When construction of Moscow’s television tower in the city’s Ostankinsky district began in 1963, prestige was clearly a consideration in building what was then the world’s tallest free-standing structure. The 540m (1,772ft)-high tower was completed four years later, and kept its record until the CN Tower in Toronto was completed in 1976 (and it remains the tallest building in Europe). However, the structure's true objective was more than to demonstrate the construction capabilities of the former Soviet Union.
The Ostankino Tower was part of an extensive network of transmitters throughout the Soviet Union, built to ensure that broadcasters could reach audiences across the enormous, largely remote territory. Complications included – for a start – the provision that transmissions had to cover the 10 time zones between the USSR's European border and its regions in the far east. Meanwhile, the infrastructure had to function amidst harsh conditions: summer temperatures regularly soar above 40°C (104°F), and plummet below -40°C in the winter.
While not as large as the former Soviet Union, Russia remains an enormous country. To some extent, the challenge of doing business across its sprawling geography is the same now as it was for the creators of the Ostankino Tower, where the challenge of distance must be overcome. That is why Yury Slyusar, president of Russia’s United Aircraft (UAC), stressed the importance of digital communications between the state manufacturer’s facilities during an interview with FlightGlobal.
UAC is comprised of around 30 entities across Russia, including design bureaux Ilyushin, MiG, Sukhoi, Tupolev and Yakolev, amphibious aircraft specialist Beriev, and multiple aircraft manufacturing plants, suppliers, research and test facilities, repair sites and leasing companies – with a total workforce of more than 98,000.
While aircraft were traditionally developed by one of the design bureaux in Moscow and built in manufacturing facilities elsewhere, Slyusar describes UAC’s engineering activities today as a “single, distributed design bureau”. New aircraft projects or upgrades of existing equipment are addressed by the group as a whole, rather than individual units, he says, adding that “every piece is involved in this process”.
Without a digital infrastructure, the sheer scale of the group’s footprint would make co-operation between sites and central management a daunting task. Reaching Sukhoi’s Yuri Gagarin aircraft manufacturing plant in Komsomolsk-on-Amur – which assembles the Su-27, Su-30, and Su-35 fighters, and the civilian Superjet 100 – around 560 miles (900km) northeast of Vladivostok and seven time zones away, involves an 8h flight from Moscow.
But distance aside, UAC’s greater challenge is to turn the group’s diverse constituent parts into an integrated company with a coherent product line. Slyusar acknowledges that the individual design bureaux developed their own “engineering schools” during the Soviet era as internal competition was encouraged by the nation's leadership. This continued to shape activities after the USSR’s collapse in 1991. But today UAC faces international competition, in the commercial arena at least, from formidable foes Airbus and Boeing. Lingering internal rivalries will only help UAC’s competitors, although some jealousies are perhaps understandable given the group’s scale and limited number of large programmes.
A corporate restructure has been initiated to consolidate UAC’s activities into two dedicated divisions: civil and military aviation. As part of this restructure, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC) has been merged with Irkut, bringing together the respective manufacturers of Russia's two main commercial aircraft programmes, the Superjet 100 regional jet and the in-development MC-21 single-aisle. UAC is also jointly developing with Chinese manufacturer Comac the CRAIC CR929 widebody.
In April, UAC named Ravil Khakimov as president of both Irkut and SCAC, appointing the latter’s previous chief, Alexander Rubtsov, as vice-president of sales and marketing for the new civil division. However, FlightGlobal understands that Rubtsov left UAC shortly after. As the larger of the two firms, Irkut has been selected as the base company for the new civil aviation division.
Slyusar acknowledges it is “not an easy process” to unite the separate design bureaux in a single company and create new subdivisions along product lines. He admits that management is facing “difficulties from inside”, but says the manufacturer is continuing the process, which it aims to complete by year-end.
As part of the effort, UAC is evaluating creation of a new brand for its commercial aircraft division, which covers the Superjet, MC-21, an update of the Ilyushin Il-114 regional turboprop, and potentially the CR929 too. However, no decision has been taken, the company says.
The manufacturer intends to create commonality between the MC-21 and Superjet through an update of the 100-seat regional jet. In 2018, SCAC disclosed that it was studying a shrink of the type for 75 passengers and had discussed the project with several operators; S7 Airlines has tentatively committed to take up to 75 examples of the new derivative.
