Russian Revolution: The Sukhoi Superjet

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Sukhoi is about to start assembling Russia's most ambitious airliner ever. In this special we explain the drivers behind the Superjet 100's creation, talk to international suppliers about what motivated them to be on board, describe technical and production details and ask whether Sukhoi really can deliver on its promise of securing orders from overseas

Next month, final assembly will begin of the most advanced Russian subsonic airliner ever produced, and arguably the most ambitious - the Sukhoi Superjet 100 (SSJ). The first Russian airliner designed from scratch to meet Western certification standards, it boasts an unprecedented number of international suppliers, incorporates fly-by-wire flight controls and an advanced flightdeck with side-stick controllers. The twinjet is powered by an all-new engine being developed by the Franco-Russian joint venture PowerJet, and is about to land a major European partner in the form of Italy's Alenia Aeronautica, which is taking a 25% stake for $250 million.

Paradigm shift

Russian studies into the regional jet began in 2001 under the plausible name Russian Regional Jet (RRJ). According to Sukhoi Aviation Holding director general Michail Pogosyan, the RRJ was conceived as a vehicle to overcome the shift in demand within the country from military to civil aircraft. "We had traditionally been a military designer and manufacturer, but had found demand diminishing rapidly," he says.

Sukhoi Aviation Holding is a major organisation - it is state-owned, but expected to shift gradually to the private sector - holding controlling stakes in the Sukhoi design bureau and the SSJ's Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC) division, as well as Siberian production plants KnAAPO and NAPO. It also has stakes in Russian aerospace companies Beriev and Irkut.

"Before 1990, we had large demand for military aircraft with annual production at KnAAPO and NAPO running at 200 aircraft and 100 aircraft, respectively," says Pogosyan. "We understood that we would eventually have to shift our market, and that became a reality after 1990."

Sukhoi now sees the commercial market as being four times the size of the military market. "It is worth $2.2 trillion versus $500 billion," says Pogosyan.

In the 1980s, Sukhoi's only civil products were small aerobatic aircraft such as the Su-26. After tentative studies of the civil sectors, such as a proposed supersonic business jet in conjunction with Gulfstream, the focus switched to the regional market. "This sector was growing very fast and we decided there was a niche for a new player."

Specific market demands

Sukhoi analysed the Russian market and found there was demand for an aircraft with fewer than 100 seats offering a range of more than 3,000km (1,620nm). "This is the distance over which 80% of the all passengers are carried in Russia," says Pogosyan. "There was demand for a regional aircraft, but with greater range than such aircraft traditionally offer - we needed to provide an aircraft with the capability to fly up to 4,500km."

One of the early decisions was to adopt a wider fuselage than is traditional for the regional market, with aircraft designed to seat five passengers abreast in economy layouts. "A two-plus-two seat cross-section [as offered by Bombardier and Embraer] is not optimal beyond 70 seats, while a three-plus-three seat configuration [the arrangement on the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737] is too big for regional aircraft," says Pogosyan.

While the emerging market in Russia for a new-generation regional jet was one of the motivating factors for the programme, Pogosyan says that the idea of also pitching the SSJ at the international market was discussed from the early stages of the programme. "We established that the total market for the aircraft we were proposing was 800 aircraft, of which 250-300 would be from airlines in Russia and the CIS, with the bulk coming from the international market," he says.

 
© SCAC   
The SSJ began life as the three model RRJ family which included the 75-seat RRJ-75 (above)

Sukhoi's "world market" ambitions brought about the need to encourage the involvement of international manufacturers, and among the first major Western collaborators was Boeing. The US airframer came on board on a consultancy basis in 2001 to provide advice on the programme management and aircraft definition, says SCAC president Victor Subbotin. "We have been in constant contact with Boeing," he says. Pogosyan adds that the US manufacturer "has helped us organise the programme in a proper way".

Subbotin says that "Boeing never tells you what to do - rather it advises how to do it". He adds that the relationship continues, with input now being provided "on testing issues and aftersales support from a team of people dedicated to the SSJ programme, based in Boeing's Moscow office". Subbotin expects Boeing's involvement to continue in the short term, at least through to the end of the flight-test programme.

Sharing the load

Studies initially centred on three sizes of regional aircraft, dubbed the RRJ-60, RRJ-75 and RRJ-95 with 60, 78 and 98 seats respectively, but the RRJ-60 has since been dropped and the focus is on the largest design, the 98-seat RRJ-95, with the 78-seater to follow. A larger version could also join the family in the future, but the Boeing connection caps the size at 110 seats in a single-class 32in (81cm)-pitch layout to avoid a conflict with the US airframer's product line.

Pogosyan put the SSJ's development bill at $1 billion - this comprises investment to design and develop the airframe, to re-equip the production plants and to create the customer support operation. Funding has come from four main sources that are roughly balanced in value, he says: "Sukhoi's own finances, state funding, banks and risk-share partners. However, Alenia Aeronautica's involvement will cause the balance to shift."

In 2005, Sukhoi signed an agreement with the "top Russian banks that are financing the procurement and production effort and will participate in sales financing," says Pogosyan. The Alenia link, plus the large presence of Safran group companies on the programme, is likely to see French or Italian banks participate in customer financing, he adds. "Around another $1 billion is required to develop the powerplant and enlarge the customer support operation," he says, with part of the former bankrolled by Snecma parent Safran.

The creation of SCAC - in which Sukhoi Aviation Holding has an 86% stake, with the remainder held by the Sukhoi design bureau (see graphic) - provides the company with an organisation whose sole purpose is to develop and manage the SSJ programme, says Pogosyan. Design of the aircraft has been undertaken at Sukhoi's Moscow headquarters, while the former military KnAAPO and NAPO plants in Siberia have been refurbished and are gearing up for series production and assembly of the SSJ.

Certification targets

Alenia's deal to take a 25% stake (plus one share) in SCAC, which cost $250 million, "will see it become a strategic partner in SCAC, participating as an investor and a manager of the SSJ programme", says Pogosyan. On the completion of the deal, which is expected next month, the two existing SCAC owners Sukhoi Aviation Holding and the Sukhoi design bureau will reduce their stakes proportionally, he adds.

The one piece of the jigsaw that SCAC must put into place if it is to realise the SSJ's full sales potential is certification of the aircraft outside the CIS. The plan is that European Aviation Safety Agency approval will follow within six months of Russian approval, and SCAC's certification manager Igor Vinogradov says that the company has been "working closely" with EASA since the start of the programme.

"We sent our application for the type certificate to EASA in 2004 and received confirmation of application in December that year. This enabled SCAC to hold its first 'kick-off' meetings with the EASA project certification manager," he says.

However, the effort ran into trouble when a change of procedure at EASA and its relocation to Cologne meant that the SCAC "lost one year in the process", says Vinogradov.

The Russian authorities have approved the SSJ's certification basis document, which was submitted in May last year, and EASA approval was due by the end of 2006. However, the effort was made more complex by EASA's request that the Russian requirements be removed for the version submitted for European approval, says Vinogradov.

SCAC would also like to rapidly secure US Federal Aviation Administration approval for the SSJ, but Vinogradov says that it is difficult to harmonise three different certification standards - Russian, European and USA.

"The FAA's participation in the certification process is still not organised," says Vinogradov. "We've held meetings with the FAA, but it has required official evidence that a US carrier was interested in the SSJ to get the process going. Now we have that, in the form of a letter from a US operator, Pinnacle/Northwest Airlines, pledging some interest."