Although best known for its Yak-130 military trainers and vectored-thrust Sukhoi fighters, Irkut is working hard on the MC-21 next-generation passenger airliner, in the hope of restoring Russia’s position in the global commercial aircraft market.
Irkut president Oleg Demchenko notes that later this year the corporation’s primary manufacturing site in Irkutsk and the Yakovlev design bureau in Moscow will be celebrating their 80th anniversaries. “Historically, the machinists in Irkutsk and designers in Moscow worked closely from the very beginning, with the plant starting manufacturing activity with assembly of aircraft designs from Sergei Yakovlev and Pavel Sukhoi. And yet we had to come a long way before the design house and the plant united into the corporation," he says.
Timely fulfilment of Russian defence ministry orders was Irkut’s biggest achievement in the past year. “We delivered aircraft to the defence ministry ahead of schedule, and even shipped two extra Yaks and completed two extra Sukhoi Su-30SMs [that were scheduled to be delivered in 2014]. Contracts already signed load our manufacturing to capacity in 2014 and 2015," Demchenko adds.
The Russian air force has ordered sixty Su-30SM vectored-thrust fighters, of which 16 have been delivered, with about 20 more due this year. Irkut supplies the largely similar Su-30MKI in kit form to Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) for subsequent assembly at its Nasik plant. Early last year the Indian air force had about 170 operable Su-30MKIs out of 272 on order. In 2011-2013 the Russian air force received over 40 Yak-130s, and expects its order for 55 such aircraft to be fulfilled in 2014. The Russian military is also considering follow-on orders.
Export prospects also look promising – foreign customers are forecast to buy 250 aircraft. Algeria already operates 16 Yak-130As along with Su-30MKA multirole fighters also made by Irkut. Several Arab nations have signed for the type as well. Last year Bangladesh signed for 24 Yak-130s to be acquired on credit arranged by the Russian government. “I can confirm that this order has been finalised,” says Demchenko. Already received and negotiated domestic and foreign orders will support an annual production rate of over 30 Yak-130s through to 2020.
The Yak-130 can carry a weapons load of 3t, made up of UPK-23-250 gun pods, S-8 unguided rockets, bombs weighing up to 500kg (1,100lb), including a new model of 250kg guided bomb, strike missiles with radar or electro-optical guidance and Vympel R-73E air-to-air missiles. This makes the aircraft capable of a wide variety of applications, from pure training to combat duties. “If your aircraft is not good enough, it does not sell. The Yak-130 sells well to both the Russian military and export customers. This is the best proof of the airplane performance, and also that of the corporation,” Demchenko says.
Comparing the current situation with that in the 1990s, the Irkut president says: “I always recall it with fear. The bad times are gone, certainly. In my opinion, the worst is over now. Aircraft manufacturing in Russia is back on track." Commenting on Irkut’s decision to embark on the MC-21 next-generation narrowbody project, Demchenko says it was made for the sake of keeping Russia among the world’s manufacturers of commercial airliners.
“This is certainly a very ambitious project. Irkut could have done well without by leveraging on the big and growing military aircraft business. One of the things that urged us to go for the MC-21 has been the fact that a proper structured aviation industry of a big nation cannot rely only on the military aircraft business," he says. "It is impossible [for the nation] to limit itself to military aviation.
"Without a strong civil aircraft business, the military one will not stand long. There are too many ties between these two businesses, so that they cannot be totally separated. The civil and the military aircraft have always been supporting each other, and will be doing so in the future."
The issue of loading the plant in Irkutsk with orders over a long period has been discussed with many top civil servants and politicians in 2013. Demchenko says: “They all came to [the] conclusion that the factory such as this – and this one is indeed a valuable national asset – must be provided with a sufficient workload for years to come.
"Among other things, this is important for the MC-21 project to materialise. If the plant stays under-utilised, it is a fool’s business to try getting customers for a brand new airplane, however good it may look on paper. If the manufacturer is under-loaded today, it is not going to be in a good position tomorrow to convince the customers that they should buy new aircraft from him.
"That’s why the military orders coming to us are so important today. They keep the plant working and progressing, and also provide a firm foundation for the assured market entry for the MC-21."
Demchenko does not expect an easy market entry for the MC-21, however. “Nobody waits for us in this market," he says. "To get ourselves in, we need to fight our way through with arms and elbows so to move off those manufacturers who are already there.
"The airlines are free to choose what they want, they have their own economics and business plans. How can I force Aeroflot, Transaero or S7 to buy my airplane? I cannot make them buy [MC-21] unless the airplane confirms advertised performance in flight tests.”
Demchenko claims big leaps have been made by Irkut in the past few years in the domain of lean manufacturing. “We had a big event recently at our factory, when chief engineers from leading Russian plants were there to share experience and attend masterclasses on lean manufacturing. The biggest praise for me was a comment from a highly experienced specialist from the USA, who said that very soon Irkut is going to surpass Airbus at lean manufacturing technologies,” he says.
Making components for Airbus was the right decision at the right time, Demchenko says: “I have been told that this effort is odd and worthless. That’s not true. We make three types of components for Airbus and, albeit small, they are rather difficult airframe assemblies to make.
"If we had not teamed up with Airbus on these components, our production facilities would have never been acknowledged in Europe and certificated by the Europeans. Through this effort, we managed to train our staff members at Toulouse and other locations across Europe, and learn how to work jointly with the European aircraft developers and manufacturers at the design and engineering level."
Through the component business Irkut gained some invaluable experience in the Airbus way of making passenger jetliners, Demchenko adds: “Although the project for the A320 cargo conversion did not come to fruition, and caused us financial losses, there is something important about it.
"The hundred engineers that had been involved in this project from our side came back home with vital experiences of working together with their European colleagues, including some of the finest Airbus specialists.”