The airframer has proposed a new, composite wing as a “main option” and equipment substitutions to increase Russian-made content on the type and to reduce the aircraft’s dry weight by 12-15%. SCAC suggested the 75-seat variant could enter service around 2023.
Slyusar confirms the programme is aimed at replacing certain Western systems with Russian-made equipment to provide “new pricing and better reliability”. But he says that no decision has been made about the future version’s capacity. Shrinking the existing SSJ100 is being considered only as an option, he insists, noting that “it is not the main task”.
The focus of attention, he says, is to align the Superjet with the MC-21 and to improve the former’s technical reliability and production costs using Russian equipment, to provide “similar or better quality at lower price” than Western manufacturers.
UAC claims it is being supplied with certain Western equipment under less favourable conditions than Western airframers receive.
Earlier this year, Russia's trade and industry ministry issued a formal Rb 3.5 billion ($558 million) research and development tender to "maximise import substitution" of Superjet component and systems. The tender seeks a sole contractor to supply equipment under a project subbed "SSJ New", with a deadline to submit bids by 15 December.
State corporation Rostec – UAC's majority shareholder – disclosed in July that its KRET radio-electronics division will provide a prototype inertial navigation system for the Superjet. The Russian INS will be presented at MAKS air show and is to be flight-tested in the autumn.
SCAC has previously suggested that it intends to adopt MC-21 technology for the Superjet. The company said it was aiming for a “unified” platform for the two aircraft, with both types looking “exactly the same” from a pilot’s point of view, while the cabin interior would feature the same design approach and level of comfort.
The Superjet 100 is available today in a basic and long-range variant
To further broaden the family concept, UAC has proposed to Comac that the CR929 should also adopt “proven decisions and design features” from the Superjet and MC-21. But Comac has its own single-aisle programme under development – the C919 – and might seek its own commonality with the widebody.
UAC’s main lesson from the Superjet programme has been to establish a more responsive and capable aftermarket support infrastructure, with more spare part suppliers, warehouses, MRO providers and local partners close to operators. Slyusar notes that aircraft support problems became a more pressing issue as the in-service fleet grew after the type entered service in 2011; Cirium’s Fleets Analyzer shows that 172 Superjets had been built by 15 July.
“For us, that is a big [programme],” Slyusar says. He acknowledges that operators have been affected by “certain problems… [which] are not great for the programme”. The type’s sole two Western customers – Mexican carrier Interjet and Irish wet-lease operator CityJet – have had a range of technical issues, prompting them to withdraw aircraft from service.
In mid-July, Interjet had parked 16 of its 22 Superjets, Cirium’s Fleets Analyzer shows, while delivery of a further eight on-order aircraft looks uncertain. The jets were parked – some units having been in storage since April 2018 – with dozens of the aircraft’s PowerJet SaM146 engines out of service after a dispute over maintenance. In 2018, Bloomberg reported that Interjet was forced to take four Superjets out of service and was cannibalising them for parts to keep the remaining fleet operational.
CityJet, meanwhile, withdrew its entire fleet of seven Superjets from service after the carrier’s last scheduled flight with the type in January. The Dublin-based airline declined in February to provide detail about its decision to stop operating the type. But Brussels Airlines – which had previously wet-leased four SSJ100s from CityJet – said in late 2018 that the aircraft had been affected by operational problems that led to “many cancellations”, and that the twinjets required longer maintenance checks than other equipment.
UAC contends that CityJet stopped operating its Superjets because it was “reconsidering its business model”, but this is disputed by the airline.
Citing Russian carrier Azimuth, Slyusar says the aircraft is capable of reaching “good” utilisation rates of more than 300h a month. He says that building up an aftermarket support system is an “absolute priority”, but setting up that ecosystem – in addition to developing a clean-sheet aircraft – is a “hard… financially very hungry task".
“It’s easier when you have the infrastructure around,” he says. The planned effort to establish a more capable support structure for the Superjet is seen as an investment to prepare the ground for the MC-21 and CR929 programmes.
