200) was born in 1970 when Conaer put a 200-HP fuel-injected Lycoming on the LA-4. Over the years, a few turbo models were made and at least one non-amphibian water-only model.
In 1979, Armand Rivard, an independent Lake distributor, bought the company and moved it to Kissimmee, Florida. He introduced the LA-4-200EP.
To reduce cooling drag and noise, it had a new nacelle and its prop shaft extended five inches farther aft. It also had “batwing” fillets at the wing/fuselage junction to improve low-speed handling by eliminating eddies and turbulence that disrupted prop performance.
Rivard also introduced the Renegade in 1979, a six-seat version with a 250-HP IO-540, a beefed-up structure, a rear cabin door and larger tail. It easily outperforms its predecessors and is even more stable on the water.
Beginning in 1981, the Lakes all got more grease fittings, polychromate primer, an improved canopy and more rust-resistant cabin vents.
A turbo version of the Renegade became available in the late 1980s through an STC, so technically it is a mod done by the factory. Its Lycoming TIO-540 is rated at 270 HP.
In 1991, the company started making the Seafury, a Renegade with lift rings, survival equipment, a custom tool kit, aux power receptacle and stainless steel brake discs, plus extra corrosion-proofing in an extra coat of chromate primer inside and out and a ceramic coating on the steel parts.
Finally, the company developed the Seawolf. It’s a Seafury modified for the military as a patrol, reconnaissance and special ops aircraft that has proved popular on the international market.
The company had a hiccup when Armand Rivard decided to try retirement. His son, Bruce, had no interest in taking over the factory so, in 2002, Armand sold his end to a Maryland FBO operator, Wadi Rahim, who called the company Global Amphibians and shut down the Maine factory.
Only two of its veterans moved to a new factory he opened in Florida, according to Bruce Rivard. Things did not work out and before long, his father got the company back. Bruce handled North American sales and service out of New Hampshire (go to www.teamlake.com), including finding good used Lakes and upgrading them for sale with a warranty. Production slowed to special orders only and, in the last few years, stopped.
Prices have a very wide range from $15,000 average retail for a good C-1 Skimmer (a pretty rare find; fewer than 25 were built) to nearly $375,000 for a 1997 LA-270 Turbo Seafury, according to the Aircraft Bluebook.
Moreover, prices have been trending slightly down, as they have been for many airplanes, although the EP model has shown some price resiliency. It has been praised as the best compromise among Lakes between cost and performance. The Bluebook puts a 1983 LA-4-200EP at $81,000 average retail.
“Instant vacation” is what one owner has called the Lake experience, and Lake fans say there is nothing else short of homebuilts and a couple of exotics (anybody know of a clean Seabee?) that lets them fly as easily into a remote lake or stretch of river as on or off a runway. Of course, Icon aircraft is trying to make these operations a reality for more people with its A5 LSA amphib. Still, as with most machines that float and fly, that flexibility comes at a price in cruise efficiency. For certain the Lake, for its power, does not go fast.
A 200-HP Buccaneer performs on a par with a 150-HP landplane—one owner said that he flight plans his Lake at the same speed he does an older Cessna 172. Owners reported that book cruise numbers were not realistic. They reported cruise speeds in the 105- to 115-knot range with fuel consumption of about 10 GPH. A Renegade cruises at about 122 knots and one owner told us he burns 13.5 to 14 GPH. The turbo version shines up high with cruise speeds closer to 150 knots. That’s pretty respectable, in our estimation.
The EP does better than the Buccaneer, cruising at about 120 knots. It has hull strakes that improve water handling and allow the hull to break free of the water at a lower speed—45 knots instead of 53 for a Buccaneer (50 knots with a batwing mod).
A Renegade pilot told us the EP is the best of the lot, is almost as fast as the Renegade, has better short-field performance and is more economical. Plus, the 90-gallon EP has a 9- to 10-hour range.
Company specs for the 250-HP Lake list cruise as 132 knots true at 6000 feet with 75-percent power with a 900-FPM best rate of climb at sea level. The turbo version, with its 270 HP, has the same performance except up high, where true airspeed is said to reach 155 knots. The EP’s best rate of climb is 980 FPM, according to company specs, and the Buccaneer’s rate is optimistically listed as 1200 FPM. An LA-4 with 180 HP is said by the book to climb at 1000 FPM.
Owners have complained that a heavily loaded Buccaneer (it can carry about 1000 pounds) is sluggish during climb. Some call it a two-place airplane with baggage or a four-place airplane with reduced fuel and bags. Lake’s 180-HP models should be avoided by buyers looking to carry a lot. At gross weight, climb will be around 500 to 600 FPM and cruise will be about 105 knots, max.
