Bjorn’s Corner: East bloc aeronautical industries

By Bjorn Fehrm

By Bjorn Fehrm

September 09, 2016, ©. Leeham Co: The Western world civil aeronautical industry developed a number of new aircraft (Boeing 787, Airbus A350, Bombardier CSeries, Mitsubishi’s MRJ) or aircraft variants (A320neo, 737 MAX, A330neo, Embraer’s E-Jet E2) during the last 15 years. The last of these projects (A330neo) is entering flight tests within six months.

MC21-300 image

Figure 1. The MC-21 project is reviving the Russian aeronautical industry. Source: UAC.

Over the next 10 years there will be few new Western hemisphere aircraft projects. But there will be action in the east, in Russia and China. We therefore will cover these projects in more and more articles.

To give a background to these articles, I will spend some Corners to describe some of the differences between the Western and Eastern aeronautical industry. A lot of these differences will come from the industry’s history. We will start with Russia’s airframe industry.

Soviet Union airframe development and production

The development of a new aircraft in the Soviet Union was not done by one company but by a number of organizations that did their specific part. We know Soviet civil airliners under their design bureaus names (Tupolev, Ilyushin, Antonov, Yakovlev…). But the design bureaus did only a part of the design work and then not much more of the job to bring an aircraft to the market.

The different Soviet state agencies for air transportation were responsible for defining the market demand and allocate budgets for the development and production of the needed aircraft. They then issued requests for proposals to the design bureaus that were deemed suitable for the needed aircraft.

The selection process who would be awarded a new aircraft project was highly political, reminiscent of how military aircraft projects get awarded the world over. It required that the design bureau had a strong lobby arm in Moscow. It could also be so that certain sought after aircraft projects were awarded to, e.g. Antonov as their bureau was placed in Kiev and Soviet leader Khrushchev had Ukrainian affiliations.

The design bureau was responsible to try and lobby for the right projects and then to respond with an aircraft concept. The State agency would decide which bureau of several got the job to develop the aircraft based on who had made the best proposal (or had the most political clout).

The power of state research organizations

It shall be noted that the design bureaus did not have the complete competence to put together a proposal for an aircraft. Aerodynamic and structural competence was to a large part concentrated in the gigantic Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute “TsAGI” (today, 18,000 people), which advised the design bureaus which configurations were suitable for what task and developed the appropriate aerodynamic design including testing it in one of their 60 wind tunnels or other test facilities during development of the project.

TsAGI for a long time favored airliner designs with wings clean from engines. Therefore, there were no Soviet Union civil airliners in the early years with engines mounted in pods on the aircraft’s wings. The Soviet airliners were all with engines mounted at the back of the fuselage. It took until the mid-1960s and the Il-86 before this firm idea of TsAGI could be modified and they accepted that design bureaus proposed designs with wing mounted engines in pods.

When a design bureau had completed a design for an aircraft, the state decided which manufacturing plant should produce the aircraft. The bureau then transferred the design (drawing package etc.) to the chosen plant. Production adaptation of the aircraft was the responsibility of the manufacturing plant.

For production, the state once again decided which airline should get what number of aircraft and from which plant. After sales, support with spare parts was the responsibility of the manufacturing company but only based on orders from the state.

This splitting of design and production authority created many unclear intellectual rights situations. An example is the AN-148. The design was started during the Soviet times by the Ukrainian based Antonov design bureau in Kiev. Production rights were eventually given to the VASO plant in Voronezh Russia which produced the aircraft for the Russian market in addition to Antonov’s own production for local needs.

When Russia and Ukraine fell out with each other the VASO produced AN-148 suddenly was an aircraft without a design authority supporting or further developing it. The aircraft produced by VASO had no future and no airline wanted to operate such an aircraft. The main production of the aircraft, the one by VASO will now stop.

Maintenance of the aircraft that were produced was done by special maintenance factories, once again on orders from the state.

The fall of the Soviet Union and the state coordination

During the Soviet era (pre-1990), an industry that had learned to function in the Soviet way was producing more than 700 civil airliners per year. The Soviet system produced more than 20 different airliners, post-World War II, whereof half were jets. Around 3,700 jet airliners were produced from the designs from bureaus like Tupolev, Ilyushin and Yakovlev, produced by a large number of manufacturing organizations.

When the Soviet system collapsed around 1990, an aeronautical industry that was structured to function in this environment ground to a halt, Figure 2. In 2000, only four aircraft were produced.


Figure 2. Comparison of Soviet and Western aircraft OEM structures. Source: Leeham Co.

When the State functions of control (orange blocks) were no longer present, the horizontally structured Soviet era industry could no longer function. No one had total responsibility in front of the customer for sales, control, prioritization of what to do or for after sales support. It was all divided on different organizations which no longer had functioning engagement rules for their cooperation.

