Testing has started of the prototype wing box for Irkut's MS-21 mid-size airliner, president and chairman of the company's executive board Alexey Fedorov has revealed.
The first of the carbon-plastic components is now in testing at Russia's Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) in Zhukovsky, just outside Moscow.
The MS-21, which is due to be produced in three versions carrying between 150 and 210 passengers, is the first Russian airliner to incorporate a major proportion of composites. These will account for around 40% of the structure, including a composite wing.
Under the Russian design system, says Fedorov, the "pre-pre-design" and "pre-design" stages have been completed and the "working design" stage is under way. Designers are now making three-dimensional models, while drawings for subcontractors and suppliers are being developed.
This stage will be finished by mid-2012, with airframe design largely completed by the end of 2011 and attention turning to the aircraft's systems in the first half of 2012.
First flight is due in the second half of 2014, with deliveries from 2016. Work over the past year has resulted in no significant design changes and the programme remains on schedule, says Fedorov.
The MS-21 was benchmarked against the Airbus A320, offering roughly a 15% reduction in operational costs compared with the A320 family.
Despite this year's announcement of the A320neo, which promises a 15% improvement in fuel efficiency over the current version, Fedorov is confident the MS-21 will retain a substantial edge.
Both new aircraft will use variants of Pratt & Whitney's PurePower engine - the A320neo will offer the PW1100G as its lead powerplant, while the MS-21 will offer the more powerful PW1400 alongside Aviadvigatel's PD-14.
Where the MS-21 will have an advantage, claims Fedorov, is in its airframe. "We will have a totally new airframe, wings and aerodynamics," he said. "The Airbus's airframe is [an] old design. This will give us a 6-7% advantage in operational costs."
Russia's prime minister Vladimir Putin has been forthright in telling Russian airlines they should order domestically built aircraft and Fedorov says it is natural that a government should seek to support its indigenous industry. However, he sees Putin's move as encouragement rather than "a hard recommendation" - even where state-owned carriers are concerned.
While the government's support is naturally welcome - as well as encouragement to domestic airlines, it is providing more tangible assistance in the form of around 50% of the cost of the design stage - he believes that the aircraft will sell on its own merits.
The MS-21 has received two preliminary orders of 50 aircraft apiece from Malaysian lessor Crecom Burj Resources and Russian technology umbrella company Rostechnologii, which plans to lease them to airlines such as Aeroflot.
Crecom Burj is expected to make an advance payment for its aircraft later this year. In fact, at last year's Farnborough air show this payment was said to be due around now, but Fedorov insists that negotiations with the Malaysian company remain on schedule. He also hopes to firm up Rostechnologii's contract by the end of 2011.
Talks are also ongoing with several Asian and European carriers. While Fedorov is prevented from naming most of them because of confidentiality clauses, he acknowledges discussions have taken place with Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair, for which a proposal is currently being prepared.
Ryanair executives are on record as saying that a 199-seat airliner would hit a "sweet spot" for the carrier in capacity terms. Whether its interest in the Russian airliner is merely a negotiating ploy to gain a better price from Boeing or Airbus remains to be seen.
Fedorov acknowledges that Western carriers will want to see solid evidence to support Irkut's theoretical performance figures before they commit to purchases.
Irkut also has responsibility for military programmes, notably the Yak-130 advanced jet trainer. Algeria's order of 16 is due to be delivered by the end of 2011, with pilots and technicians from the North African nation now undergoing training at the Gromov flight test centre in Zhukovsky.
Closer to home, the next few months should see an order for the type being placed by the Russian air force. Between 50 and 70 are expected to be ordered, with deliveries starting late this year or early in 2012.
Talks are also underway, says Fedorov, with major customer India for a new batch of Sukhoi Su-30MKIs. Around 40 more examples could be ordered, with delivery dates in the 2013-15 timeframe. Additionally, talks are under way over possible upgrade packages to some of New Delhi's existing Su-30MKI fleet. One aspect of any upgrade could be the capability to fire the Indo-Russian Brahmos supersonic anti-ship missile.