The Lake’s tendency to nose down when power is added and to rise when power is reduced because the engine is mounted high above the CG is one of the many reasons that a thorough initial checkout is in order, in our opinion. Owners reported that it’s wise to practice low-altitude go arounds because of the nose-down pitch with power—one said, “Cobb the power on a bounced landing, while low and slow, and you’re going to break it—probably badly.” The high rate of accidents following bounced water landings we saw in the NTSB reports seemed to confirm this owner’s concern.
In flight, the airplane is agile by seaplane standards. The ailerons are light but the rudder is a bit heavy, and flying the Lake well requires good rudder skills in the air and on the water. Stalls occur just above 42 knots or so, indicated. Recovery is gentle and predictable.
Having a Lake is not so much about its cross-country flying abilities, which are fine for shorter flights up to 300 miles or so. It is all about getting yourself right into the countryside for whatever fun you have in mind. The airplane shines on the water, owners say, because its hull is inherently stable and strong and its CG is low. Marc Rodstein of the Lake Amphibian Flyers Club says a proficient pilot can make a step-turn takeoff, rising off the water in a circle in case of a tight fit.
On a hot day, it takes precise technique to get a heavily loaded Lake on step for takeoff, especially the older models without hull strakes, available as a mod to reinforce the hull and reduce water drag. They also add more stability in turns.
Nevertheless, the airplane does not have a deep-V hull, as does a Seabee, so it does not handle rough water well. In addition, it is a short-bodied flying boat, making it at risk for porpoising. It is a descendant of the Grumman line of flying boats and shorter than the smallest of the marque, the Widgeon, which was not at all tolerant of errors in pitch attitude on landing—many Widgeons were lost to porpoising events.
The Lake accident records are loaded with water mishaps. Catching a sponson in the water landing in a gusty crosswind can cause an upset and a lot of damage. Bad landings or rough water can end with the Lake trying to play submarine. In anything but calm air, docking is a major challenge because the mid-level wing and its sponson may not clear the deck.
On the ground, the Lake pilot needs a knack for steering with differential braking because the plane does not have a steerable nosewheel.
It’s absolutely essential—and required for insurance coverage—to get Lake-specific training. The active and, in our opinion, effective Lake Amphibian Flyers Club can provide a list of highly qualified Lake CFIs (not to mention knowledgeable Lake shops, an absolute must for any pre-buy inspection).
Lake Aircraft’s Team Lake in Gilford, New Hampshire, offers a one-day introductory ground school that opens the new Lake owner’s eyes to what the airplane can do and what to be careful about, not the least of which is the lack of a gear-warning horn and the potential for landing gear up on a runway (not so bad) or gear down on the water (extremely bad). Also note there’s no squat switch to prevent a gear collapse on the ground if you accidentally flip up the gear switch. Lake also offers a five-day ground and dual course. Be prepared to work hard.
Useful load in real life averages about 800 pounds for a 180-HP Lake without an IFR panel. It’s about 950 pounds for the 200-HP version and 1200 pounds for the Renegade.
Lakes tend to be nose heavy, a trait that is aggravated by the fact that the CG moves forward as the airplane is loaded. Marc Rodstein of the Lake club, however, says his forward CG problem goes away when passengers get in the back of his airplane, making ballast unnecessary. The point is it’s not a load-and-go airplane. Having the CG beyond limits for a gross-weight takeoff with a lot of pine trees beyond the beach is asking for trouble.
Only mods and the Renegade airframe have a back seat/cargo hatch, so expect to utter a few expletives when it’s time to get in all your fishing and camping gear through one of the two front clamshell doors.
Fuel capacities range from 30 gallons in the Skimmers and 40 gallons in the old LA-4s. The Buccaneer had a 55-gallon option and the Renegade carries 90. There’s a mod available for the older Lakes to put fuel in the sponsons, adding 14 gallons total.
There is elbow room up front, a bit less in the back. In older models, the hard seats adjust only fore and aft and the cabin is noisy. The EP model has more foam and customized features, and the Renegade has the nicest interior of all; its price reflects it.
There’s no muffler cuff ahead of the firewall to collect heat for the cabin. Through 1973, Lakes used Janitrol gasoline heaters, for which an AD required complete overhauls every two years. Lake switched to Southwind heaters in 1974, but they had only on and off switches so the choice was cook or freeze. Lake went back to improved Janitrols in 1983.
For a complex airplane that performs in a tough environment, the Lake has amazingly few ADs.