On 5 May, an Aeroflot Superjet crash-landed at Moscow Sheremetyevo airport after the aircraft was struck by lightning soon after take-off. Russian federal air transport authority Rosaviatsia says that the lightning strike disabled the aircraft’s communication systems and other equipment, prompting the pilots to return to Sheremetyevo.
"The investigation is assessing the aircraft's controllability before the landing and – at the time of writing – had yet to reach conclusions and make recommendations over the cause of the accident. However, Russia's trade and industry minister Dennis Manturov said in June that "all of [the aircraft's] systems" were "functional" after the lightning strike.
"The aircraft was absolutely controllable, and controlled, by the pilot right up to the landing itself," he says. Manturov asserts that the accident involved an "abnormal situation" with "three impacts and large overload".
The twinjet bounced after a hard landing and caught fire, which destroyed the rear part of the fuselage. Forty-one of the aircraft’s 78 occupants died.
While the investigation is ongoing, it is not clear what effect, if any, the accident could have on the Superjet programme. But the crash landing has attracted publicity to the aircraft and – given the distinctive Superjet name – this may be a factor in UAC evaluating a unified brand for its commercial programmes.
Irkut disclosed in April that it had completed assembly of the fourth MC-21-300 flight-test aircraft, which is set to join the certification fleet later this year. The third test aircraft conducted its first flight in March from the company’s assembly plant in Irkutsk, and was the first to have been fitted with a passenger cabin.
The manufacturer has not specified how many hours have been completed since the first aircraft took off for its maiden flight in 2017; the second joined the flight-test programme the following year. General designer Oleg Demchenko says that the flight tests – from Moscow’s Zhukovsky airport – have demonstrated that the twinjet’s “main design and technological solutions are chosen correctly”. He adds that “no critical issues have been found” with the aircraft, which is designed to make inroads into a market currently split between the Airbus A320 family and Boeing 737.
The MC-21-300 test aircraft have reached altitudes, speeds and endurance levels typical of airline operations, while manoeuvres at the edges of the flight envelope – with high angles of attack, in stall and flutter conditions – have been “successfully practised”, he says. Individual systems and software packages are being modified as a result of the flight tests, which, Demchenko notes, is “common for such a complicated programme”.
The MC-21 flight test programme is based at Moscow’s Zhukovsky airport
UAC has decided to publicly show the MC-21 for the first time at the MAKS air show in Moscow in August because the Russian exhibition is seen as more representative for the twinjet’s creators and customers. Cirium’s Fleets Analyzer shows that all of the programme’s existing 175 orders are from Russian customers – leasing firm Aviakapital-Servis, a subsidiary of state corporation and UAC majority shareholder Rostec; Ilyushin Finance; Vnesheconombank-affiliated VEB-Leasing and regional operator IrAero.
Aeroflot has committed to leasing 50 MC-21-300s. Cirium Fleets Analyzer shows that Russian carriers Red Wings and UTair have signed lease contracts too, while Azerbaijan Airlines has tentatively agreed to take the type. Irkut’s website also indicates Kyrgyzstan Air Company and Kyrgyz operator Avia Traffic as customers for the aircraft.
Serial production has been postponed until late 2020, following multiple programme delays. A previous target was to roll out the first production aircraft in late 2019, but that plan had to be changed after US sanctions came into effect in January, Rostec said earlier this year. The embargo includes restrictions on importing advanced materials and covers UAC subsidiary AeroKompozit and Rostec unit Technologiya. Both entities are involved in the production of the MC-21’s carbonfibre wing, empennage and nacelle components, and had employed Western raw material suppliers for the components.
The manufacturers had to switch to alternative, domestic sources. Efforts to establish such a supply chain had been ongoing for some time, but UAC notes that additional testing is required to confirm the new material’s performance.
“Of course we are feeling the pressure of the sanctions,” admits Slyusar. He notes that UAC’s military activities have been subject to sanctions for some time, and claims that prospective international customers – who were considering an order for the Russian jets – were put under “tremendous pressure” by Western competitors not to acquire UAC’s products. In Slyusar’s view, such activity has little to do with political tensions between governments, but is entirely motivated by commercial interests.
