Airplanology: The Republic RC-3 Seabee

Today’s airplane is the uniquely styled Republic RC-3 Sea Bee.

The ‘Bee is definitely one of the more original airplanes out there. I remember being a little shocked the first time I saw a ‘Bee. I was walking the flight line at Sun n Fun, ogling the seaplanes. I rounded a corner and stopped short. There in front of me squatted this huge, aluminum beast. It looked almost like someone had bolted wings to an Airstream camper and called it good. I literally stood and stared at it for a moment. What the heck was this thing?

The rounded lines of the Sea Bee make it look almost art deco, like something off a poster from the 50’s talking about the plane of tomorrow. The skinny tail looks like an afterthought, almost as if someone forgot that airplanes need tails and just bolted one on. Looking closer, the horizontal stabilizer is situated right behind the prop to maximize airflow. The engine is housed atop the cabin in a pusher configuration, and sticks out just enough to suck in air. The wing floats hang off long pylons that connect to the wing near the strut. The overall appearance is slightly awkward, but instantly recognizable and unforgettable.

My first impression was that this airplane was just hideous, but the more I looked at it the more I fell in love with it. The friendly lines, the roomy cabin, the clever way that the front window opens to allow dockside entrance and exit…the Bee grew on me rapidly, and before I knew it I was nuts about these quirky old birds.

The iconic and unmistakable design of the Seabee springs from the brilliant mind of Percival Spencer. Spencer was an aircraft designer who worked tirelessly on amphibious designs while test-flying P-47 Thunderbolts for Republic Aviation during World War II. His early designs range from long and snub airplanes reminiscent of the Lake series of amphibians to more bubble-shaped Air Cars, which ultimately evolved into the Seabee.

While working for Republic, Spencer submitted his design for the Air Car. Republic’s executives seemed to think it would make for a great new machine to sell to the thousands of freshly-trained pilots who would be coming home from the war, so the process of producing a new aircraft began. Republic tooled up and built the RC-1, a testbed for the final Seabee design; after some tweaks to manufacturing processes and the interior structure of the aircraft, the RC-3 Seabee went into production in June of 1946. After 1,060 airframes were made, production stopped in October of 1947 due to poor sales performance.

Originally, the ‘Bee came with a 215-hp Franklin 6A8 powerplant. While this was a serviceable engine, the Seabee is heavy, weighing in at 1,950 pounds empty and 3,000 pounds max gross. The Franklin was felt by many owners to be an anemic engine. People experimented with a lot of different engines, from Lycoming IO-470-P (250hp) and GO-480-G1D6 (295hp) engines to Robinson V8s churning out more than 350hp.

If that’s not enough for you, some wacky Canadians have even screwed a Pratt and Whitney PT6 turbo engine with more than 500 horses on a ‘Bee. I suspect that more than doubling the original engine power has significantly improved the perceived shortcomings caused by the Franklin powerplant.

Twin Bee


In 1959, Joseph Gigante had a brainwave: instead of upgrading the one Franklin engine on the ‘Bee, why not simply convert it to a twin? Gigante formed the STOL Aircraft Corporation and began converting the single-engine Seabee into a powerful twin. Design work began in 1959, and in 1965 after extensive flight testing Mr. Gigante was awarded a type certificate to convert ‘Bees. The original Franklin engine is yanked out, some work is done to reconfigure the cabin, the wings are lengthened and the hull is stretched. Two 180-hp IO-360’s are placed on the wings and an extra fuel tank is added in to expand the fuel capacity from 75 to 101 gallons. Voila: twin bee!


Of the 1,060 airframes produced 23 have been converted to twins. Neat concept, and apart from the Grummans one of the only planes you can reasonably expect to get MES time in.

Bee Restorations and Build Ideas

While I would love to get a Seabee, they tend to be a little expensive. Prices for the Bee range from $60,000 to $150,000 or so, making them out of my reach. If I ever want to get my paws on a ‘Bee, I’ll need to make a lot more money. A cheaper way to get a ‘Bee would be to undertake a restoration project. Hulls with varying amounts of damage or work done sell for anywhere from $13,000 to $40,000. Restoration is a labor of love, but I’d be happier than a pig in wallow to sit in a hangar tinkering with an old Bee all day.

Rumor has it that there are a lot of old “Bees languishing unloved in hangars or open fields. When I lived in Florida I saw an abandoned Bee rusting away on an apron at KLAL, and it pained me to watch it crumble as time passed by. If I could figure out a legal way to obtain an abandoned airplane, I’d love to tow one of those rusting wrecks out and make it fly again.

Another idea that has bounced around my skull has been to undertake a reinvigoration of the Seabee design. It seems like a little ingenuity and tweaking of the original design could bring forth a smaller, lighter, more efficient airplane modeled after the original. Composite construction could shave weight off the hull, and improved aerodynamic modeling could increase the efficiency. One could even take the cabin size down a little and tuck in the sides to make a Mini-Bee; I suppose the result would resemble the Icon A5. It’s still a cool idea, and one that I plan to pursue at some point in my life.

Conclusion

The RC-3 is an underappreciated airplane. While the design is not perfect, it does have a lot of benefits, and it is certainly eye-catching. I know a lot of people think it’s ugly, or clunky, or grossly impractical, but I happen to love this airplane. I worry that as time goes on this unique design will fall by the wayside, and the work of Spencer and Republic Aviation will be lost to the passage of time. The RC-3 may not have made a big splash in the marketplace, but it sure makes a big one in the water. I hope to see the “Bee flying for many years to come.

Resources

Steinar’s Hangar: Everything you wanted to know and more about the Bee.

IRSOC: The International Republic Seabee Owner’s Club.

Republic Seabees on Flickr!

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