Russian Helicopters (RH) is a strong, viable rotorcraft manufacturer with a firm footing in the domestic and overseas markets. But its future prospects are darkened by events unfolding in neighbouring Ukraine, the company’s longtime majority supplier of turboshaft engines.

There is little doubt that, in the long run, Russia can find alternative sources of engines or develop a local manufacturing capability. But in the interim, the engines may be in short supply, hitting sales and deliveries. On the positive side, RH has recently won new big deals in China and India which further strengthen the manufacturer’s footprint in these important client countries, whose demand will continue to drive business.

By the total number of shipments in 2014, RH, with 271, is second only to Airbus Helicopters, with 471. However, as the company admits, it delivered eight different types to clients from 11 countries last year - hardly reflective of a broad customer base outside of its home country.

Despite a substantial rise in list-prices over the past few years, Russian platforms are still cheaper to buy. This, of course, means that revenues at the manufacturer are lower than those of its Western rivals. Besides, with RH only recently turning its attentions to generating income from after-sales support, a certain lag behind the big four of AgustaWestland, Airbus Helicopters, Bell and Sikorsky is understandable.

Geographically, Russian helicopters are well represented throughout the world. At the same time, their presence is somewhat one-sided: most in-service Russian rotorcraft fall into the heavy class, with maximum take-off weights (MTOW) of 11-16t. Almost all popular models from the Mil and Kamov design houses – including combat, utility, transport, VIP, naval – fall into this rather narrow niche.

And Mil holds the honour of the making the world's largest helicopter, the 56t Mi-26T, which will shortly be produced in an updated T2 guise.

Below 11t, however, RH's presence is almost non-existent. This is certainly a weak point and one that the company is attempting to address with a three-pronged assault on the medium-weight class.

This consists of the serially delayed 6.5t Ka-62 (and its military version, the Ka-60), the 3.6t Ansat and the Ka-226. Seating up to 11 passengers, the Ansat, available for the civil market with a hydro-mechanical control system, rather than fly-by-wire controls as originally intended, is meant to replace the nine-seat Mi-2. Although designed in Moscow, nearly 5,500 copies of the Mi-2 were produced in Poland, including some that are still operational. The Ka-226T, certified in March this year, features Kamov’s characteristic coaxial rotor layout and detachable cabin modules. This helicopter is more suitable for hot-and-high operations in urban and mountain areas. India, having selected the platform for its light scout requirement, is negotiating terms covering local assembly, with a forecast production run between 200 and 500.

And yet, the future of RH in this market segment is far from assured. Here, the competition from the West is very strong, with most European and US manufacturers having cultivated their presence here for decades.

Russia is entirely absent in the big market segment of light helicopters. Apart from a handful of 1.5t Mi-34s, of which fewer than 30 were built in the 1988-2011 timeframe, there is no Russian presence there. Kamov tried its luck with the 2t Ka-112, and Kazan Helicopters with the 1.2t Aktai, but these did not proceed beyond prototypes. The primary reason has been the very strong competition from US and European manufacturers, which – unlike Russians – have always been paying attention to this sector.

“It is not easy for us to commence work on indigenous lightweight helicopters in earnest because the Mil and Kamov design houses are now overloaded with other work. Instead, we need to turn our Western rivals into partners," says Alexander Mikheyev, general manager at Russian Helicopters. “So, in the domain of lightweight helicopters we focus on partnerships with global manufacturers which are already well represented in this market niche”.

The Mi-26’s maximum take-off weight of 56t gives it a maximum payload of 20t. It can take 82 armed soldiers or up to 60 wounded. Over three hundred Mi-26s have been manufactured so far, including about 40 for export customers. The latest deliveries were to the Russian defence ministry: 17 machines in 2011-14. In addition to three Mi-26TS received in 2007-10, China ordered one more for delivery in 2015.

In the meantime, the manufacturing plant – Rostvertol in Rostov-upon-Don – has been working on making the Mi-26T2 a new production standard. It features a state-of-the-art BREO-26 avionics package from Russian firm KRET allowing for night operations, with a glass cockpit based on five LCD screens, digital data processing, satellite-aided navigation, secure datalink and built-in health-monitoring system. The number of crews is reduced from four to two (from five to three in case of using a sling). The new avionics and improved control system enables the helicopter to execute precise manoeuvres when hovering with load on a sling.

The Russian MoD is the primary customer, but the exact number of orders is not yet public. The first foreign customer is Algeria, which signed for six units in July 2013. This move had been preceded by a demonstration flight programme in the country using MSN901, a Mi-26T2 prototype first flown in 2011.

Rostvertol assembled two deliverable Mi-26T2s in 2014, both painted in “desert” colours, rather than standard Russian grey or green livery. It first entered flight tests in late December, and is now being prepared for delivery.

After no less than five years of negotiations and product definition talks, China and Russia have struck a deal to jointly develop the Advanced Heavy Lift (AHL) helicopter. In the presence of China chairman Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin, the respective agreement was signed on 8 May.

