How Ukraine Kept Its Giant, Aging Seaplanes Flying
An interesting tale.
The Soviet Union designed the Beriev Be-12 seaplane in the late 1950s to hunt NATO submarines. But improving enemy air defenses doomed the slow, ungainly amphibian in that role, so it switched to patrol and search-and-rescue mission.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Ukraine inherited a handful of the 32-ton seaplanes. But Kiev could never afford to maintain the increasingly geriatric patrollers—especially considering what saltwater does to metal.
But it was the Russian invasion of Crimea in the spring of 2014 that really did in the Ukrainian seaplane force. And it was Russian largess—for lack of a better term—that helped Kiev coax one Beriev back into the air.
In 2012, Ukrainian naval aviation possessed seven Be-12s at the Saky air base in Crimea, from where at least some of the twin-engine, gull-wing seaplanes patrolled the Black Sea. It’s not clear how many of the seven planes could actually fly.
One Be-12 with the fuselage number 02, painted in yellow, participated in the annual Sea Breeze war game with NATO in July 2012.
As Russian troops swept into Crimea in late February 2014, Ukrainian crews raced to get as many of their planes as possible airborne and out of the way.
“The naval aviation brigade managed to evacuate a number of its assets to safety in early March before they could be seized, including a Kamov Ka-29 and three Mi-14 helicopters, two Antonov An-26 transports and one Beriev Be-12 amphibian,” Jane’s reported.
Kiev opened a new base for the maritime planes at Mykolayiv on the mainland.
In one fell swoop, the Russians apparently reduced Ukraine’s seaplane force to a single plane.
The invasion had a similar effect on Ukraine’s overall air power. In early 2014, before Russian forces invaded, Kiev possessed 400 military aircraft, according to Flight’s annual survey of world warplanes for 2015.
A year later, that number plummeted to just 222.
And as the war expanded to Ukraine’s east, Kiev’s pilots found themselves conducting air attacks against pro-Russian separatists armed with high-tech surface-to-air missiles—one of which destroyed a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in July 2014, killing 298 people.
The rebels also took a toll on Ukraine’s air force, army aviation and naval air arm. After nearly a year of battle, Aviation International News tallied Kiev’s combat losses—at least twenty-two aircraft, and possibly many more. Twenty-one fell to surface-to-air missiles.
But in a curious display of conviviality—especially in light of Moscow’s overt support for Ukrainian separatists fighting on the mainland—the Russians actually returned many of the planes they had captured in Crimea … including venerable Be-12 Yellow 02.
On April 14, Russian troops on the peninsula allowed a Ukrainian crew to fly Yellow 02 back to Mykolayiv. “Despite the not superb state, the crew deemed the condition of the aircraft good enough for flight,” the blog Airheadsfly reported.
Kiev was working hard to get mothballed warplanes back in fighting condition. Mechanics appear to have paid some attention to Yellow 02, as well. When NATO ships returned to the Black Sea for Sea Breeze 2014 in September, Yellow 02 was there.
A U.S. Navy photographer spotted the aged Beriev soaring over the assembled warships. The two Be-12s remained in service as of 2019.
David Axe is defense editor at The National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels War Fix, War Is Boring and Machete Squad.
Image: U.S. Military