This shall be compared to the market driven model on the right. Western aircraft OEMs had all functions (outside long range research) inside the company. The sales/marketing function did market research to establish market segments with non fulfilled aircraft demand. The companies management then started a concept project that proposed an aircraft to fulfill the demand together with its commercial business plan.

If the business plan was sufficiently positive the concept project could transfer to a real project with an authority to offer. Customers, who had confidence in the company based their existing products and support, could place orders.

The OEM was responsible for all phases of the aircraft’s life cycle, including contracting and certifying Maintenance and Repair Organizations (MROs) that maintained the aircraft in a correct way. This cycle of confidence was built up from the start of the OEM’s life and it remained over time. The operators learned to trust that the company would be around also for the 20 years of operation of the aircraft. If the aircraft projects were successful there would be support/further development even if the original company was bought or merged into a larger organization. Fate of an aircraft project was based on demand, not political winds or wranglings.

In the end, if something did not work for an operator of the aircraft, there was one person to call, the OEM’s CEO. The CEO then had the power and the means to get balls rolling to fix anything that did not work for the customer.

This was in stark contrast to the collapsed Soviet model. Who to call? In the old days you called the state agency, in the end the minister. Now whom?

To raise from the ashes

When the state no longer coordinated the whole apparatus and allocated money to suit, the different horizontal organizations had to fight for their existence. They had to try and sell their services or products to a market they did not know or had any established contacts or track record with.

They were not trained in establishing market demand and with which specification and economical concept to fulfill this demand. And they did not have the time, money or skills for market oriented work and time was running out. Each month salaries should be paid to huge numbers of employees but there was no money coming in.

The manufacturing companies were the only organizations that had products to sell but no functioning sales and support organizations nor any well functioning customer relations.

Some manufacturing companies managed to rally together half functional sales and support functions and sell a couple of aircraft projects on the world market. Others were less capable; they had to rely on the Russian state to feed them and the state had no money.

Aircraft projects which had entry into service in this period failed, only selling a handful of aircraft. Examples are Tu-204/Tu-214, the same aircraft marketed by two different aircraft manufacturers; Il-96, the long range wide-body; the mentioned AN-148 and IL-114, the regional turboprop.

During 2000 to 2010, the Russian federation leadership realized something had to be done and they started the transition of the Soviet model industry into a Western style structure. United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) was created and consolidated 30 different organizations with 100,000 employees into an aircraft OEM with full responsibility for design, sales, production and after sales support of its products.

The industry and state started the long way back by creating new projects which were from the outset conceived for a market economy. First was the regional SSJ100 project, which was allocated to one of the organizations which had fared reasonably well during the slump, the Sukhoi design bureau and its affiliated Komsomolsk-On-Amur manufacturing plant. This constellation had managed to sell and manufacture Su-27 fighters for export during the slump so many company functions were intact.

Another organization that had fared better than others were the manufacturing company Irkut. It had sold and manufactured a Su-27 derived design, the Su-30 fighter on export. They could therefore take up the Yakovlev design bureau’s YAK-242 project for a single aisle airliner and developed that as the MC-21 project with state support. In the process Irkut integrated the Yakovlev design bureau into the manufacturing company.

The next project which will be started is a joint Russian-Chinese wide-body project, now with Ilyushin as lead for the design competence. Manufacturing will be spread between China and Russia with China having final assembly.

17 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: East bloc aeronautical industries

  1. “The next project which will be started is a joint Russian-Chinese wide-body project, now with Ilyushin as lead for the design competence. Manufacturing will be spread between China and Russia with China having final assembly.”

    The Russians will need all their defiance and resistance to retain any kind of fair deal there. Id say the Chinese government are already using it as some kind of project to suck the Russians into doing things for them for free with the bonus of China gettig all the benefiit and credit of said deal. Also, Id expect them to paint a very different media picture that is distorted from reality that goes something like “This was a Chinese project. The Russians painted them”. (When in fact the reverse would be closer to the truth). And if it crahes – “It was the flammable Russian paint”. Just a bad idea. France, Germany, the UK collaborate on Aurbus but its French originally, and the EU and common culture as well as developed world maturity and values of free speech and more openness makes the difference. It also helps that its only one airframer company.

    But good luck to the Russians and Chinese on this project all the same. But if they dont form a full joint venture for it, it wont be any easier.

    • I too have my worries about how Russia will fare in this deal. I have heard of projects in other industries where the Chinese broke up the partnership as soon as the design stage was over.

      • I sound like I am China bashing lately, I don’t mean to. Moving to a more modern economy is a good thing and they are trying, it just won’t be as easy as people think. Now if United Aircraft opened a production line in China, using their aviation know how, a bit a la Airbus, it might work, but I have my doubts as to how much say they will get.