Hydraulics are used extensively on the Lake, running trim, flaps and gear all through one accumulator, pump and reservoir. All the actuator static and dynamic seals are plain “O” rings and the failure of one will incapacitate the whole system. “You may replenish the supply from your squirt bottle and position the gear, flaps and trim,” an owner told us, “but the flaps and trim will bleed to the trail positions.”
All seaplanes leak. It’s a fact of life. The hull of the Lake is broken into compartments with drains at the bottom of each—accessible when the airplane is on land. To purge the bilge water when on the water, there is an electric pump located near the step. So long as the airplane is sitting level, owners tell us that it will get rid of most of the water in about five minutes.
The problem comes if the airplane is parked, on its gear, in the water with the tail low, as in the picture at the beginning of this article. The pump will not remove the water in the aft portion of the hull and can lead to an aft CG on takeoff. From owner feedback and a review of accident records, we think this has led to at least one accident. The bilge pump should be run after the airplane is sitting level in the water with the gear up.
A big issue, of course, is corrosion. During the 1960s, the 180-HP Lakes had no zinc chromate treatment and some didn’t have alodine. Check for a faint gold tint to the aluminum on the interior structure of any pre-1970s airplane. No tint, no alodine.
The absence of green zinc chromate primer makes the airplane susceptible to corrosion, especially if it flies into saltwater, and a bad case of corrosion can render a Lake worthless. Starting in the 1970s, all Buccaneers were alodined and zinc chromated; starting in 1983, an additional polychromate primer was applied.
Corrosion isn’t the only water worry. Lakes take a beating from waves and junk in the water that can lead to dings and dents. Gravel, rocks and sand strip paint and gouge the hull. Watch for it. Also check for internal damage at bulkhead station 97, a stress point for the hull. It was beefed up beginning with 1982 models.
There have been a few complaints about the turbo 270 model. Oil dripping from the crankcase breather tube makes a mess of the tail.
A search of Service Difficulty Reports going back a decade did not yield a lot of them. About a third involved cracks in structural components; there was no distinguishable pattern among the remainder.
Owners were unanimous in telling us that having a prepurchase examination done by a shop that knows the ins and outs of Lakes is essential. One owner passed along his experience of taking his prospective purchase to a shop that had little Lake experience and that gave him a thumbs up on the airplane. He said that he bought the airplane for $80,000 and then spent $200,000 getting all of the undetected problems fixed.
Mods, Owner Group
Bruce Rivard’s Lake Aircraft is praised for good service and accessibility. The Lake Amphibian Flyers Club (www.amphibianflyers.com) in Boca Raton, Florida, with about 450 members all over the country and a Canadian affiliate, has a newsletter and holds an annual “Lakeathon” fly-in that was recommended by several owners. The organization’s Marc Rodstein came highly regarded as a good source of guidance. He can give you a list of experienced Lake CFIs as well as shops for mods, repairs and inspections. Contact him through the Lake Amphibian Flyers Club.
The website contains an impressive amount of technical data on the Lake, as well as providing a list of recommended shops that know Lakes and their systems. The club can also provide names of instructors qualified to give Lake checkouts.
Popular mods are wing fillets or “batwings” to smooth airflow into the pusher prop and improve low-speed performance. Vortex generators also make for better slow-speed handling. There’s a “hydro-booster” kit to fit strakes on the hull to stiffen it and allow for easier water liftoffs. A cargo door is a boon for getting into the back seats and the cargo area. Adding hatch holders is a good idea and turning the sponsons into auxiliary tanks is another option.
Lake Losses: Water Operations
In order to find 100 accidents of Lake LA-4 Amphibians we had to search all the way back into the 1980s. As we examined the NTSB reports we came to the conclusion that part of the reason there were relatively few was because there were only just over 1000 built, but also because the accident rate dropped radically after 2008. In fact, we found only four accidents after that year, two of which were overseas.
We credit the drop in the accident rate to type-specific training for the airplane—and to the insurers who mandated it for coverage. With 44 percent of Lake accidents related to water operations—and an additional 5 percent because of unnecessary low flying and inadvertently hitting the water—flying an LA-4 requires respect for its abilities and shortcomings on the water. That means learning to respect the water conditions that place the seaplane at risk—boat wakes, waves of more than a foot and crosswinds—and how to deal with them.
Even more than most other seaplanes, the Lake requires precise pitch control during takeoff and landing. One takeoff mishap involved a pilot determined to accelerate with a nose-low pitch attitude. The nose dug in and the airplane waterlooped, causing serious damage. There were accidents involving step taxiing in which the pilot did not control pitch assertively, the airplane began to porpoise and the pilot failed to take action to damp the oscillations, leading to a nose dive. The same thing happened on more than one landing with either the wrong pitch attitude or a high sink rate.
