Serious competition from Russian airframers may not have troubled market forecasters in Toulouse or Seattle for many years, but do not suggest to Oleg Demchenko that his countrymen are novices when it comes to producing airliners. The president of Irkut - owner of the Yakovlev Design Bureau and now part of United Aircraft - insists Russia has an impressive tradition, and a big potential future, in the civil sector. "Although we have been quiet for 20 years, we are not rookies," he insists. And while Irkut and its fellow airframers are unlikely to become as mighty as Airbus or Boeing in decades to come, he firmly believes they can secure a place in the global market with a new generation of aircraft.
The company is behind Russia's first modern mid-range narrowbody, the MS-21, a programme he says is progressing fast to first flight in June 2015 and certification two years later. The aircraft - which Demchenko refers to as his "favourite baby" - has its roots in the Yak-242, an all-new twinjet programme shelved in the late 1990s in the days when customers and state funds for Russia's civil aerospace industry had all but dried up. In the early 2000s, however, the government issued a new tender for a passenger jet and the newly formed Irkut - a merger of Yakovlev, fellow design bureau Beriev and the Irkutsk production facility - began work on the design.
Moscow has provided 75% of the funding for the MS-21 - including Rb12.4 billion ($383 million) allocated by the trade and industry ministry for the current year. Demchenko acknowledges this has been vital to getting the programme through the design stage to its current position, with four prototypes about to be built, one for static trials and three for flight test.
"If we did not have government support, we would not have been able to continue," he says. Russia's Sverbank is also a "strategic investment partner", contributing more than $1 billion to the project.
Irkut has been carrying out aerodynamic testing on scale models since 2009. Earlier this year, the programme began to physically take shape. In February fatigue tests began on the aircraft's centre fuselage at the TsAGI Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute at Zhukovsky, near Moscow.
The composite wing - built at Irkut's new Aerocomposit centre of excellence at Ulyanovsk - wingbox and empenage have begun an 18-month test regime and "we are receiving the results we expected", says Demchenko. Irkut claims to have 256 commitments - of which 135 are firm - for the MS-21, which will be offered in two variants, a 150-seat -200 and 181-seat -300.
Like all Russian aerospace manufacturers, Irkut's predecessor companies had a lean 1990s. Set up as a partly private entity in the early 2000s - with shares available on the stock exchange - Irkut's involvement in the commercial sector has been as a supplier of aerostructures to Airbus, as well as Gulfstream's Israeli-assembled business jets. It became part of the United Aircraft consortium when that was set up in 2006. Irkut's other main programme is the Yak-130, a military jet trainer which has been in development since the early 1990s, but was recently given a fillip with an order from the Russian ministry of defence.
Although the MS-21 is being designed and built in Russia, like its fellow entrant into the commercial aviation sector, the Sukhoi Superjet, the narrowbody draws extensively on Western expertise, with Rockwell Collins avionics and, most notably, Pratt & Whitney's PW1000G geared turbofan engine. UTC Aerospace Systems (formerly Hamilton Sundstrand) and Zodiac are also suppliers. Demchenko is confident that its international genes will win it customers beyond the Commonwealth of Independent States. "There is no point in this programme if we are just aiming for local sales," he says.
The supplier to Airbus will soon be taking on its customer - and rival, Boeing - as a direct competitor, something that does not faze Demchenko. "Do you know of any market that does not have tough competition? We are talking to all the major airlines and we feel that the market is certainly big enough for another player," he says. "I certainly intend to get my share of this business."
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