Obstacle course

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Russian GA manufacturers chafe at the bit at slow progress being made in the country's industry.

Alexander Velovich/MOSCOW

IN THE SOVIET Union, general aviation (GA) as it is understood in the West did not exist. Now, with Russia moving to a market economy, rapid GA development is widely anticipated, but progress is still slow because of difficulties inherited from the old system or generated by the transition period.

Before the changes, more than 11,000 GA aircraft were operated in the Soviet Union, mostly Antonov An-2 biplanes, Yakovlev Yak-18T four-seaters, Yak-52 and Yak-55 aerobatic and trainer aircraft and Mil Mi-2 helicopters. The majority of these belonged to local detachments of the civil-aviation (MGA) ministry and aero clubs of the Voluntary Society of Assistance to the Army, Navy and Air Force (DOSAAF). Dozens of clubs and airfields were operated by the DOSAAF training pilots, parachutists, radio operators and others useful to the military.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the DOSAAF was split into two rival organisations: the National Aviation Association of Russia (NAAR) and the Russian Organisation of Military Technical Societies (ROSTO). The crux of the dispute is simple - the ownership of aircraft and airfield infrastructure, property worth millions (if not billions) of dollars. In March 1993, a presidential decree signed by Boris Yeltsin, gave an upper hand in the dispute to the NAAR, but after two years of behind-the-scenes struggle, another decree again signed by Yeltsin, cancelled the previous one and gave responsibility for GA aircraft and airfields to the Department of Air Transport (DAT) and the ROSTO.

Meanwhile, manufacturers, suffering from drastic cuts in defence spending and insolvency among commercial operators, directed disproportionately intensive efforts into GA designs. Now, about 30 organisations, ranging from well-known design bureaux to newly created private companies, are developing as many as 70 types with take-off weights of less than 10t. Most will never get beyond paper designs, but others are already in series production.

Large, privatised, companies and the new social strata of rich Russians are obvious potential customers for GA manufacturers. Judging by the rocketing number of luxury Western cars in the streets of Moscow, one can make the assumption that the next toy of a prosperous Russian entrepreneur might well be a private aircraft. Besides, commercial operators, especially on internal flights within Russia and the CIS, constantly suffer delays and cancellations of regular flights, poor flight-safety records and even lack of fuel, causing those who can afford it to look for effective corporate and private means of air transport. All these factors, combine to give the estimation of a near-term Russian GA market capacity of about 30,000 aircraft says, NAAR president Sergey Maslov.

To consolidate those involved in GA activities, the NAAR organised its first GA show, from 2-7 June, at Tushino Airport, Moscow. Despite the timing (just before the Paris air show and less than three months before MosAero '95), the organiser managed to attract 48 participants, 35 aircraft and the attendance of about 100,000 visitors in the five days.

The show's major goals, besides establishing a GA market, says the organiser, included the search for investors in GA projects, modernisation and construction of GA airfields and ground infrastructure, and the publicising of regulations for the purchasing and operating of GA aircraft by private and corporate owners. The show, which is intended to become a regular event, is part of the NAAR's wide-scale effort to make Tushino Airport, favourably located inside the Moscow City borders, the centre of business aviation. While the plan is supported by the Moscow City administration, its future depends entirely on the availability of investors. Some Russian commercial banks and financial institutions however, have committed themselves to several GA development and production programmes and the Tushino show provided visible evidence, that these investments are beginning to show results. Several light aircraft, seen previously only as mock-ups, had their public debuts at the show.

The seven-seat, single-turboprop, Myasishchev/Sokol M-101T Gzhel was flown for the first time on 31 March and, two months later, had logged about 20h in 14 flights. According to Yevgeniy Charsky, Myasishchev chief designer, the development of the aircraft, is financed by the Moscow Narodny bank and several other commercial banks. The Sokol production plant in Nizhny Novgorod has started on the first batch, despite having no firm orders, and general manager Vladimir Pomolov says that the M-101T programme is his priority.

Charsky estimates that the price of the Gzhel on the Russian market will be $1.2 million and claims strong interest from potential foreign customers. Test flights showed that the pressurised cabin allows the aircraft to cruise at 25,000ft (7,600m) at 270kt (500km/h). Range with maximum load is estimated at 800km (430nm) After the completion of the manufacturer's flight tests, the Gzhel is to be handed over to the State Research Institute of Civil Aviation for certification flight-tests. The company hopes for a type certificate by the end of the year.