Executive director and chairman of the Board at AVIC, Lin Zuoming, who applied his signature to the agreement, says: “Russian Helicopters has unique competence in heavy rotorcraft. For instance, the performance of the legendary Mi-26 series helicopters is unmatched. These reliable machines have helped us on a few occasions. The Mi-26TS played an important role in disaster relief operations following strong earth shakes in Sichuan province of China in 2008 and 2013. I am convinced that the co-operation with Russian Helicopters on the new heavy helicopter will be productive and will greatly influence in a positive way the further development of the Chinese helicopter industry.”

The AHL is intended have a MTOW of 38t, and maximum internal payload capability of 10t and up to 15t on a sling. This makes it no competitor to the heavier Mi-26T2, but rather a successor to the Mi-6 with a MTOW of 42.5t and payload capability of 8-12t, of which 926 examples were built and which stayed in operation from 1963 to 2004. Its derivative Mi-10K survives, but a handful of those “flying cranes” suffer from a shortage of tail rotors made of chemically-reinforced wood.

According to the Russian Helicopters’ press service, the 8 May agreement allows for the design work on the new machine to start in earnest, and for production preparations to commence. Among a mutually-agreed set of requirements to the new rotorcraft is its ability to operate round-the-clock in a hot-and-high environment and in all weathers. “The AHL shall be able to serve in a wide spectrum of roles, including transportation, evacuation, fire-fighting”. It is meant to be produced in China, and win “over 200 orders” with shipments through to 2040.

Even though the partners picture the project as being civilian, it is hard to believe that People’s Liberation Army would not also sign up.

Mikheyev, who applied his signature to the 8 May documents, says: “The Chinese helicopter market is one of the fastest growing ones in the world. We are interested in long-term, comprehensive relations of a strategic nature with China for the sake of mutually beneficial co-operation in the field of helicopter development and production.

“It is very important that the perspective heavy helicopter has gained approval from the side of governments of our both countries. We are sure that the materialisation of this project will expand the horizons for the Sino-Russian co-operation.”

On the opening day of the HeliRussia show in May, Mikheyev told the media that Russian Helicopters and AVIC have formed preliminary technical requirements, and “continue to work jointly on defining technical parameters” of their new product. The two are set to sign a general contract on the project later this year. There is a mutually-agreed “road map” for further actions. Mikheyev says: “Participants have been named, among them Russian and Chinese companies, as well as Ukraine’s Motor Sich with an engine.” However, Ukrainian officials were quick to deny Motor Sich the right to take part in this project.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Aviadvigatel design house signalled its intent to develop a brand-new engine for the new helicopter. It would use the gas-generator developed for the PD-14, a 14t-class turbofan now undergoing bench trials, and destined for the Irkut MC-21 next-generation narrowbody airliner. The new engine is known as the PD-12V.

The lion’s share of RH sales has been generated by medium helicopters: the Mi-24/35, Mi-28 and Ka-50/52 for the army, the Ka-27/28/31 for the navy, the Ka-32 for fire-fighters and timber-loggers, and the Mi-8/17 family for a wide variety of military and civilian applications.

The Mi-8/17 family still accounts for more than half of RH shipments in the past several years, at some 150-200 units annually.

An important achievement for Kamov designs in the civil domain has been a framework contract with China for 20 Ka-32A11BCs, with four shipments in 2014.

The 12t Mi-8, which first flew in 1961 and entered service four years later, and boasts the world’s most mass-produced twin-engined, turbine-powered helicopter with over 12,000 copies, is still economically attractive.

According to Angara, a prominent commercial operator of Eastern Siberia with 13 Mi-8s, these TV-2-117-powered machines are popular with local customers, including tourist operators and oil and gas companies.

Even though the Mi-8T is considered “underpowered” by modern standards, in the Siberian environment it provides the least expensive means of transportation for a group of 15-20 people with their weekly supply, such as a shift of workers for an oil derrick or a drilling rig.

Angara also operates a pair of Mi-8MTVs with high-power TV3-117s (2,000-2,200shp compared to 1,500shp for the TV2-117), but finds their services more difficult to sell, since the market is used to the cheap, but sufficiently able Mi-8T.

“We have been looking for a suitable replacement for the long-serving Mi-8, but the list-prices for the Russian Helicopters’ newly-built rotorcraft are too high. The factory in Ulan-Ude produces a superb Mi-171, but because of the high price, its flight hour comes with a tariff which our clients are not yet ready to accept”, says Angara director Anatoly Yurtaev. “Since the local market is not yet ready for massive employment of the Mi-171, the Mi-8 will continue to fly for another 10 years until their lifetime resources run out completely.”

Meanwhile, there are many other markets in the world where the Mi-17 services are in demand. According to Atlas Taxi Aereo, in the Brazilian environment the Mi-171A1 demonstrates four times higher productivity than the Sikorsky S-76A. Referring to feedback from RH customers, Mikheyev does not see need to develop a replacement. “The platform itself is well proven and its production streamlined. We continue working on extending its lifetime resources, avionics and weapons systems,” he says.

Source: Flight Daily News