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ShinMaywa’s US-1A, cleansed of the corrosive sea after every mission, continues an ancestral line of flying boats. (Tim Wright)

Giant Amphibian

Japan has one godzilla of a seaplane

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ShinMaywa managers believe the improvements will help the new amphibian compete for world sales, and they hope to market it not only as a search-and-rescue craft but also as an air tanker for fighting forest fires or a patrol aircraft for maritime research. “We think the Kai is the only aircraft capable of open ocean landing,” says ShinMaywa engineer Katsuhito Akashi. “There are other amphibious aircraft available, but none of them are capable of landing in those conditions.” Akashi points out that to investigate an ocean oil spill, a ship might need as much as a week to travel to the spill site and back. The Kai could make that round trip in a single day.

The Kai’s only competitors for such markets are amphibians produced by the Russian company Beriev, known for a long series of marine aircraft dating back to the 1930s (see “When Ships Have Wings,” Dec. 1995/Jan. 1996). Beriev, located in Taganrog near the border of Russia and Ukraine, received certification last year for its twin jet Be-200 and earlier this year for the smaller piston-engine Be-103. The company has built ten Be-103s, six of them for Russia’s forestry service.

The big Beriev, powered by two MotorSich D-436TP turbofan engines, each producing 1,650 pounds of thrust, can cruise at over 400 mph, but it is more expensive to operate than the Kai and can land only in seas with waves no higher than four feet. With the latter limitation, the Beriev is useful for lake and river landings but is not as capable as the Kai for ocean search and rescue. Beriev is marketing a transport version of the Be-200, which could seat as many as 70 passengers, and hopes to begin building as many as seven Be-200s each year.

If the Kai is to compete head to head with the Beriev, ShinMaywa will need export approval from the Japanese government. The Japanese constitution, written largely at the direction of the United States and its allies after World War II, prohibits any Japanese product capable of offensive military action from being sold to another country. Since the US-1 and US-1A began their lives as anti-submarine aircraft, ShinMaywa cannot sell them overseas.

The main differences between the Kai and the US-1A are the Kai’s fly-bywire controls and its pressurized hull, but these are significant enough, ShinMaywa managers hope, to earn a new designation that will enable the company to pursue overseas sales.

The Kai’s first stop, however, will be Japan Maritime Self Defense Force Base Iwakuni, on the southern tip of the big island, Honshu. The former headquarters of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto and a former fighter base for the Japanese Imperial Navy, Iwakuni now hosts U.S. Marines flying F/A-18s. It is also home to Air Rescue Squadron 71, and when the first Kais complete flight testing, they will be based at Iwakuni with the seven US-1As that are still in service. It was a Squadron 71 crew that rescued Captain John Dolan in 1992.

Captain Dolan is now Major Dolan, an F-16 flight instructor in the Air Force Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Of his 1992 rescue, he says: “From ejection to rescue was a whole series of miracles.” No other aircraft in the world inventory could have gotten to him in time in the sea conditions he was experiencing. “Six hundred and eighty nautical miles from shore,” he remembers, “nine- to 12-foot seas, 25-knot surface winds, and I am here to tell the story!”

Flying boats and amphibians have all but disappeared, but, as Dolan will tell you, there’s at least one good reason to keep the old—and new—hull landers around.

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