The latest set of sanctions have taken this a step further, he suggests. The effect on AeroKompozit created a “bad feeling” within UAC because the supplier is a “purely civil company”, he says. The group appealed, but Slyusar says: “We did not get any answer why this was done.” UAC’s restructure is therefore also aimed at isolating the group’s civilian operations from potential further embargoes. “We sincerely hope [sanctions] will not affect our civil programmes,” Slyusar says.
Engine designer Aviadvigatel, which has developed the PD-14 turbofan for the MC-21, is covered by the latest sanctions too. The programme’s test aircraft so far have been equipped with Pratt & Whitney (P&W) PW1400G engines, although UAC has said that the first serial-production MC-21 will be powered by PD-14s.
Cirium’s Fleet Analyzer shows that the PW1400G has been selected for 83 and the PD-14 for 49 on-order MC-21s, with no engine selection for the remaining 43 aircraft. Irkut declines to provide detail on what engine split it foresees for the MC-21 in the long term. The manufacturer said in March that it was “not abandoning” its partnership with P&W.
Production of the MC-21 is set to ramp-up to “at least” 70-100 aircraft per year by 2024, says Slyusar. He notes that, in recent years, Russian operators introduced around 100 mainline aircraft per year – primarily from Airbus and Boeing – and says: “We have been tasked to capture a big portion of this market with the MC-21.” He adds: “We want to be the main player [in Russia], at least with the MC-21.”
Alongside the Superjet programme – which has an annual output of around 30 aircraft – the updated Il-114-300 and, ultimately, the CR929, Slyusar foresees total yearly civil aircraft output of around 150 units.
The primary market for these aircraft will be Russian operators. Slyusar says that a government initiative to boost point-to-point air transport from secondary cities should create increased demand, especially for the Superjet and MC-21. But former SCAC president Rubtsov told FlightGlobal at the Farnborough air show in 2018 that the Superjet was built for a “global market”, because “the Russian market is too small”.
Slyusar, too, acknowledges that UAC needs to sell its aircraft beyond the Russian “base” in order to sustain its activities. Realising international sales of its aircraft is a “main task”, he says – both for its civil and military programmes.
REACHING OUT TO CHINA
The co-operation with China to build the CR929 is a strategy for UAC – the partnership also spans Rostec business United Engine and its Chinese counterpart AECC – to gain access to a market larger than Russia and improve sales prospects for a new clean-sheet programme. The 50:50 joint venture also represents an opportunity to share resources, as China is arguably one of few countries able to invest in a new aircraft programme for a market split between Airbus and Boeing.
First flight of the CR929 is targeted for 2025, with certification around 2027. Comac and UAC are in discussions with airlines from China and Russia in a bid to secure launch orders for the programme later this year, Comac told FlightGlobal in February.
The two manufacturers are in the concept design phase for the aircraft, which is to be completed by year-end or early 2020. The team will then move on to the definition phase, with a plan to freeze the design in 2022. Rolls-Royce and GE Aviation have been selected as finalists for a bid to provide upgraded versions of their current products as initial powerplants for the twinjet.
UAC and Comac have decided to assemble the aircraft in Shanghai and split programme activities between the two countries. UAC foresees an engineering centre in Russia, but FlightGlobal understands that discussions about such an operation were still ongoing in April, without a decision.
Russia’s contribution to the CR929 has so far been handled by the former SCAC division and has comprised a relatively small team of 50-100 engineers, UAC says. Meanwhile, the group has been evaluating options how its other design bureaux can be involved in the programme. This is especially relevant as engineering requirements are set to grow substantially once detailed design begins during the definition phase.
As all large aerospace projects are multinational efforts today, it is no surprise that Russia is reaching out to China to develop a new long-haul aircraft. Few countries, let alone individual manufacturers, can support the establishment of such programmes without drawing on international resources. But with multiple sanctions in place against Russia and little sign of political change in the nation’s relations with Western governments, there is no prospect that Russian manufacturers can participate on a meaningful scale in Western programmes.
So what can Russian manufacturers do to support their activities? State-backed projects like the Superjet and MC-21 – and similar efforts in the military sector – seem to be necessary to maintain and further develop existing capabilities. If it was not for these programmes, these capabilities might feasibly be lost. The question is, however, whether a model of building aircraft largely dependent on the Russian domestic market offers long-term sustainability, and whether that model creates long-term value for the aerospace industry as a whole.