Do not question Oleg Demchenko’s ambition. As the president of Irkut, the executive is leading a Russian company with little track record in the commercial market into a market already dominated by Airbus and Boeing.
Though some might still accuse the head of Irkut of being wildly ambitious, Demchenko contains his ambition to a set of more practical goals. It is not commercial parity that Irkut seeks against Airbus and Boeing with the MC-21 family of narrowbody airliners, but a strong foothold in a steadily growing, global commercial market.
“It would be funny if I said we would get 40-50% of the market. This would not be serious talk. If I said something like that, my colleagues wouldn’t shake hands with me,” Demchenko says.
But even fractions of the global narrowbody market are worth pursuing, as Airbus and Boeing deliver more than 1,000 A320s and 737s combined each year. Irkut’s sister design bureaus, Tupolev, Ilyushin, Yakovlev and more recently Sukhoi, have had past success in the narrowbody market. Irkut now hopes to reclaim a share of that glory with an MC-21 aircraft design produced with the Yakovlev design bureau.
“If our aircraft takes 10-15% of the market, it means my life in aviation – and all my life has been in aviation, as the director of the company – I would say I did not waste my time,” Demchenko says.
The MC-21 is less than three years from entering service, so for now he takes comfort in a comfortable order backlog that includes 175 firm orders.
“OK, I am not Airbus,” says Demchenko, perhaps referencing the nearly, 3,800-order backlog of the A320neo family. "But for an aircraft which is still on paper, and this our first try to enter the market with this kind of aircraft, this is not bad. The most important task for us right now is to start our flight test.”
Flight testing is on track to begin in 2016 on a revised schedule. Irkut’s original plan called for first flight in 2014 to support an entry into service in 2016.
“There is no aviation programme around the world which could fulfill the original schedule,” Demchenko notes. “There is always a delay. This is a very difficult titanic task you know. This is really hard labour.”
The challenge for Irkut includes not only the strategic confrontation with Airbus and Boeing. To make the MC-21 attractive to customers in an already hotly-contested market, Irkut committed to a suite of advanced technologies to make the aircraft’s performance as attractive as possible. The basic technology for some selections, such as Pratt & Whitney’s PW1400G, has been proven on other programmes. But Irkut decided to be an industry pioneer in some areas, particularly a new kind of weight-saving composite technology.
Airbus and Boeing are have long-established composite manufacturing processes, but still use autoclaves to cure the carbonfibre reinforced plastic resin found in load-bearing structures of commercially certificated aircraft.
But Irkut has leapfrogged that approach on the wingbox, wing panels and wing spars for the MC-21, using lower-temperature and less complex ovens to cure the resin. Irkut partnered initially with Austria’s Diamond Aircraft and FACC to build the first prototypes with the assistance of Russian supplier AeroComposite. The role played by Diamond and FACC has ended, but AeroComposite and Irkut continue to make progress in early testing.
Demchenko is well aware of the risks of introducing an all-new structural technology in a new aircraft.
“Some people are trying to explain to me that I am making a mistake because the risks are very high. Yes, the risks we are taking are very high. But if I try to plan my aircraft from the very beginning with a metal wing I wouldn’t be able to sell a single aircraft,” Demchenko says. “If we want to be competitive in the market, the quality of the aircraft should be different than the existing aircraft. Of course, when we are talking about these new technologies not all of them are developed and assessed and evaluated.”
Irkut was launched with significant contribution from Western suppliers. So far, neither sanctions imposed by Western governments nor a recent push by Russian government and industry officials for more local industry content has altered the supply chain for the MC-21. But pressure is growing as local companies, such as KRET and Technodynamics, appeal for greater involvement in such programmes. KRET and Technodynamics represent the Russian equivalent of Western Tier 1 suppliers such as Rockwell Collins, Thales and Honeywell. Each has vast experience on military programmes, but less participation in commercial aircraft designed to meet Western certification standards.
According to Demchenko, Irkut’s policy is to consider all such proposals, but the aspiring Russian suppliers must prove they can pass certification requirements in order to participate in the programme.
“Our project is an open one,” Demchenko says. “Our Russian companies will be able to produce equipment with our technical requirement specification. So we shall perform the aircraft tests with those products. Why not?”
Although the supply chain remains open, Irkut’s product strategy is tightly focused at the moment. The first aircraft to emerge from Irkut’s factory will be the 180-seat MC-21-300. It will be followed by the debut of the 150-seat MC-21-200. There were also plans for a 220-seat MC-21-400 to complete the family, but Irkut has shelved that plan. Although customer interest in a 757 replacement is heating up – and the original design for the MC-21-400 more closely matched the 757’s size than Airbus’ and Boeing’s nearest rivals – Irkut remains focused on the MC-21-300.
“We have chosen the -300 as the starter,” Demchenko says. “We are new players in the market. So now we have invested all our effort in the -300, so the customer should be confident in our efficiency and our capability to build and deliver the aircraft.”