A number of bounced landings evolved into porpoise events with unhappy endings—one whose nose up and down oscillations got so bad that the airplane made its last impact with the water vertically nose down.
It often takes landplane pilots a period of time before they understand in their aviator souls that a seaplane does not tolerate yaw on a water touchdown. The Lake is no exception—the yaw on touchdown accidents ranged from tearing off sponsons through hull damage to flipping and killing the occupants.
Glassy water is challenging to handle in any seaplane. Until pilots experience it, few believe that it is physically impossible to determine where the surface of the water is until impact. Six LA-4s were torn up (some fatally) in glassy water conditions. One pilot took off and attempted to fly low—he stuck a wing in and cartwheeled. Another claimed he was “practicing reading the water for wind direction”—something that is not done at low altitude—when he slammed into the surface.
There was just one report of a water touchdown with the gear down—and we were relieved to see that it wasn’t fatal. Most are. There were only three runway loss of control (RLOC) accidents—superb tribute to the good manners of the airplane on land.
There were six fuel-related accidents, two of which were due to contamination from water that contained rust and pieces of metal.
Seventeen accidents were due to engine stoppage, most because of lack of, or poor, maintenance. You have to climb up on the airplane to actually work on the engine. Looking at it from below doesn’t count.
I owned a Lake Buccaneer for about six years, and now a Renegade 250 for the last three years. I have had more fun in these airplanes than anything I’ve flown in 50 years of military, business and personal flying.
Obviously, they’re not great airplanes if you’re in a hurry. The Buc is good for about 105 knots and the 250 will do 120 knots on a good day. But we’ve flown the airplane on multiple trips from North Carolina to Maine, northern Labrador, various destinations in Canada and several trips to Alaska. Low and slow has advantages.
The Renegade is considerably easier to fly, especially on the water, mainly due to an 18-inch longer waterline and a slightly different hull shape. It’s also roomier inside and carries quite a bit more gas for longer range—88 gallons—including fuel in the sponsons, wing and main tank. I’d figure 13.5 GPH rich of peak, but this can be brought down to 10 or 10.5 GPH lean of peak at a cost of less than 10 knots. So if you want to visit Lake Faraway and have enough fuel to get back, it can usually be done.
Wing tank fuel transfer is automatic by gravity, so the only fuel management needed is to pump from the sponsons to the main tank when using sponson fuel. The airplane carries 74 gallons without the sponsons, though, which is plenty for most flights. Some Bucs have added wing tanks, for extra range.
Reliability is great, but only if you maintain it proactively, but that can be said for many aircraft. There are several shops around the country that specialize in Lakes and I think it’s important to at least do the annual inspection with one of them. There are too many things that a shop new to the type would be likely to overlook. Amphibians Plus in Bartow, Florida (863-534-8025, www.amphibiansplus.com) is in my experience a premier shop and its customer service is superb.
The Lake Amphibian Club (www.lakeamphibclub.com) and associated forum are very active and informative. If there’s a question about performance, maintenance, parts or most anything else, someone’s got an answer. The website is open to anyone, but you need to join the club to have access to the forum.
Comparing the Renegade to the Buc, you’ll find the Renegade is noticeably heavier on the controls, more stable on the water, somewhat faster and handles much better at gross weight. It’s been said that the Buc is a sports car and the Renegade is a station wagon.
Any pilot new to the type should absolutely get a checkout from an experienced Lake instructor. Simply having a seaplane rating or experience in a conventional floatplane is not sufficient qualification, in my view. It’s not that the plane is difficult to fly (it’s not), but it is quite different and there are a number of characteristics to be aware of.
For example, if on takeoff the pilot decides to abort shortly before liftoff and chops the power, he is likely to find himself 10 feet off the water at a very slow speed. Then, adding power just assures a nose-first re-entry and a real bad day.
Insurance is expensive, especially for a low-time pilot. Annuals are expensive too, due to the extra items to inspect and keep in shape.
As a side note, one of the most respected and knowledgeable Lake instructors, Paul Furnee, recently passed away. Paul had over 14,000 hours in Lakes and much of it was in the right seat offering his knowledge to those smart enough to listen. He was chief engineer and test pilot at the factory as the Renegade was being developed and was an amazing fount of knowledge.
I love your magazine and wanted to offer my experience with my 1984 Lake Amphibian EP Turbo. Some claim the EP moniker was for “extra performance” but it really means extended prop. In these later versions of the 200-series Lake the prop was extended six inches aft, which I’m told reduced the cabin noise as well as allowed for a full cowling around the engine.
