22 August 2015, ©. Leeham Co: The Russian air show MAKS is taking place in Moscow, on the airfield of Zhukovsky, Southeast of Moscow. The town of Zhukovsky is called the Aero-City of the Russian federation. It houses not only a 17,800ft runway but also the center of the Russian aeronautical research and test knowledge around the gigantic airfield.
Just a couple of miles from the airfield lies the well-known Russian Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, TsAGI. It has been involved in designing the aerodynamics of all Russian aircraft, including the latest, the Sukhoi Superjet and Irkut’s new MC-21 competitor to the Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320neo.
I have always been interested in the enigma of the Soviet and later Russian aeronautical industry. It had such a different structure to its western counterparts and has therefore struggled. The MC-21 is a good example. Ilyushin says they are working on MC-21, as does Yakolev and Irkut. Irkut says it is their aircraft, yet I had not heard of Irkut as a plane OEM before MC-21.
My household names for Russian airliners were Tupolev and Ilyushin with perhaps Yakolev for the smaller types. If we included Ukraine during the Soviet period, we could add Antonov as a known airliner OEM. But not Irkut. Yet today the main players doing new civil airliners are Sukhoi and Irkut, neither known for building airliners. How does this all fit together? Here is a try to sort it out.
To understand the Russian aeronautical industry it is necessary to understand how the industry was set up under Communist rule from the 1920s to the early 1990s (the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1991). The aeronautical industry was managed 100% by the state and it gave design bureaus assignments to design aircraft that is deemed was needed, whether for military or civilian needs.
The design for a new civil airliner could be given in competition to, for example, Tupolev and Ilyushin and the winning design was then handed by the state to a manufacturing “complex” to be produced. All aspects of the project were handled by the state with the design bureau as the technical expert. Aircraft export was also done by the state. There were dedicated state export companies that sold aircraft and then gave the manufacturing company orders to produce them or to produce spare parts so the state company could support their customers.
All this created a loosely formed industry where the focal point was the state and the research institutes like TsAGI, which carried out all the aero and system research and testing for the design bureaus. The manufacturing companies did not have design knowledge or authority for other things than production adaptation of the design bureau’s design.
When the state agencies and their control disappeared with the fall of the Soviet Union, the whole industry ground to a halt. More than 700 aircraft were produced each year before the collapse. Ten years after the fall of the Soviet Union, there were less than 10 aircraft produced. No one was in charge and the once strongest entity, the production company, had no sales, design or after sales service knowledge. The design bureaus had no capital, no factory and no support facilities.
It took more than 10 years to sort out the mess and the sorting is still ongoing. United Aircraft was formed 2007 to collect all important design bureaus and production facilities under one roof and start clustering them around viable programs.
The military programs were easiest to get going again as these are state controlled. Military export, to a large extent, is done state-to-state. It was tougher for the civil aircraft industry. With no viable industry of its own any longer, the airline operators started buying western aircraft, which had functional companies behind them, with 50 years or more of design, production and after sales service experience.
United Aircraft and the supporting Russian state decided to rebuild the industry around new modern designs. To maximise their chance of success, western companies were hired as consultants: Boeing for the regional project, which became Sukhoi Superjet and Irkut took the help of Diamond Aircraft of Austria to design the out-of-autoclave Carbon Fibre Reinforced Plastic (CFRP) wing spars that makes the MC-21 wing unique. For the export of the regional Superjet, United Aircraft’s Sukhoi company formed a joint venture with Finameccnica’s Venice operation, which has a final outfitting, crew training and after sales support role. Many subsystems were acquired from western suppliers.
Gradually as United Aircraft’s competency increases and the fall of the Ruble versus Dollar makes all western support and suppliers expensive, the projects have started to increase Russian content again. On a pure technical level, the Superjet has made a good impression. It works well in Interjet’s Mexican operation and passengers praise the spacious five abreast cabin.
The MC-21 project is in assembly of the first prototype and the first flight is likely next year. The engine is the highly competitive Pratt & Whitney GTF, powering the A320neo, and the airframe seems to have the right attributes. Irkut, being the manufacturing company with acquired design knowledge, has been shown as the projects mother but Yakovlev, who did the original design as Yak-242, will show in the product name once produced as Yak-242.
The major problem for United Aircraft is that as it finally started to get positive traction from aircraft being put in operation with new, interesting designs in the pipe, the largest backer, the Russian state, spoils its chances of further western sales by being involved in a political stand-off in Ukraine.
It remains to be seen what comes out of the conflict-infected situation for the Russian aeronautical industry. It is a pity that politics shall risk the resurrection of the once large Russian aeronautical industry. There is no lack of resources and knowledge. TsAGI is said to dispose of 60 wind tunnels and all the facilities necessary for testing and certification of aircraft. It employs 18,000 people and has research projects on all aspects of aeronautical design.
The total Russian aeronautical industry has more than 100 companies employing some 350,000 people. Only through success in the west can deeper bonds built between people in east and west. The resulting intertwined economies would render the price for political conflicts too high to pay for all involved.