The company behind iconic Soviet fighters is enjoying a second life as developer of Russia's first modern airliner
Built in the 1930s as an industrial centre by the Communist youth organisation Komsomol, the remote city of Komsomolsk-on-Amur, deep in the heart of Russia's far eastern forests, is preparing to receive a flotilla of Western business jets for the September roll-out of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 (SSJ).
Parking next to Soviet-era fighter jets from the glory days of Sukhoi's past, the private transport arrangements for Russia's political and industrial elite provide an intriguing insight into the painful transition of the country's aviation industry to market economic realities.
A tour of the proud industrial heritage on display in Sukhoi's museum provides a cautionary tale of necessity forcing a once-great airframer into a humbling peacetime diversification fashioning ploughshares from swords - or, more accurately, turning out children's prams and toys to offset the diminishing demand for Russian military aircraft.
But that willingness to embrace 21st century economic reality has led Sukhoi to develop the first modern Russian airliner. The Sukhoi Superjet 100 (SSJ) was designed from day one to meet Western certification standards, and through that endeavour to forge unprecedented partnerships with Western aerospace businesses such as Italy's Alenia and France's Snecma, which is jointly developing the aircraft's engine with Russia's NPO Saturn.
Final assembly of the first aircraft (MSN95001) began in March, with roll-out still on schedule for September and first flight for year-end, says Sergei Shkryabun, head of Sukhoi Civil Aircraft's (SCAC) Komsomolsk division, KnAAPO. "We are planning to build nine aircraft in 2008, 30 in 2009, 60 in 2010, and starting in 2011 to roll out 70 jets annually with a 28-day aircraft production cycle," he says.
KnAAPO is completing most of the work, including constructing the wing and main fuselage section as well as final assembly, while sister plant NAPO in Novosibirsk makes the forward and aft fuselage sections and empennage. VASO in Voronezh fulfils a lesser role producing the composite elements.
Shkryabun says the KnAAPO plant has enough tooling to produce the six test aircraft and components for serial production.
Funding looks assured, with Sukhoi and the Eurasian Development Bank signing a co-operation agreement on the SSJ programme in July through which the bank will advance a $150 million credit line to support the start-up of production. The deal followed the announcement a month earlier that Sukhoi had formally signed an agreement with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development on a 10-year, $133 million loan to support the upgrade of the two Russian plants where the SSJ is to be built, as well as to launch production and sales.
In Sukhoi's case, the funding to enable production ramp-up must be seen against the backdrop of a traditional airframer adapting to the steepest of learning curves in terms of advanced aircraft development techniques. Technologies being used for the first time by Sukhoi include some many Western airframers would regard as given: accurate and precise tooling, advanced assembly jigs, laser cutting of material and paperless design.
Boeing was on hand from the outset of the programme, however, as project consultant. Shkryabun says the US airframer's advice on technology and management, including on organising and equipping the final assembly line, has proved invaluable and easily adapted to KnAPPO's unique production environment. "This technology will help us to make the aircraft assembly very smooth and seamless at serial production level," he says.
Sukhoi has since cemented that relationship with the recent agreement to extend its use of Boeing's consultancy services to explore ways the US airframer can help support the SSJ once it enters service.
"Komsomolsk is not just a clone of a Boeing assembly line," says Shkryabun. "Still, we implemented some radical changes following their advice such as the establishment of single production units to make configuration management as flexible and convenient for the airline customer even at the final stage of production." Further radical change based on Boeing's advice will include the implementation of just-in-time technology both in supplier delivery terms and on-site technologies. "It's the main thing that has changed from the conventional Russian approach," he says.
In July, the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) at Zhukovsky, near Moscow began static testing of aircraft MSN95002 - the first airframe to be completed. The ultimate-load test on the wing will conform to European and US Part 25 certification requirements. "Specifically, the trials started with successful engine pylon tests, to be later followed by an inner pressure fuselage resistance test - the 'supercharge' - fuselage bending and torsion tests together with the approval of the wing strength. Thus, the basic structure of the aircraft will be eventually tested," says Sukhoi.
Another first here in terms of a Russian test programme was the fact that part of the landing gear was tested with the airframe. "Until now in Russia, the landing gear was usually tested on separate benches," says Sukhoi. The company says it has completed testing the engine pylon and landing gear attachment and the airframe is now being prepared for the "supercharge" and wing tests.
Meanwhile, Sukhoi's Komsomolsk plant has completed mating fuselage sections of the first flying prototype, aircraft MSN95001. Electrical and fuel systems have been installed, and the wing has been attached to the fuselage. Sukhoi is also continuing assembly of another three aircraft designated for flight and fatigue tests.
The company applied for EASA type certification in December 2004 and says all is on schedule for October 2008 approval, a month before the entry into service of the first aircraft destined for Russian carrier Aeroflot. Sukhoi met with the Russian Aviation Register of Interstate Aviation Committee and EASA in July to discuss certification issues and agree steps to help Sukhoi familiarise itself with EASA's validation process before the end of this year.
The aircraft's commercial launch success is all-important. This year's Paris air show saw the announcement that the SSJ had secured its first foreign customer - Italian carrier ItAli Airlines, which ordered 10 aircraft with an option for another 10, taking the firm order tally to 71. Sukhoi says this contract opens the doors to international markets and provided the rationale for a meeting in late June between Sukhoi, the French and Russian ministries of finance, the French and Italian export credit agencies, Safran/Snecma, Alenia, Vneshekonombank and Roseximbank.
"The participants considered the existing approaches towards the development of a unified funding system for SSJ customers," says Sukhoi.
Igor Vinogradov, Sukhoi's first vice-president and SSJ programme director, says sales efforts are centring on India, Indonesia and South-East Asia, allied with a joint effort by SSJ programme stakeholder Alenia focusing on Europe, South America and the USA. "We expect to have sold 100 aircraft by the end of the year," says Vinogradov, who adds that Sukhoi wants the SSJ to account for up to 35% of its sales by 2015 and that break-even will be 300 aircraft.
Having securing its first Western customer for the SSJ. Sukhoi also hopes to obtain orders from two Western leasing companies, While declining to specify the countries in which the lessors are based, Snecma commercial engines vice-president and general manager Jean-Pierre Cojan reports: "We have had very concrete discussions." Cojan adds that leading German carrier Lufthansa's decision to join the SSJ's airline advisory board, while not a sure-fire signal of a forthcoming order, is an indication of the aircraft's growing commercial credibility.