I cut my aviation teeth in 152s and 172s and then got my instrument ticket in an Arrow, but I was always fascinated by the Lake. When it came to purchasing my second aircraft I ended up with a Mooney, flew it for 800 hours, but continued to dream of a Lake. I ended up selling the Mooney and while I thought I would never own another airplane, Jim Campbell from the Lake Connection contacted me with information about N87RK.
Although I had a float rating already with a measly 25 hours, I only logged one hour in Lakes from 10 years ago. Most of my pilot friends thought I had lost my mind, saying you just can’t dock those things, that I’ll spend a fortune on fixing it and that the hydraulic systems are a beast.
Despite all of this friendly advice, I realized my dream and bought N87RK. I will sum it up by saying that while my Mooney was a fun plane to fly, the Lake is designed to be a plane to have fun in.
I use my Lake for a mix of business and pleasure. My home base is KWVL (Waterville, Maine) and I fly to remote clinics for the VA (KRLG) and to the home office in Bedford, Massachusetts, when needed. I also fly to local airports for pilot outreach as part of being an AME.
My wife and I have a small place on Moosehead Lake (near Greenville, Maine) and I am planning to start flying there as well. The Lake flies every bit as well as my Mooney did, except it’s 40 knots slower. She is great in IFR and mixes in well both at controlled airports in Boston and remote lakes up north.
I have put just under 140 hours on it since last year. I completed six hours of dual instruction and was able to get a land-only policy from the insurance company (Falcon) and then spent another 19 hours with my Lake instructor going through the official Lake training course. I also spent 15 hours of flying with Professional Instrument Courses doing an IFR refresher in the plane.
Dual instruction from a qualified Lake instructor is a must. There are some quirks. The engine mounted way up top makes the nose respond the opposite of what one would think during power changes.
A thorough prebuy evaluation is also a must, especially if you are looking at a bird that has been in salt-water. I was fortunate to have found a plane that had not only not seen saltwater but also had been cared for. During my first year I had an oil leak between the prop and the crankcase and a hydraulic failure that necessitated putting in a newly fabricated hydraulic accumulator, rebuilding the hydraulic pump and removing and cleaning the hydraulic reservoir. I also had a hydraulic leak at the nosegear and a bent butterfly valve in the turbo.
My annual inspection was $1500 this first year but I had quite a bit of things to do as some of the previous annuals had been suboptimal. I spent another $3000 in parts, but this will likely be a one-time expense.
The avionics in most Lakes are a mixed bag. You can find some that are original with little to no upgrades and others that are all glass. When I bought mine it was a decent IFR panel with steam gauges and a Brittain autopilot. I removed most of the stuff and put in a two-screen Aspen, GNS430W, Lynx ADS-B, Electroair electronic ignition, plus vortex generators.
Insurance was $3500 for the first year, but came down to $2500 when I hit the 100-hour mark. Recurrent training with a Lake instructor is required yearly. There is no open pilot clause on the insurance so everyone must be named and qualified.
With the electronic ignition I can routinely fly at about 10 to 11 GPH (down from 13 GPH before the mod) and with the full 54 gallons (40 in the main and 7 in each sponson) flight plan for four hours with a reserve. The sponson tanks are great for tanking fuel in but just remember that you can’t land in the water with fuel in them. I flight plan for 105 to 110 knots and this seems to work out well. The turbo its more for getting off a lake when the density altitude is high. Moosehead lake is at around 1100 feet and in the summer the density altitude can approach 3000 feet or so.
My instructor explained to me that a Lake without power flies like a pregnant brick and he’s right. If you lose an engine you are landing soon.
Getting on the step on a hot day in a fully loaded Lake can be a chore and the turbo helps, as it does for boosting climb rates and flying higher to take advantage of winds. There is a price to pay since the turbo weighs 28 pounds. Since the wastegate is manual, this 28 pounds gets to ride with you whether you use the turbo or not, plus you can’t be ham-handed with the throttle or you’ll damage the engine.
The first thing I did when I got the airplane was remove the two rear seats. The 200 series is a great two-seater with some gear and full fuel in the main tank or a four-placer with limited fuel. I think that it would be very difficult to get a 200-series Lake off the water loaded with four people in the heat of a summer day. Pay attention to the weight and balance —loading can bite you in this airplane. When flying alone I always have at least 10 pounds of lead in the nose.
The Lake brought the fun back to flying for me. Where I saw 10 runways in the Mooney, I see 100 in the Lake. The other day my son and I flew to Moosehead, landed on the north side of Kineo, tied up on Pebble Beach, laced up our hiking boots and climbed the Indian Trail. In a few hours we were back in our hangar. That’s what Lake ownership is all about.
Ronnie C. Marrache