Incombank, the fourth largest (and the leading privately controlled) Russian commercial bank, has committed itself to the innovative design of the AeroRIK/Sokol Dingo, with air-cushion landing gear. The first Dingo prototype, equipped with the Pratt & Whitney/ Klimov PK6 cruise turboprop and the Kaluga TVA-200 turbo-shaft for charging the air cushion, was exhibited at MosAero '95 and is expected to have its maiden flight in the third quarter of this year. AeroRIK is believed to have developed an aircraft, which will have the operational versatility of a helicopter on the plains and swampy areas of the Russian north, where the airfield network is scarce, while at the same time, its operational cost is thought to be closer to that of a conventional fixed-wing GA aircraft. The 3,600kg twin-boom machine will have a cruise speed of 150kt and a payload of 850kg.

Another contender is the ROKS-Aero/ MAPO T-101 Grach. The design of this high-wing turboprop, powered by a single Omsk TVD-10B, was based initially on the Antonov An-2 biplane. A large portion of the fuselage and other parts of a veteran An-2 are used on the prototype, which has been flying since December 1994. To lower production costs and shorten development time, ROKS-Aero chief designer Yevgeniy Grunin intended to make wide use of parts from An-2s, hundreds of which are standing idle at airfields all over Russia. This concept has been abandoned and design authority has been taken over by the MAPO production plant, which is now actively marketing it at a price of $650,000. The aircraft is offered as a successor to the An-2, capable of carrying nine passengers and 500kg of cargo up to 1,500km.

OFFICIAL RECOGNITION

The development of GA in Russia has received official recognition in a programme document prepared by the Aviaprom association under the supervision of the State Committee for Defence Branches of Industry (SDBI). The concept of the programme, having taken into account the economic situation in Russia, provides for mostly non-budget financing of GA development, although it still outlines the need for state bank-loans with discount interest rates.

A two-volume, 600-page, programme defines the terminology, outlines the major problems and offers ways to deal with them. Vladimir Prisyazhnyuk of Aviaprom, who headed the working group which prepared the programme, says that the next step will be the creation of an inter-agency co-ordination council, which will include representatives of the DAT, ROSTO, Russian air-traffic-control authority Rosaeronavigatsia, the air-defence force and the SDBI. Prisyazhnyuk believes that the major hindrance to the growth of GA in Russia is the absence of a new air code. The Soviet air code, adopted in 1983 and which is still in effect in Russia, does not provide any legal basis for operations of private- or corporate-owned aircraft. One member of the Russian parliament, who attended the Tushino show, says that, in Russia, there are no laws - except for those of physics - which would allow GA aircraft to be flown.

As Russian legislators are busy with preparations for parliamentary elections scheduled for December and are unlikely, therefore, to show interest in adopting a new air code soon, the recent presidential decree appoints the DAT and ROSTO to issue temporary regulations for GA operations. Procedures for GA aircraft certification have already been put into force with the adoption of the AP-23, the equivalent of US Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) 23. An AP-OLS document for certification of very-light aircraft, is in preparation and is expected to be enforced this year.

"The absence of a proper legal basis does not prevent those who want to fly from doing that," says Vyacheslav Kondratyev, general manager and chief designer of Technoavia. Founded three years ago, Technoavia is now considered to be the most successful GA manufacturer in Russia. Kondratyev used to work on the Yakovlev Yak-52/-55 and is believed by many to be the designer of the successful Su-26 aerobatic aircraft. He found an investor for restarting production of the Yak-18T at Smolensk, after a break of almost 20 years. In the past two years, about 80 aircraft have been produced, 25 of which have been sold to foreign customers in Germany, the Philippines, Switzerland, the UK and the USA, with 20 going to the civil-aviation pilots' training centre in Ulyanovsk.

Technoavia developed the SM-94, based on the Yak-18T, installing Western avionics, additional fuel tanks and a fully metal airframe structure. The number of seats was increased to six and the company is offering the SM-94 for a competitive $80,000, just $10,000 more than the cost of a basic Yak-18T. Another successful Technoavia design is the high-wing SM-92 Finist. One aircraft was sold to a UK operator for less than $100,000, and permission was recently granted by Belgium for the Finist to be operated by Belgian parachutist clubs. The design drew the attention of Russia's Federal Borderguards Service (FBS), which ordered 14 aircraft, with a possible option for up to 200. The SM-92 for the FBS, exhibited at MosAero '95, was armed with a pair of B-8V-7 launchers for unguided 80mm air-to-ground rockets and two 7.62mm machine guns on the fuselage pylons, plus a PKS machine-gun firing through the sliding side door.

