Fifteen months ago, a new Russian-built regional jet performed its first revenue flight with a small Armenian airline, making a return journey between the nation's capital Yerevan and Moscow Sheremetyevo airport.
This debut use of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 (SSJ 100) on 21 April 2011 - less than three years after the type's maiden flight from Komsomolsk-on-Amur - bore great significance for Russia's commercial aerospace industry, with its generation-change in domestic production, propulsion system and avionics equipment.
Following on from Armavia's lead, Russian flag carrier Aeroflot placed its first of a planned 30 Superjets into use in June 2011, with seven more having joined its fleet since then. By the end of May this year, the two operators had flown a combined 4,400-plus revenue flights, with their SSJ 100s having accumulated more than 8,700 flight hours, says Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC).
Early use by the airlines has thrown up some lessons to be learned in what is a new area of business activity for Sukhoi - a company more famous for designing combat aircraft such as the current Su-27/30 family and the developmental PAK-FA/T-50 fighter.
"In the initial stage of operations there are some issues which are to be resolved," says Sukhoi chairman and United Aircraft (UAC) president Mikhail Pogosyan. "We have some questions with software, but it's typical for every aircraft that has just entered into commercial operation." Other issues have included the need to perform several unscheduled changes of PowerJet SaM146 engine and an at times slow response to the delivery of spare parts.
A mid-June suppliers conference - hosted by Sukhoi in Moscow with the SCAC/Alenia Aermacchi joint venture Superjet International - was attended by officials from 20 companies, and provided a forum to discuss and address some of the matters which have arisen. Participants included Hamilton Sundstrand, Honeywell, Leibherr, Thales, Zodiac, and PowerJet - a joint venture between NPO Saturn and Snecma.
"Key partners and suppliers expressed their readiness to undertake all necessary measures to increase production rates and improve their product quality," the Russian manufacturer says. They also pledged to "improve their responsiveness to the customers' requests", and "continue co-operation on re-pricing, understanding the necessity to improve the economic conditions relevant to the supplied parts".
Speaking to Flight International at UAC's Moscow headquarters ahead of the Farnborough air show, Pogosyan summed up the challenge now facing Sukhoi and its partners. "We have very severe targets for the aircraft, including the growth of production: we expect to produce over 20 aircraft this year. We are also leveraging the customer support and bringing it to the level that the other Western aircraft have," he says.
Under one initiative intended to speed the final assembly process, UAC company Aviastar-SP is to perform interior installations on the SSJ 100 at its Ulyanovsk facility, with the capacity to work on up to four aircraft simultaneously.
"We believe that the co-operation between SCAC and Aviastar-SP, which has a great experience in aircraft assembly, will help to ramp up the SSJ 100 production," SCAC president Vladimir Prisyazhnyuk said in a 4 May statement. The first aircraft to go through this process will be MSN 95017, which will enter service with Aeroflot.
A current inability to keep pace with the projected ramp-up in deliveries must be overcome quickly, as numerous other customers are due to begin introducing the type soon. Sukhoi and Superjet International have so far attracted firm orders for almost 170 aircraft, plus options. The most recent commitment came from Russia's Transaero, which in late June signed a deal for six, plus 10 options. Other business could also be confirmed around the time of the Farnborough show, with Pogosyan hinting: "We expect new orders to come."
UAC's sales projection for an eventual wider Superjet family of regional aircraft is for the placement of between 800 and 1,000 units. This would be in addition to Russian industry's forecast production of between 1,000 and 1,200 Irkut MS-21 narrowbodies in the 150- to 210-seat range. Between them, the twinjets could go a long way towards replacing the nation's aged fleets of Soviet-era types, some of which have been involved in major accidents in the past several years.
SCAC has delivered four aircraft so far in 2012, all to Aeroflot, and Pogosyan expects its fleet to be joined by two more around the time of the show. In all, the operator should get 10 Superjets this year.
Meanwhile, continued development of the Superjet product and consideration of additional future family members is another priority, with a long-range modification in testing and a possible activity to increase capacity to 115 to 120 passengers. Asked whether a stretched-fuselage version will be built, Pogosyan says: "We think of it - it's quite a real prospective."
Russian lease company Ilyushin Finance has yet to sign up to the SSJ 100, but general director Alexander Rubtsov has confirmed its interest in a possible future version with about 110 seats. With production and support improvements already being implemented, a commitment for 20 aircraft could come soon, Rubtsov says, adding: "In the next two or three years, Sukhoi will definitely solve these problems."
SCAC and Superjet International have also attracted their first interest in the Sukhoi Business Jet development of the SSJ 100. Comlux Aviation launched the model with a $200 million contract signed in October 2011 for two VIP-configured aircraft, plus two options. India's Aviotech has also signed a letter of intent to acquire up to 10, plus 10 options.
The current SSJ 100 received a boost in February when it secured type certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency. This was a crucial step as Superjet International works towards delivering its first aircraft to Mexico's Interjet, and also to handing over 15 examples to Italian carrier Blue Panorama from the second quarter of 2013.
However, tragedy also struck the young programme on 9 May, when prototype aircraft 97004 was lost during a demonstration flight being conducted from Jakarta, Indonesia. A total of 45 people, including crew, local airline representatives and journalists were killed when the aircraft crashed into Mount Salak about 20min after taking off. The crash happened shortly after the pilots requested permission to descend to around 6,000ft (1,830m).
The Superjet had been visiting the country as part of a six-nation "Welcome Asia" tour - also planned to include Kazakhstan, Laos, Myanmar, Pakistan and Vietnam.
UAC says a preliminary assessment of the cockpit-voice data showed no indication of a failure to the aircraft's systems or components prior to the crash. Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Committee is continuing its investigation into the accident, but on 22 June recommended in an initial report that Sukhoi review its procedures for future demonstration activities and establish a minimum safe flight altitude for such flights while operating under instrumented flight rules.
Sukhoi says it is "making a comprehensive analysis of the procedures for demonstration flights preparation, which envisage that the crew should be properly aware of the meteorological, topographical and ornithological environment in the area of the flight when a flight plan is submitted". The immediate findings "do not include any recommendations for operators of the existing aircraft fleet", it adds.
The negative effects of the Indonesian crash on the wider programme will take time to fade, but the heightened efforts of Sukhoi, its partners and suppliers to make the Superjet an asset to airlines around the world will see many more sales secured.
"Now we are working hard to prepare the aircraft for operation - not only with our launch customers Aeroflot and Armavia, but also to Laos, Indonesia and Mexico," Pogosyan says.
If they are successful in their near-term goals of accelerating production activities, reducing costs and boosting the provision of in-service support, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft and Superjet International could be looking at a busy few years.