A lot of things has been coming out of Russia lately, and one of them is a brand
new twin engine amphib. The Beriev Be-103 recently received its U.S. certification
and made its debut on the America market. The distributor is in New Jersey, and
I just got back from there after spending two days flying the airplane to write
a review in Water Flying magazine. That article won't come out right away, but
here is a little bit of an advanced preview for the local crowd. I figure when
it comes to seaplane news you should hear it first in Alaska.
The airplane is entirely new, the first production model came out of the factory
in Komsomolsk-on-Amur, Russia, in July 2003. While the design is new, Beriev
has been making seaplanes since the 1930's. Most of their designs have been monohull
amphibs, and more recently they have been involved with making large swept wing
jet powered amphibs, some of which are comparable to Boeing 737 in gross weight
and engine thrust. They have certainly shown some ability and creativity when it
comes to making seaplanes, and this heritage is reflected in the Be-103. It is a
5000 pound, six place airplane powered by two IO-360's and its basic design is
unlike anything I have ever seen; It's a mid-wing monohull that floats on the inboard
wing roots when not on the step. I am told that this design reduces the amount of
power required to get on the step, and makes maximum use of ground effect on the takeoff.
There are no flaps, and it has fixed leading edge slats whose function is to increase
effectiveness of the ailerons.
In flight it is a good feeling airplane with a roomy cockpit and a fighter-style stick.
One of its real strengths is its single engine performance, which is good by piston twin
standards and excellent by twin amphib standards. With one engine shut down at max gross,
it is capable of a modest climb, and there is not a lot of yaw due to the inboard location
of the engines. Unlike most twin seaplanes, it is a true multi-engine airplane, capable of
holding altitude on one.
Of course the natural question that comes to mind is what it is like on the water, and
the answer is like nothing I have ever flown. It gets in the step without any pitch changes;
there is no need to pitch up in the plow and then pitch over to the step. With neutral
elevator, add power and with all the wing area in the water, it begins planing at a low
speed. In a flat pitch attitude, it just levitates onto the step. Unlike a floatplane,
there is no distinct transition to the step. As it accelerates, the wing comes up out
of the water and planing is shifted to the hull. As this happens, drag diminishes and
when the airplane reaches its advertised stall speed, it lifts off by itself. On the
step, there is no real sweet spot, and the airplane is fairly indifferent to stick
position. Moving it forward or aft does not really seem to impede acceleration, or have
much effect at all. Moving the stick side to side has little influence since about five
feet of the wing on either side is skimming across the top of the water. Despite my best
efforts, I could not get the airplane to exhibit any porpoising behaviour. As for takeoff
performance, it is certainly not a STOL airplane, but neither does it have long or laborious
While it is fairly indifferent to technique on takeoff, it is a little more sensitive to
technique on landing. It likes to be flown onto the water in the step attitude. With nose
any higher than that, it touches down on the aft end and slaps forward onto the water.
Too nose low on touchdown and you feel the bow drag.
The next obvious question is how does it do in rough water. Looking at the low wing,
you wouldn't guess that it could do very well, but that turns out to not be the case.
I had a chance to fly it on a windy day in waves that well exceeded the 0.5 meter (19 inch)
seas that had been demonstrated in certification, and found it to handle them at least
as well as a comparable sized floatplane. In some ways it handled them better, since
it slides across the water on a broad platform with no pitching or heaving tendencies,
not even when slamming into the occasional extra large wave. Also, I was able to test
the extent of its roll stability on the water by failing in on the step behind a large
power boat and riding parallel on top of his wake. Doing this would have been hazardous
in a floatplane and precarious in a conventional monohull, but with five feet of wing
riding in the water on either side to provide stability, it was a non-event in the Beriev,
which continued steady with no rocking of the wings at all. In typical Russian fashion,
the airplane solidly built, the hull has closely spaced ribs with interlacing support
that form a rigid structure capable of withstanding much abuse.
On the water, one of this airplane strongest points is the German-made MT propellers.
Their location above and behind the broad wing practically eliminates spray exposure,
and any spray they do encounter is not likely to do much damage since the props are
composite with a nickel leading edge. The props also have a reverse range, which had
not yet been activated when I flew it. That is a powerful tool that allows good taxi
maneuverability into very tight places, even when the wind is blowing. This is particularly
important in this airplane because docking involves maneuvering it onto a corner of a dock.
Probably the airplane's biggest weakness is a low useful load, but to keep that in
perspective, even workhorses like the Beaver or C-206 have low useful loads when you
put them in amphibious floats. In the case of the Beriev, there are a lot of extraneous
features that could be eliminated if favor of reducing the empty weight. For example,
standard equipment includes a backup altimeter, a backup horizon gyro, a flight data
recorder that registers 30 parameters, an airframe icing indicator, engine overheat
detection, and powered hydraulic brakes to name a few items that seem extravagant on
a 5000 pound airplane. This is Beriev's first entry into the arena of general aviation,
and it shows that they are still in the mindset of large military and commercial airplanes.
Currently the marketing people are discussing how they can modify the design to make the
airplane better meet the needs of the U.S. market, starting out with increasing the useful load.
And the big question is if it would make a good Alaska airplane, and the answer depends
on how you would it. While it has roughly the same gross weight and horsepower as a Beaver,
the Beriev can't do nearly what a Beaver can when it comes to carrying heavy loads out
of short lakes. On the other hand, it can do things that a Beaver can't, such as get
to the other side of Shelikof Strait after having an engine failure. And after that,
it could go on to do a single engine ILS into Kodiak. If what you are looking for is
amphibious, multi-engine versatility for carrying modest loads, this appears to be a
good flying, well designed, solid airplane.
Information is available on the website http://www.beriev-usa.com. Also the airplane
will be featured in the AOPA magazine's October issue, and I'll have a comprehensive
review in an upcoming issue of Water Flying.
© Reprinted with permission of the author, Burke Mees.