Kondrateyn says that the major obstacle to rapid GA development is poor infrastructure and lack of fuel for piston engines. Although the Vedeneyev M-14 engine is easygoing about fuel quality, and can even burn automobile petrol, even that of 92 octane and higher is difficult to get at airfields in the Russian provinces. Aviation petrol, Kondratyev says, is available only in the 200km zone around Moscow. Difficulty in getting fuel and excessively high airfield fees in Siberia, amounting, for example, to $1,000 per parking day at remotely situated Lensk, caused Technoavia to send one of its SM-92s westwards, across the Atlantic (and against the prevailing winds), to participate in the Abbotsford Air Show in British Columbia, Canada.

The crew of test pilots Mikhail Molchanyuk and Vladimir Makagonov and flight engineer Victor Alexeyenko arrived at Abbotsford in early August in time for the show. One leg over the Atlantic lasted 9.5h, demonstrating the crew's confidence in the single M-14 270kW (360hp) engine and the Garmin satellite-navigation system. Technoavia immediately received offers for the aircraft, but rejected them to keep their leading machine, in terms of logged flight hours, for further flight tests. The $165,000 Finist was hurried back for MosAero '95, across Alaska and Siberia, but a not unexpected lack of fuel struck the aircraft near the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk and prevented its triumphant appearance after circumnavigating the globe.

The third Technoavia design is an aerobatic SP-91, four of which have been sold in the USA, and its advanced variant, the SP-96 Slava. Kondratyev says that this two-seat, all-metal, aircraft will be three times cheaper than the Sukhoi Su-29, with only slightly inferior performance, and that is supposed to widen the market fivefold, compared with the Su-29/31, of which only about ten to 15 aircraft are sold in a year. The SP-96's cockpit is convertible to a single-seat layout, and the job can be done by a mechanic in an airfield hangar.

While Technoavia seems to be as successful as a GA manufacturer can be in Russia now, its chief test pilot describes its existence as "jumping from one ice-floe to another". Chief designer Kondratyev is sceptical about the prospects of GA in Russia and says that progress will be slow. "In the last two years we have sold five aircraft to private Russian operators. I believe that we will sell some eight more in the next two years," he comments. Nevertheless, marketing Russian GA aircraft in the West is proving to be a worthwhile business and, as Kondratyev puts it: "One can live even in the existing bedlam."

FOREIGN SOLUTION

While Russian GA manufacturers aim at the West, Western companies are keen to gain a portion of the Russian market. So far, Raytheon Aircraft has established itself as the best seller in Russia and the CIS, having delivered 13 Hawker-series aircraft to the region. The Hawker was the first Western business jet to receive full Russian certification in 1993, with Dassault following with its Falcon series.

Avcom, based at Sheremetyevo International Airport, has five Hawkers. Other operators include the Government of Turkmenistan, and Meridian Air. Recently, Raytheon opened an office in Moscow and signed a memorandum of understanding with a Russian firm, which would become Raytheon's authorised dealer in the CIS.

Most of the Hawkers operated in the CIS are secondhand aircraft supplied by the manufacturer. Raytheon inspects and refurbishes them, issuing a one-year guarantee on all parts, So far, all CIS-operated Hawkers go to the UK for maintenance, but, as customers build up, Raytheon plans a maintenance centre in Russia.

The Russian Air Register has been working closely with the US Federal Aviation Administration for more than two years to sign a bilateral airworthiness agreement. Mutual verification of AP-23/FAR-23 regulations is being made, using the four-seat, low-wing, Ilyushin Il-103 as the basis. The aircraft is in series production at the MAPO plant in Lukhovitsy, near Moscow, and is expected to receive Russian type certification by the end of the year. Powered by the Teledyne Continental IO-360ES piston engine, the Il-103 is yet another example of so-far-successful East-West co-operation.

It is difficult to forecast who will benefit most, East or West, from the developing GA market in Russia and the CIS, but the prevailing feeling of Russians involved in the GA business is that there is an immense potential market, but that it will materialise only with the overall economic recovery of the nation.