In the first of our “Meet the Innovator” Q&As, we meet two of the innovators – Chris Olson and Alexander Yavkin – behind the unique collaboration between the 80-year-old Russian aircraft company Beriev and the USA Firefighting Air Corps.

The Be-200 water-scooping jet can be used for search-and-rescue, environmental monitoring, medical evacuation, and firefighter and cargo transportation operations. Photo: Beriev

In our Report, "The Future of Russia's Innovation Economy,” we outlined some of the strategies and approaches for making Russia’s innovation potential a reality. Based on positive feedback we’ve received about this Report, as well as the continuing efforts by both the Russian and U.S. business community to launch new ventures that tap into Russia’s innovation talent, we’re launching a new series of articles called “Meet the Innovator.”

In each of these brief Q&As, we’ll present the background story of how the idea for U.S.-Russia collaboration came about; why the collaboration can be productive for both Russia and the U.S.; and a list of brief takeaway lessons on what other organizations and companies in the U.S. and Russia can learn from the successful collaborative effort.

The purpose of the collaboration between the USA Firefighting Air Corps and the Russian aircraft company Beriev is to help fight wildfires by bringing to America the Beriev Be-200 amphibious water-scooping firefighting jet.

The development and testing of the Beriev Be-200 represents an important Russian achievement in innovation, but has until now, been largely unrecognized in the United States. As demonstrated in missions flown in Russia and in many countries around the world, the Beriev Be-200 can help to contain wildfires sooner, limit firefighter exposure, increase public safety, and reduce overall firefighting costs.

Heading up the Russian side of the collaboration is Alexander Yavkin, Chief Designer of the Be-200, while American involvement in the project has been spearheaded by Chris Olson, co-founder of the USAFAC. In the Q&A below, they describe why the collaboration is a win-win for both the U.S. and Russia.

Be-200 flying low and dousing a home enveloped in flames.

Russia Direct: Tell us a little about how you found out about the Beriev Be-200 and what inspired you to bring it to Colorado.

Chris Olson: In our research for the state bill that launched the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps, we found that the Be-200 is the only large airtanker in the world that is brand-new, purpose-built, and ready to put out wildfires – now.

Russia Direct: What’s the role played by the Russian team in bringing the Beriev-200 to the U.S. market?

Alexander Yavkin: The Russian team under my leadership will be responsible mainly for design and production support of a Be-200 version for the U.S. The Be-200ES-E type design, certified earlier by IAC-AR in Russia and EASA in the EU, will be modified by a joint team of specialists with some installation of U.S.-produced avionics and systems, and Western-type engines for sharing of work between partners, and speeding up FAA certification.

Russia Direct: What’s next? Are you thinking of expanding this to other firefighting ventures across the U.S.?

C.O.: Yes. Be-200 aircraft manufactured in Colorado would fight wildfires in Colorado and all other states as well. Priority at-risk states are California, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Montana. These states and several others are represented by the Western Governors' Association.

Russia Direct: How does the current political climate affect what's possible and what's not possible in terms of bilateral business relationships between the U.S. and Russia?

C.O.: Like many other current successful and promising US-Russia collaborations, our project can stand on its own merits. In addition, we should all plan for better days ahead, rather than simply wait for them.

Russia Direct: Explain a little about the legal and/or political hurdles that you face in bringing the Be-200 to America.

A.Y.: There are some differences, not insurmountable, in airworthiness approval procedures that we will overcome during our joint work in bringing the Be-200ES-A to the U.S.

Russia Direct: Do you ever feel that there’s a "disconnect" between what politicians are saying in Washington and what the business community is actually doing elsewhere in the nation?

C.O.: Lawmakers and technology innovators are rarely in perfect synchronization. Lawmakers must often catch up with innovators when unanticipated safety issues emerge. But sometimes lawmakers drive innovation because they can see a public need that has not yet been satisfied, and they can readily issue a call to action.

Russia Direct: What would you suggest to other Russian technology companies or innovators who are trying to find a suitable American partner?

C.O.: Licensing is a valuable tool that can open many doors and help Russian technology companies and innovators access new markets. To maximize benefits for all parties, we recommend an aircraft manufacturing license, along with ongoing sharing of new designs, manufacturing processes, and other improvements.

Russia Direct: What are some of the organizations or institutions that you worked with to help make this U.S.-Russia partnership possible? Are there any organizations or government agencies you’d recommend reaching out to facilitate the process of bringing Russian innovation to the U.S. market?

C.O.: We pay close attention to what happens in state committee hearings when a relevant bill is working its way through the general assembly. This is where you can identify and work with important stakeholders and review a lot of good feedback. In our case, we must also credit the people at Tangent Link and their International Aerial Fire Fighting Conference and Expo. We were able to work closely with the organizers and they set up many industry introductions for us.

Russia Direct: Finally, based on your own experience, what’s the one piece of advice you'd offer to other Americans who are thinking about tapping into the innovation potential of Russia?

C.O.: Look into Russia's innovation economy and you will find Russians who are talented and highly focused, who have a clear purpose, and who are driven by moral imperative.

We're interested in hearing from other Russian and American innovators! If you have an interesting story of U.S.-Russian cooperation that you'd like to see in the "Meet the Innovator" series, please send an email to: