Highlights of the 2006 Gidroaviasalon Airshow

It was quite an exercise for me to get to Gidroaviasalon ("hydro-aviation exhibition") held at the Beriev test center near Gelendzhik on the Russian Black Sea, a week after the Czech International Air Festival.   This pair of Kamov Ka-27 "Helix-A" helicopters opened the show on Tuesday.   The Russian-designed Ka-27 might look strange to western eyes, but this is a very successful naval helicopter in service with many foreign countries.   The Kamov design bureau specializes in helicopters with contra-rotating rotors, the show advertising said they'd also be displaying the Ka-32, successor to the Ka-27, and a Ka-52 Alligator gunship, but they didn't show up.   However if you need a fix of these cool aircraft then you can take a look at several models of Kamov helicopter I photographed at the 2005 MAKS airshow in Moscow.

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The Ka-27s only flew on the first day of the six-day exhibition, but a Mil Mi-8 "Hip" dropped parachutists at the start of the show on several days.

The Mi-8 is one of the most successful helicopters in the world, roughly equivalent to the American UH-1 Iroquois, better known as the "Huey".   The Mi-8 is much larger than the UH-1, but is just as versatile and has seen just about as much action around the world, having been exported to more than 50 different countries.

As with the Kamovs, so too Mil was supposed to have several other helicopters at the show, including the amphibious Mi-14 "Haze" which was derived from the Mi-8, and the huge Mi-6 "Hook" which was on the schedule to do a fire-fighting display.   They didn't come, but you can see an Mi-14 at the Nellis AFB Threat Training Facility, and a couple of Mi-6s, including one in fire-fighting configuration at the Russian air force museum at Monino, near Moscow, and another Mi-6 at the Vietnamese Air Force museum in Hanoi.

Here's a different Mi-8, this time serving with the Russian Border Guard and armed with a pair of rocket launchers.   This particular helicopter wasn't part of the show, but flew out of the small airport directly behind the Beriev facility where Gidroaviasalon is held.   The country of Georgia, which isn't on very good terms with Russia, is only about 200 kilometers from here, and several disputed former Soviet republics, including Chechnya, aren't too much further away.

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However I didn't come all this way just for a few helicopters!   I came because the Beriev design bureau has been designing flying boats since before world war two, and they're the only company which has built jet powered sea planes like the Be-200 at the top of this photo and the A-42 "Albatross" below it.

We were lucky to see the A-42 flying, since it had engine trouble which kept it on the ramp for the first few days of the show, and only doing taxying runs on the water for one day.   Still, that was better than the propeller-driven Be-12 "Mail" sea plane which was advertised, which was yet another no-show.

Those two large turbofan engines provide a huge amount of power, you can get a real sense of that during its takeoff runs.

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Although the A-42 is capable of doing fire-fighting, and there's also ample room inside for passengers and cargo, the refuelling probe on its nose betrays its main purpose as a military maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft.   However it has yet to find any buyers, so only a few test aircraft exist.

Here it is coming in for a landing, with its rudder already in the water.   Like many of the Russian Black Sea towns, Gelendzhik is a resort, which explains the Ferris wheel in the background, as well as the other amusement park trappings and holidaymakers you'll see in the background of these photos.

A cormorant makes good its escape as the Albatross nears the ramp.    The engines are mounted high and behind the wings to prevent water entering them and causing corrosion; however the landing gear is extended soon after the plane lands, perhaps to decrease the chances that the pilot will forget to put them down and run aground.

The Be-200 is a more recent design than the A-42, and is intended to give Beriev a foothold in the civil market.   As well as acting as a water bomber for firefighting, it's also being marketed for cargo transport and as a passenger aircraft, especially for maritime countries or other markets which lack regular airports and other infrastructure, but have suitable aquatic landing areas.

Unfortunately it's been a hard road for the company to find buyers in spite of the obvious advantages of an amphibian over competing land-based aircraft, perhaps because of unfamiliarity and inherent drawbacks such as greater fuel consumption due to those drag inducing floats and a hull designed more for hydrodynamics than for aerodynamics.

At $US25 million an aircraft, the Be-200 costs the same amount as its main competitor, the turbo-prop powered Bombardier CL-415, based on the piston-engined CL-215 which you can see doing a water drop in 2005.   Both the Beriev and the Bombardier have an advantage over land-based water bombers by being able to refill on any convenient lake while still moving, but the Be-200 can carry twice as much water as the CL-415, and its higher speed potentially makes it capable of dropping water more often.

