Wednesday 9 December 2020

Caspian Amphibians - Azerbaijan’s Elusive Fleet Of Beriev Amphibious Aircraft

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
The Caspian Sea is well known for being the world's largest inland body of water, its vast oil and gas reserves and, of course, the Caspian Sea Monster... Wait the Caspian what!? The Caspian Sea Monster! A ground-effect vehicle (known as ekranoplan in Russia) that puzzled Western intelligence agencies until even the Russians themselves came to the conclusion that while inherently cool, it in no way presented a feasible project for any military or civilian adaption.

Completely overshadowed by their ekranoplan brethrens are the Beriev series of amphibious aircraft operating over (and on!) the Caspian Sea, which, although arguably less glamorous, served their operators in a much more useful fashion. Nowadays the only country to operate amphibious aircraft on the Caspian Sea is Azerbaijan, which operates a single Be-200 for fire fighting, search and rescue duties and passenger transportation.
Still, Azerbaijan's history of operating amphibious aircraft goes back right to the early 1990s, when it inherited three Soviet Be-12 aircraft that had originally been designed for anti-submarine and maritime patrol duties, but saw use in the search and rescue role over the volatile Caspian Sea. These appear to have continued operations for several more years until they were eventually decommissioned in the late 1990s or early 2000s and stored at Baku Gala Air Base airbase until a decision was made to scrap them in 2018, when all three aircraft were finally dismantled.
In Azerbaijani service, neither the Be-12s nor the Be-200 were ever under the command of the navy. It might thus come as surprise that Azerbaijan was actually one of the first countries in the world to have its own naval aviation and specialised military maritime aviation school, founded in 1919. [1] Unfortunately, this was not to last for the newly fledged republic, as Azerbaijan was invaded and taken over by the Soviet Russia in 1920, in the course of which as many as 20.000 Azerbaijani soldiers lost their lives fighting for their independence. [2]

In 1991, Azerbaijan re-established its status as an independent state, and backed by significant offshore reserves of oil and gas, the country experienced rapid growth and modernisation. With this growth came new responsibilities, and in 2005 Azerbaijan established the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Azerbaijan Republic (Azərbaycan Respublikası Fövqəladə Hallar Nazirliyi) modelled after its Russian counterpart (the MChS) to deal with disasters like forest fires, landslides and earthquakes.
The establishment of the Fövqəladə Hallar Nazirliyi (FHN) was soon followed by its own aerial assets, comprising a single Be-200ES/Be-200ChS (FHN-10201, formerly RF-32768) that first flew in June 2007 with the MChS before being taken over by Azerbaijan less than a year later, and later also several Ka-32A1 and Mi-17 helicopters. [3] Azerbaijan is the first and so far only international customer of the Be-200.
Like Russia, Azerbaijan mainly operates the Be-200 in the fire fighting role, but has occasionally also employed the aircraft for other tasks. In April 2014, the Be-200 saw its longest mission yet when it was used to transport humanitarian aid to Nepal after a devastating earthquake hit the country. [4] But unlike Russia, Azerbaijan doesn't lease the aircraft to fire fighting services around the globe. In Russian service, these aircraft have been deployed to Italy, Greece, Serbia, Portugal, Indonesia, Israel and Turkey, making a handsome profit in the process with their drop capability of some 12,000 litres of water.

Although it's easy to mistake the Be-200 for a flying boat, the dual capabilities of the aircraft warrant the designation of 'amphibious aircraft' or 'amphibian'. As a rule, seaplanes are generally divided into three categories: floatplanes; small aircraft with floats mounted under the fuselage, which are the only part of the aircraft in contact with the water, flying boats; which sit with their fuselage in the water and are generally larger, and amphibious aircraft, which in addition to seaborne operations can also take off and land on regular airfields and are frequently land-based.

A Be-200 taxis up a ramp onto the shore after a successful water landing. This ramp recovery method doesn't appear to be in use with Azerbaijan, which instead operates its Be-200 from the grounds of Heydar Aliyev International Airport (named for the former president who passed away in 2003) in Baku.
Much less is known about the Be-12's career in Azerbaijani service. What is known is that all three aircraft were inherited from the 300th Independent Mixed Aviation Squadron that was directly subordinate to the High Command of the Southern Direction. Active from 1984 until its disbandment and subsequent adoptation by Azerbaijan in 1992, 300 Squadron operated an exotic mix of aircraft and helicopters, including An-2s, Tu-134s, Il-22s, Be-12s, Mi-2s, Mi-6s, Mi-8s and Ka-27s. [5]
When the Be-12s were first photographed in the year 2000, the two aircraft that remained operational (or in an intact condition at least) had had their Soviet roundels and serials painted over, but otherwise had no Azeri markings applied, which likely indicates that neither aircraft saw much use under their new ownership. Of course, it is entirely possible that the crew of these aircraft were ethnic Russians who returned to their native country after the fall of the USSR, impeding Azerbaijani operations with these aircraft.
One of the Be-12s with tail number '30' appears to have suffered some kind of accident, with its rear fuselage twisted and torn and half of its vertical stabilizer and a part of the wing missing. It's unknown whether this incident occurred while the aircraft was still in Soviet service or when it was already taken over by independent Azerbaijan, but the Azeri flag painted over the Soviet red star seems to imply the latter is the case. It is thus interesting to note that the only Be-12 to have received the Azeri roundel was also the very aircraft that has now become inoperable.

The Ka-27s also operated by the 300th Independent Mixed Aviation Squadron were of the Ka-27PS variant, which are dedicated to the search and rescue role with a winch fitted in place of anti-submarine warfare equipment. After languishing for years on Baku Gala Air Base, they were sent to Russia for a major overhaul and reconfigured to Ka-32S search and rescue helicopters. [6] They were then operated in support of the Azerbaijani navy and coast guard by 4-cu Eskadrilya from Baku Gala Airbase, although their current operational status is uncertain.

The FHN also operates several Ka-32(A1)s primarily for firefighting duties based out of Sangachaly AB South of Baku. In December 2010, one Ka-32 along with a Mi-17 were used to fight the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire near Haifa, Israel. After Israel requested international assistance to help fight the fire, several nations including Palestine, Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan deployed their own fire fighting assets, aiding in its eradication after three days. [7]

While the Be-200 might not be a match for the imposing appearance of the 'Caspian Sea Monster', it more than makes up for this by its unique capabilities. Whether its usefulness will outlast the folkore of the Caspian Sea Monster remains to be seen, but with a healthy backlog of orders and now even a nascent career with the Russian Naval Aviation, the Be-200 might just be at the start of a promising service life, whether in Azerbaijan, Russia or elsewhere.

[1] Ministry of Defence of the Republic of Azerbaijan - Navy forces
[2] Pope, Hugh (2006). Sons of the conquerors: the rise of the Turkic world. New York: The Overlook
[7] Prezident İlham Əliyevin tapşırığı ilə Fövqəladə Hallar Nazirliyi İsraildə meşə yanğınları ilə əlaqədar bu ölkəyə iki helikopter göndərmişdir
Images 2, 8, 9 and 10 by Torfaen Corvine