GAINESVILLE — Troy Wheeler dipped the wings of his bright yellow Piper Cub seaplane toward Lake Lanier as he circled back toward Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville.
Landing at the airport was his only nearby option as Wheeler’s craft, which can land on water or land, isn’t allowed to land on the 38,000-acre lake — at least for now.
Wheeler’s group, the Lanier Seaplane Pilots Association, has petitioned the Army Corps of Engineers to allow seaplanes — also known as float planes — on Lanier’s waters.
The pilots “want to be able to use the lake for recreational use, just like everybody else does,” Wheeler said. “We’re all licensed, insured, responsible people, not 17-year-olds with a Jet Ski and a six-pack.”
They have set up a website, floatplaneslanier.org, that lays out their case for the activity.
“Many of us have homes on Lake Lanier, we have close friends and family that live on Lake Lanier and we want to ensure that Lake Lanier is enjoyed by everyone and that all pilots operate responsibly on this great resource,” the website states.
“Unlike a group of 50 bass fishermen racing off to their favorite fishing hole before sunrise from Little Hall Park, there are hardly that many seaplanes in all of Georgia and seaplane operations would be more of a rarity than commonplace.”
Seaplane pilots can land at many lakes in the Southeast, including Allatoona in northwest Georgia, which is operated by the corps.
Some seaplanes can land only on the water. But the ones operated by Lanier Seaplane Pilots Association members can land on water and land. And once they’re on water, can pull up to a dock or travel up boat ramps and park — especially convenient when there’s a restaurant or other amenities nearby.
“We have customers all over the lake, and myself, who would love to have nothing more than to have a seaplane parked at our dock,” said Wheeler, who is also president of Lanier Flight Center at the airport.
The pilots group started the formal process last year with the corps, flying to district offices in Mobile, Ala.
Officials told the group to work on several things, including getting support.
“That’s when we held town hall meetings here at the airport,” said Wheeler, the national Seaplane Pilots Association’s Georgia field director. “We had a good turnout.”
Wheeler said he’s gotten a negative vibe from some people about their chances of getting a corps permit, but the progress so far with the agency “has been somewhat encouraging but [there are some] steps.”
The corps is requiring the group to conduct an environmental assessment if it wants to continue pursuing the permit.
“This would require them to look at several alternatives — locations throughout the lake that could meet their needs but generally lack civil infrastructure, such as bridges and transmission lines,” said Pat Robbins, spokesman at the corps’ Mobile office.
Then, the assessment would need to look at various impacts, such as economic benefits associated with the proposal and any issues with threatened or endangered species.
“Once they complete that, we would publish a public notice and allow 45 days for the public to review the proposal,” Robbins said. “Any issues raised in the public review would need to be addressed, and when all is completed, they would present the package for a decision by the commander.”
Wheeler said the group likely will need to hire somebody who can help them with the assessment.
The pilots, learning the corps would bill them for its work in the review, were able to raise $5,000 in 24 hours, he said.
The big concerns are boat traffic and effects on neighbors — and there’s plenty of both around Lanier. The lake attracts more than 7 million visitors annually.
Using Allatoona’s restrictions, seaplanes would need to land and take off at least 500 feet from the shore, so smaller coves and very narrow channels would be off limits.
“There’s plenty of open water out there that would be suitable [for landing],” Wheeler said. “And once you’re on the water, you become a boat. Then, you follow all the boat rules.”
And the group has agreed that, between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Lanier’s busiest season, seaplanes wouldn’t land on weekends and federal holidays.
“We’re OK with that — you wouldn’t want to go out then, anyway,” Wheeler said.
Joanna Cloud, executive director for the Gainesville-based Lake Lanier Association, said her group isn’t opposed to seaplane landings “assuming similar control measures are implemented ... as are already in place at Allatoona Lake.”
Tony Herdener, chief financial office at Northeast Georgia Health System, is a Lanier Flight Center student and pilot whose dream is to fly a seaplane.
He said he believes allowing seaplanes on Lanier could draw pilots from throughout the Southeast.
“It would be a huge attraction, [a boost] to the economy, and it’s fun,” Herdener said.