        • I don’t think stating reality is bashing

          China obviously is in it for themselves and they will dump Russian if and when they think they can (hopefully they mis judge it)

          Funny Russia would give up that leverage but its China with all the money.

          It should be noted China has claims on Siberia as well as all of SE Asia.

          Please see the various Lines they have drawn including one that takes in Hawaii (I think that one is up to 27 dashers!)

          • Soviet Union had a jump start at the end of WW2 when they basically took the Junkers engineers to Moscow and set up their own design bureau OKB-1 which wasnt named after the german Chief engineer Baade for obvious reasons.
            They built the EF150 which did have podded engines
            The Baade team built the Ba 152 in East Germany when they wererepatriated.

          • Hawaii?? I missed that one. They arrived in Australia back in BC, I hope we don’t get claimed!!

  2. A very interesting piece. I have always had a soft spot for Russian aviation having used tu154/134 and il62 widely (less keen on the ants).

    I fully agree with you description of the carnage that occurred during the 90s as I travelled extensively in Russia, Ukraine and other CIS during 1996-99.

    The design bureau guys appeared paralysed into inaction and the assembly plants just stopped working. I visited one large assembly plant in Samara region where they had managed to assemble two incomplete fuselage in well over a year.

    It was sad to see as the quality of product (engines excepted) was high often exploring differing design solutions though with differing priorities to western aircraft. The fundamental issue being the ability to operate out of low category airfields but at the expense of efficiency and operability.

    Nothing better than flying a sparsely populated Tu134 with bomb aimer nose. Somewhere between having a private jet and a warplane.

  3. The western World military Aircraft Projects is not far from the Russian model…
    Björn did not mention Beriev who’s remarkable designs Always breaks a few World records. I realize that they are all miltary Aircrafts so far.

  4. Thanks for the article, Bjorn. Looks like the Russians have a small winner with the Superjet. Can you say how much is attributable to SuperJet International and Lufthansa Teknik providing support for it? And I understand Interjet’s having good success with it, with 22 or so “in place” of 30 total on order. Dispatch reliability’s supposedly 99% or better. (Needs confirmation.) You guys might also want to do a future article on Interjet, the self-described “JetBlue of Mexico”!

    • I think this info from the web of Sukhoi is important: “Under the long-term cooperation Agreement signed on December 19, 2002, Boeing consults the Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company in the field of marketing, design and manufacturing, certification and quality system, supplier management, and after-sales support”. Boeing also learned Sukhoi modern stage based project management.

      The SSJ100 project was the first Soviet/Russia where the people behind the project (Sukhoi management in this case) really tried to understand what it took to compete on a world market with the very capable competition from the West. And as we can see they took the consequences involving Boeing for help with the whole project, Leonardo to create Superjet International and these then contracting Lufthansa among others to their support solution.

      It has still had problems to perform but its not a failure like projects before them. Part of the problems comes from their supporter (Kremlin) changing the rules of the game with political action.

  5. I hope UAC was in time to preserve the Russian knowledge and skills. In aeronautical engineering you saw an age gap of starters in the nineties. The guys from the seventies and eighties retire.

    About the new WB with China. I think you need a bottom up information streams, skills and seniority to have successful aerospace projects. In the West and Russia companies are/ were mature and democratic enough understand and value this. The Chinese are developing.

  6. Something that came up recently was Russia was going to re-engine the AN-124.

    Ukraine had the proprietary rights on that and nixed it.

    they have now launched a new PAK Transport (very nebulous, 8–120 tons so far)

    Obvious Russian could go ahead but Ukraine could probably sue and seize aircraft if they deploy outside of the Soviet Union.

    As long as Russian continues as a dictatorship (and China) I have no interest in seeing any of them succeed.

    • There’s also some very recent news in that the Chinese are buying a mostly complete Ukrainian An225 fuselage and the rights to produce more An225s in China! I guess they’ll be available to bring massive military weapons quantities to fortify their South China Sea bases in the mid to late 2020s. (Also useful if they decide to invade the Russian Far East!)

        • Is the US wants to get involved in that they should have bought it themselves. Cash starved companies / countries have to make money any which way they can, and Chinese foreign exchange is as good as any other these days

      • That will never fly. The project is just to get full design drawings and construction details. Why would you fly in ‘massive quantities of weapons’ when the sea access is the most logical when you have control of island and its ports.

        • Because it’ll look impressive, and we’re also talking about “face”. Imagine videoing a line of ten or twelve An225s landing and rapidly disgorging hundreds of troops, numerous tanks, APCs, and missile batteries. The optics would be “over the top” big!

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