There are about 300 Tupolev, Ilyushin and Yakovlev airliners flying and 120 Sukhoi SSJ100s. But not a single Irkut. How come United Aircraft gave Irkut the lead for the Russian airliner industry?
It has to do with what happened after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Soviet system separated the design of the aircraft and their production. Design bureaus, all Moscow based, designed the aircraft with the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, TsAGI, also based in Moscow.
The designs were then handed out for production and support to different production companies, spread over Russia. Sales were done by the state and overhaul by separate overhaul companies.
When the state control of this heterogeneous structure stopped after the fall of the Soviet Union, the whole Russian aeronautical industry ground to a halt. The state no longer sold, ordered and paid for aircraft, military as well as civil. The little money the state had was spent on keeping in-service military aircraft flying.
The privatized Russian airlines bought western planes as the future and support for Russian types was unsure. Who was in charge? The producer? The design bureau? What changes were the overhaul companies allowed to do? It wasn’t clear.
As everything stopped, there was no money flowing to the supply chain. There are more than a million parts in an airliner from thousands of suppliers. As the Russian aircraft industry struggled for survival from 1990 to around 2005, suppliers had no jobs. There were no developments of new technologies and no manufacturing investments.
The organizations which found a way out of this mess were Sukhoi and its production partner KnAAPO (Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Production Association) and the Irkutsk Aviation Plant. Both had modern Su-27 Flanker fighter variants in production and these were sold by the plants successfully on the international market. Example; the Indian Su-30 is an Irkut variant, sold, produced and supported by Irkut.
The organizations realized the reliance on state orders for military aircraft had to be mixed with civil airliner products if the companies should survive. Both started fresh airliner projects before the merge of the Russian aircraft industry to United Aircraft Corporation took place 2006.
Sukhoi set up Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company (SCAC) in 2000 to make airliners. The first product was the SSJ100 Superjet. In 2009, Italy’s Finmeccanica joined as a 25% partner to build the International sales and support organization.
Irkut bought the Yakovlev design bureau in 2004 and revived the Yak-242 single-aisle airliner design, now called MC-21.
Tupolev tried to revive their Soviet-era Tu-204, a 757 copy, without much success. Ilyushin with its four-engine long-range Il-96 had the same result. These designs were outdated and supported by weak organizations.
United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) was formed 2006 to end the fragmentation and internal competition of the Russian aircraft industry. It paired design bureaus with production companies to form complete entities for military and civil aircraft.
Gradually, a military side was formed with Tupolev for bombers, Ilyushin for transport aircraft and MIG/Sukhoi for fighters.
Irkut’s MC-21 project focused the largest airliner segment, the single aisles, while SCAC learned about the domestic and international realities for regional aircraft.
By 2018 it was time to streamline the Russian civil airliner industry into one organization. SCAC shares were transferred to the Irkut Company as UAC preferred to focus Sukhoi on fighters. The control of the new twin-aisle project with China, the CR929, was also transferred to Irkut.
All engineering, marketing/sales, production and support of airliners is now consolidated in the UAC civil aircraft division which is part of Irkut. The aircraft have lost their company names. Superjet is no longer called Sukhoi Superjet but just SSJ100 Superjet. MC-21 is not Irkut MC-21, just MC-21 and CR929 was never associated with a UAC division or company.
One can foresee the Irkut name disappearing as well, just like MBB/EADS, Aerospatial and CASA disappeared from Airbus.
While continuing to produce Flankers for, among others, India, Irkut has some challenging civil aircraft work to do 2019:
The first two test aircraft have now covered about one-third of the Flight test program. It has taken 18 months and it’s likely it will take another 18 months to get Russian certification. The third flight test aircraft was rolled out on the 25th of December and the fourth and final aircraft should join the flight tests during 2019.
UAC says Russian certification is now expected for early 2020 and deliveries to Aeroflot, the launch customer, later in 2020. We think it might take a bit longer. By 2025, the production rate should be six aircraft per month, according to UAC, compared with the 2019 rates of 50 to 60 each for Airbus and Boeing.
The MC-21 will be an aircraft for Russian airlines with Aeroflot having 50 on order and other Russian airlines covering 110 of the remaining 125 orders. It might also sell into markets like China/Iran based on political deals. It will take time before it can have any effect on Airbus’ and Boeing’s product lines.
This program is under change. Leonardo sold all its SCAC shares 2017. Interjet has started a scale down of the program and the first European customer CityJet is probably pulling out after its wet lease customer, Brussels Airlines terminated the lease for March.
It’s the dispatch reliability and support which are still not to Western standards. The approach now seems to build up the European support around the second customer, Slovenia’s Adria airline. MoUs are inked to build a joint venture European SSJ100 MRO organization with the airline.
Leonardo’s future role in the project is unclear. A winding down of the Venice operation is probable. It’s difficult to form a business around an aircraft which is not selling or retaining its customers.
The CR929, designed and produced together with China’s COMAC, is in the preliminary design phase. It enters the key supplier selection phase during 2019.
First up is engine selection, which will be between the GE and Rolls-Royce. The CR929 is best viewed as a 1,500nm shorter range Boeing 787-9 both in capacity, dimensions and technology. Therefore, the engines in question are updated variants of the 787 engines.
The CR929 structure will be Carbon fibre Composite and it will employ a more electrical system architecture. Design freeze and detail design are foreseen for mid-2019 with flight test 2023 and deliveries 2025. This is an ambitious time plan and it’s likely to slip.
Going by the continuous slips of the SSJ100, MC-21 and the COMAC 919 projects, the slip could be until late 2020. The selected 787 engines will then have 25 years since design start. This can open up for a projected Russia-China joint venture engine competing with the GEnx/Trent 1000.