Bjorn’s Corner: Russian aircraft industry.

By Bjorn Fehrm

By Bjorn Fehrm

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.

18 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: Russian aircraft industry.

  1. I visited MAKS 2013 and also visited TsAGI and some other research facilities. I think the Russian industry will have a hard time versus a much more competitive western industry. When you see how much Airbus and Boeing have changed in the last 10 years, Russia needs to compete against tougher opponents.
    I think the problem is largely organizational, as mention in your article. They neither lack resources or knowledge, but the entire setup is opposed to really successful products.
    Therefore, in my opinion the strongest candidate for future Russian industry is Suchoi. It should become the “core” and remaining manufacturers added to it. It once may become some sort of Russian Airbus.

    • Hi Schorsch,

      what is your impression of TsAGI, are they fully up to date with their knowledge and facilities?

      Re United Aircraft and Sukhoi, why them? Did you visit them or is it the products (SU27/30/35 SSJ100) that convinces you? They are a large part of United Aircraft with two important production facilities tied to them (Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Production Association, Novosibirsk Aircraft Production Association), why would not United Aircraft create the organizational change needed?

    • Yrs ago I talked to Tsagi & UA. Lots of their capabilities / R&D was second to none. One of their issues was/is human resources. In the capitalist nineties and 2k’s the smart young people went into ICT, oil and gas, finance, services etc.

      The generation designing aircraft and systems, doing R&D, integration etc. in the seventies / eighties is retiring / didn’t experience composites, FEM, CFD etc.

      There is a hole in the industries HR build-up towards the recent generation. A shortage of deeply experienced yet fresh (technology wise) fortiers giving direction.

  2. On the basis that if it looks right,it is right,the T50 fighter is a definite winner. I think the real problem is corruption.While certainly unknown in the west, the oligarchs want to collect their bucks fast. The timescale is just too long,if anything is successful it will be milked to death.My only real contact with Russian industry was in the 80s&90s,there was a huge surplus of aerospace engineers.

  3. Due to information that has just come to my attention (which I may or may not share with the readers later), Comments are closed.

    • Comments are reopened but all discussion of the Ukraine and Crimea situations are deleted and excluded for future comments.


      • And we add Scotland/England to that. I’ve also made the text more neutral re. the situation in Ukraine. Lets focus on the possibilities and problems of the Russian aerospace industry, interesting enough.


        • It’s unavoidable I’m afraid.The possibilities for Russian aviation are huge,but the insurmountable problem is a manic autocracy.Your idea for world peace is actually a pretty good one. Many western interests really didn’t want sanctions and Russia has cut itself off from important former USSR suppliers. The USA is the only country which can conceivably go it alone owing to an unstustainable defence budget. Even they have discovered that they are reliant on former USSR rocket technology decades after the fall of the Soviet state.

  4. Im always struck by what the Soviet aircraft industry was able to achieve in the 30 years from the war period.
    In 1972 the Tu-144 flew at the Paris airshow, while it had many difficulties and wasnt up to the standard of the Concorde, it showed what had been achieved and was matched by other advances in civil aircraft and military aviation of all kinds.
    In comparison we look back 30 years from 2015 to 1985 to see where China has come in the aviation industry since then. Of course supersonic passenger jets are no longer on the drawing boards or cad screens, but its hard to count a single civil design that has entirely Chinese design and manufacture since the start of the economic reforms of the 80s.
    They both had the one party state political system but one has faltered and yet to show significant achievement over a similar time period.
    It makes it less likely China will ever make significant advances in the future, obviously not for lack of ability or industriousness, but it seems at the very top aviation hasnt been a national priority.

    • Slipping into my fireproof suit.. :
      Russia always had very good foundational/theoretical researchers that were able to open new avenues for progress while China like the US is much more into copy/improve/accessorizing “borrowed” new concepts. Without new avenues available from foundational research they make no progress.
      The US was jump started from immigrants and war spoils after WWI and WWII later keeping “things” coming by way of globalizing information flow. The US still appears to need this infusion by way of foreign educated immigrants and buy outs abroad.
      But it looks like China is learning fast.

      • Uwe,

        I seriously can’t believe you are saying the US is basically China and everything it has achieved was the result of “copying” other people’s work. Your argument about immigrants and the US being jump-started by the spoils of war is beyond pathetic, because it is a complete fallacy and collapses under the weight of its ridiculousness. I guess the TU-144 had NO British or French derived technology. Or the TU-160 didn’t benefit from US designs originating from the B-1 program, or the Buran space shuttle was purely right out the head of Soviet designers and the US took its magical time machine to crib Soviet notes and travel back to make the STS system…..

        So you are seriously saying the Russians/Soviets developed everything “in-house” without looking at concepts from others? That European design houses are the same? Do you even realize what you are saying? I won’t even bother to blow up your ridiculous argument with more examples, as you are likely using a US designed and researched product to access the internet (another US invention, TYVM) via technology pioneered in the US (communications satellite) and on and on.

        Everyone benefits from the research and work of others. End of story. To make this an anti-US swipe is pointless.

        Your fireproof suit better be real good, because it likely won’t protect you from the face slap you need to get back to reality.

