Civil rotorcraft special: Russia - taking on the west

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A reorganisation of the Russian helicopter industry is aimed at keeping its manufacturers competitive on the global market

In a move designed to better compete with US and European rivals, the Russian helicopter industry has completed a sweeping three-year integration of the country's entire rotorcraft manufacturing base with a key goal of ensuring medium class leadership.

As a result, Helicopters of Russia (Vertolyety Rossii), also known as Helicopter Holding, now has control over a dozen design houses and production plants, with strong vertical control ensured through majority government stakes in all of the absorbed companies.

"By merging into a single structure, the Russian helicopter industry seeks higher survivability in the global marketplace," says Helicopter Holding head Andrei Shibitov. "It is the only way to achieve competitiveness with our US and European rivals. We aim to restore our positions in the global market lost in the past 15 years," he says.

An optimised product range is being created through closing projects with questionable market viability and end what Shibitov calls "unhealthy competition" between design houses. "We have had very hot discussions when considering programmes by Mil, Kamov and Kazan Helicopters," he says, adding: "These discussions enable us make well-thought-out choices. Certain competition between designers shall remain, but under control. We are interested in keeping different design schools alive, which is a pledge of our competitiveness in the outer market".

mi-38

As part of this competitiveness, a study is underway between Mil and Kamov to come up with the best concept for a high-speed helicopter, with a speed goal of 243-270kt (450-500km/h) thanks to recent advances in aerodynamics and control systems that enable load reduction on main rotor blades. The two design houses will work separately for several years until a winning design is selected, at which point the best concept will be developed into flyable prototype by a joint Mil/Kamov team. The team will operate from a new design office being built in the village of Panki near Moscow.

In the conventional helicopter arena, Helicopter Holding will market a unified "trio" of next generation medium-class (11-15t maximum take-of weigh) helicopters - the civilian Mi-38, the Mi-28N anti-tank helicopter and the Mi-8X dual-purpose helicopter. The three will share engines, gearboxes, main and tail rotors and onboard systems.

CIS certification

Having completed manufacturer's trials last year, the Mil Mi-38 is undergoing certification with CIS aviation authorities in the view of service entry in 2011. The helicopter has a hingeless mast, composite blades and anX-like tail rotor. "Flight-tested on an Mi-38 and Mi-28N, these innovations will find their way onto the Mi-8X, promising a considerable reduction in operating costs per flying hour," says Mil general designer Aleksei Samusenko. UTair, the world's largest commercial rotor­craft operator, and other Russian companies placed tentative orders for more than 100 helicopters. "We are going to complete the Mi-38's certification and production preparations in three years, and then apply its innovations to the Mi-8X," Samusenko says.

Helicopter Holding says the Mi-38 will supplement, rather than supersede, the Mi-8/17 in the civilian markets, particularly in regions such as Europe, leaving tougher territories, such as Siberia and Africa, to the more robust Mi-8/17. But the Mi-38/Mi-8X pair will face stiff competition from Eurocopter, Sikorsky and AgustaWestland medium-class designs.

Moscow has long sought partnerships overseas, with limited success. Eurocopter abandoned the Mi-38 project in 2005, while China preferred direct Mi-17 purchases to joint development and production programmes. The Indian government continues to buy Mi-17s in large quantities, with an order for additional 80 helicopters now being finalised. The joint development of a 10t helicopter with India using the Mi-28N's powerplant may take the form of an industrial offset between the countries.

Strategic partnership

Talks with AgustaWestland involving a strategic partnership continue, with Moscow seeking licensed AW139 assembly rights in return for A109 promotion and support in Russia. The arrangement is packaged with an offer to co-develop a 4.5t helicopter under the AW149 designation using the Mi-54 concept. Shibitov says the sides are discussing financial and economic issues and are "at a stage of technical assessment". He estimates research and development costs for the helicopter will total $300 million.

Both Mil and Kamov foresee a large niche in the "lower-medium" class, a sector once occupied by the popular Mi-4. Kamov says it has two Ka-60 prototypes flying while the would-be competitor Mi-54 remains on paper. Kamov claims to have orders for up to 60 Ka-60s from the Russian air force, a launch customer that will facilitate market entry for a Ka-62 civilian derivative.

Competition is also hot in the 3t class between the Mi-2A, Ka-226 and Kazan Ansat. Launch­ed in the 1990s, the fly-by-wire Ansat is in service with the Russian government, South Korean police and forestry service. The Russian air force recently selected the Ansat-U for flight school use. Rejected by the military, the Ka-226 has found clients in Russian gas company Gazprom, the Ministry for Emergencies and the Moscow city militia, and Jordan has signed to license its own assembly operation. The Mi-2A is an updated version of the Mi-2, powered by a Turbomeca Arrius 2Mi turboshaft engine.

In the 1t MTOW class, the Mi-34A competes with the Aktai, a second design from Kazan. Powered by the VAZ426 rotary engine from car maker AvtoVAZ, the Aktai completed its first test flight this summer. The Mi-34A is meant to be Russia's answer to the Robinson R22 and R44, though the US manufacturer has beat Mil on sales even inside Russia.

Stressed to handle aerobatic manoeuvres the Mi-34A has less market appeal due to lower maintenance intervals and higher noise levels. A new $500,000 version will be marketed this year, however, complete with more powerful Vedeneyev M9V radial piston engine and reworked interior. Turbine derivatives powered by ZMKB Progress AI450 or Arrius 2Mi engines are also in the plans.

Shibitov acknowledges that absence of a modern customer support system retards sales but says the issue is being addressed by Helicopter Holding.