Beriev has sold several Be-200s to the Russian Interior Ministry (one of which also displayed during the show) and there have been leasing arrangements for firefighting in Italy during 2005 and Portugal during 2006.   While in Portugal the Be-200 you see here hit a tree on takeoff while fully loaded with fuel and water.   Branches from the tree entered one engine and knocked it out, but the plane was still able to climb out on its remaining engine and later make a safe landing.   It's not the sort of advertising Beriev was looking for, but apparently an Italian water bomber pilot who saw the incident said that no other aircraft would have survived such an accident.

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During Gidroaviasalon 2006 this Be-200 set two new world records for fastest speed around a 500km circuit and around a 1000km circuit including takeoff and landing on water, and six other world records for amphibians taking off and landing on conventional runways.

The small plane in front of the Be-200 is another Beriev creation, the Be-103.   Like its bigger brother, the Be-103 is an attempt to capture part of the civil market while sticking to Beriev's seaplane knitting.   The 103 has had some successes too, it officially received its American FAA certification at the 2003 Oshkosh Airventure show, and a small number of them have been sold into that market.

Beriev pitches the Be-103, which in English is called the "Snipe", as a six-seat private or commercial transport, or as an air ambulance.   Three Snipes were in constant action during the show, doing paid rides for visitors at about $US60 a time.  I did one of these flights myself, going round the very attractive, nearly circular bay where Gelendzhik is located, and even taking over the controls for a while.

This exhibitor didn't have such a successful time.   The aircraft is an LA-8, not manufactured by the now defunct Lavochkin design bureau of world war two fighter fame, but by a small company called AeroVolga.   They had a terrible show, ending up with the left float submerged on this outing, and wallowing around in the shallows on another day, perhaps with engine trouble.   They did eventually get airborne, but it wasn't a great confidence booster for anyone thinking of buying one.

This strange looking beast was built by another private company and was certainly the most unusual thing on display.   The "Aquaglide 5" is a five-seat "wing in ground-effect" vehicle powered by a gasoline engine.   Part boat, part hovercraft, when travelling at speed this craft generates enough lift from its stub wings to fly 15 to 30 centimeters above the water.   The first such "ekranoplan" was an unbelievably large craft, over 100 meters long and weighing 540 tonnes, but it could travel over water or flat land at over 400 km/h powered by ten jet engines, eight mounted near the nose which could be tilted to blow air under the wing, and two more on the tail.   Dubbed the Caspian Sea Monster by American intelligence personnel, it never entered service, but the dream continued for the engineers working on it, in this very scaled down form.

Many aircraft were missing from the display, apparently this is typical, so the Tu-142 "Bear" and IL-38 "May" I was hoping to see didn't turn up, however two very welcome participants which did display were the Russian air force jet teams, the "Russian Knights" flying Su-27 "Flanker" fighters and the "Swifts" flying MiG-29 "Fulcrum" fighters.   They do a number of things which you won't see from foreign jet teams like the US air force "Thunderbirds" and the US navy "Blue Angels", such as simply flying together!

Both the Su-27 and the MiG-29 were developed in response to the American F-15 Eagle, but the Russian aircraft are very different from each other, even though they share the twin-tail, twin-engine layout and a roughly similar wing plan.   The MiG is a much smaller aircraft than the Sukhoi, making it more suitable for short-range point defense while the latter is better at long-range strike and interception.

The Sukhoi is a very attractive aircraft, it looks something like a greyhound, with curves that make it much more aesthetically pleasing than the square and chunky Eagle.

The Beriev facility is on the north-west side of the bay, and since the flying happens in the morning or very early afternoon this means that most of the displays are backlit.   However, when shooting to the east it's possible to get some nicely lit photos with the added bonus of the hills behind the town.

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The Knights do most of the standard airshow maneuvers, including opposing passes...

...formation aerobatics...

...and formation breaks...

But they also do stuff that other teams don't do, and that American airshow fans can only dream of, like formation passes with flares...

...and spectacular solo flare routines!

The formation flying of the Russian Knights and the Swifts is nowhere near as tight as most national teams, but they're both well worth watching.   The Swifts are noticeably more vapor prone than the Russian Knights, and the engines are much smokier too!

Plenty of solo passes with afterburner to add some zing...

Plus a speciality which you won't see anywhere else, vertical flight up to a stall followed by rapid firing of the flares and a tail-slide, a maneuver which isn't done by any other team.

A few more flares to round out a frustrating but interesting show!