        • That was a rather predictable reply.
          .. thought you appear to not have understood what i wrote 😉

        • Neutron73,
          Get used to it, as rife as Pro European biases are in the comment sections he takes it to a whole new level.
          Nothing could bring him back to reality 🙂

          • I guess, Man. “Whole new level” is quite an understatement.

            Glad I’m not the only one to notice a certain bias in the comments section…..

        • “Uwe” is correct to a degree. During WW2 the USA did lead in the area of large Bombers by the end but only because Britain did not have enough money to develop and build such aircraft in volume. The USA in that period did not lead in many areas. After WW2 because of a shortage of money in Britain they lost many of there best civil and military designers to the USA. I am 66 and I can remember the enormous losses of Designers and Engineers Britain to the USA looking for a job. The USA also was the main beneficiary of of German technology. The USSR picked up a bit. The USA also probably got a lot of top people from other destroyed European nations. It was with the help of those designers and US$’s the US Civil Aircraft industry became the world leader. Same in the area of Jet fighters etc. Same in the area of Rockets. The USA did not have a Von Braun or a Kirolov and those that supported them. It was the British jet engine that put the USA on the way to developing efficient and capable Jet Fighters. The same happened in Russia with regard to the Jet Engine. The Russians did have the air-frame technology but relied on the British engine. You only have to look at the number of Aces from WW2 to see which countries produced the most Air Aces. It was Germany by far that was number [1] and Russia by 1943 number [2]. That can’t be put down to Pilots alone. By 1943 it was the USSR who could really cut the AXIS Air Force to shreds often with less aircraft. I know history has not written it that way but we never had access to most USSR statistics and the Cold War quickly followed. Again that can’t be put down to USSR Pilots alone. The aces they had from 1943 on is only second to Germany in the initial stages. At the end of WW2 the Russian Fighters overall were superior to virtually anything the Germans had. In these areas I don’t look at the history [propaganda] we read written by the victors in the West. The number of aces produced is the best guide. The Germans had to be the best in many ways. Virtually right through to the last year or so they were a force to be feared despite producing something like about a 1/4 of the fighters the Allies did. Having the $’s certainly helps and that is obviously how the Chinese will move forward today. Technology if mobile if you have the $’s. Buy it in and if you can’t do that buy in key people. Add to that there own Engineers etc. who are all around the world and doing PHD’s in the USA and other nations and China will gradually get up to speed. That is something post WW2 USSR could not do. Spy and try to steal a bit but they could not buy much in. I disagree strongly with you when you consider the Buran a copy of the Shuttle. It might look a bit similar but the concept is entirely different and every piece of technology in it is of USSR origin. About the only import they say was the paint they bought from France. The USSR to achieve what it did must have had a lot of brilliant Scientists doing basic research.
          Best summed up by one of the senior designers of the Super Jet when he said. “Building and designing the Super-jet has been very easy to building a new Airliner in USSR days. Now we just buy in the best from around the world. In USSR times we had to either come up with our own solution or go through the very time consuming process of copying a component. That is if we could get our hands on one to copy. This has been easy compared to those days.”

  5. I see reply is back on.

    Bjorn and Scott:

    I will keep this un-political but I think a key aspect of what Bjorn wrote is that commercial ties between countries gets the economies intertwined and you then do not have various actions against each other.

    While I can cite the various supporting cases, having lived long enough to see all this play out, I most respectfully disagree that other countries will act in their economic interest vs political interests.

    It would be interesting to get a good breakdown, I suspect smaller countries and particularly those with big acquisitive neighbors will make those attachments.

    Big countries that are pushing and shoving for economic and political control will act in whatever political direction is chosen at the expense of economic considerations.

    The one area I can cite that went badly was Boeing using the Russian center to design the 747 (probably seemed easy enough with a well known technology ). The reports are that Boeing had to redesigned almost the entire package that came out of Russian.

    I think its a good question as to how much of what was an amazing aircraft industry is really left resource and capability wise?

    Follow up is also support and Russia is noted for doing that poorly.

    • There is no indication that Russian designs were the cause of the 747-8 load balance problems. If you sub contract one part of the detail design to an outside source, Boeing still retained overall responsibility for the change in aerodynamic balance that affected another part of the structure ( in this case the tail)
      “Speaking at the time, the programme’s then chief engineer Michael Teal explained: “When we changed the wing airfoil and ultimately changed the centre of gravity, it fundamentally shifted how the whole aircraft balances loads. As the loads shifted back on the wing, the tail is the balancing load. So we changed more parts in the tail. Then the loads in the aft body changed, so we had to change the aft body.” AW 13/12/2012

      Outside Boeing or Airbus there is only one country that has experience in large civil aircraft wings detail design, in addition a lot of Boeing’s own people had not been made welcome after 2000.

      Of course poor program execution played its part ( which is seemingly universal)

      Then there was the challenges of mixing the design of an aircraft from the ‘blueprint’ era to one from the digital era

  6. The Soviet Model as described by Björn isn’t all too
    different to how forex Apple effects marketable products today.

    Product ideas are done “at home” and then the process
    goes to outside hardware developers and hardware manufacturers.

    Only in the former SU / Todays RF the “Apple” ( here: the soviet state )
    has “gone away”.

    IMU you can’t enthrone any of the theorists or manufacturers as product tzar. could be one reason why Sukhoy gets this job.

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