At the moment the MC-21 rotated to take off into the southern Siberian sky on 28 May, an elated Irkut chief executive Oleg Demchenko reached forward and with both hands gripped the shoulders of his boss, United Aircraft CEO Yuri Slyusar.

Both men had been waiting years for this moment – the first flight of Russia's most ambitious commercial aircraft project in nearly 30 years.

In the heyday of the Soviet Union's once-mighty commercial fleet, first flights of new aircraft models came at regular intervals. Since the collapse of the Communist government in the early 1990s, moments like the MC-21's early morning take-off in Irkutsk had almost disappeared – with only two exceptions.

First flight of the 72-seat Tupolev Tu-334 in 1999 appeared to be a re-awakening for Russia's civil aviation industry, but it was short-lived. Only two Tu-334s were built and the programme was cancelled. Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company has enjoyed more success since the first flight of the 98-seat Superjet in 2008, but the project simply whetted the Russian industry's appetite for larger programmes.

Since Slyusar became chief executive of UAC in early 2015, Russia's fixed-wing aircraft manufacturing champion has ushered the single-aisle MC-21 into flight test; launched development of a new twin-aisle airliner as part of a joint venture with China; approved plans to develop a stretched version of the Superjet; revived production of an upgraded Ilyushin Il-114 turboprop; and activated assembly of a modernised Il-96-400 twin-aisle. Meanwhile, UAC continues to produce a small number of Tupolev Tu-204s as special-mission aircraft for the Russian air force.

Russia's civil aviation revival is driven by a domestic infrastructure push and Western sanctions that forced a renewed emphasis on homegrown technology and industrial partnerships with China.

The revival of the Il-114 programme offers a case study of the new era. As an aging fleet of Soviet-era regional aircraft finally enters retirement, major towns and cities deep in Russia's northern and eastern interior too remote for roads are simply cut off. Russian companies first turned to Western suppliers, signing a contract with Bombardier in 2013 to assemble Q400 turboprops in Ulyanovsk. But sanctions imposed by the Canadian government after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 put paid to that deal. As a result, Russia turned to the Il-114, a regional turboprop that first entered service more than 30 years ago.

The Russian government signed a deal with UAC to build as many as 150 Il-114s. Meanwhile, a handful of Il-96-400s also were ordered to help UAC's engineers become reacquainted with civil widebodies.

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"Although the production numbers will not be as high as, for instance, the MC-21s and the Superjets, these two projects are very important for Russia as a country to keep up the mobility for the people and make transportation available in Siberia and remote parts of the country," Slyusar tells FlightGlobal in an interview.

"This is a social task so the government will also help the airlines acquire these aircraft. There's no pure economic case," he says.

The flurry of activity has created opportunities to accomplish UAC's goal to continue driving consolidation. The Soviet Union's boundless Cold War appetite for aircraft created a network of rival design bureaus and manufacturing houses. Despite the dearth of commercial orders in the two decades after the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia's aircraft industry was slower to consolidate than American and European industries. The formation of the state-owned UAC in 2006 provided a corporate mechanism for change, but the wheels have moved slowly until now.

Earlier this year, UAC consolidated management of civil aircraft development programmes into SCAC under newly appointed chief executive Vladislav Masalov. That includes the Il-114, Il-96-400 and the widebody joint venture with China, but not the MC-21.

"As for MC-21, the project is at the critical stage of implementation," Masalov explains. "That is why we prefer not to interfere in the process that is now in progress, but instead develop after sales support integrated with SCAC and sales activities as well."

While Irkut manages development and certification of the MC-21, SCAC will take the lead on selling and supporting the aircraft after it enters service. The international sales team will be led by Superjet International, the Italian-based joint venture between SCAC and Leonardo.

"There is no need to start up a new company when we already have a company with expertise," Masalov says.

Superjet International's new role may inspire a re-branding, given that it's no longer solely dedicated to selling 98-seat regional jets outside Russia. SCAC itself may start searching for a new name.

"The name [of Superjet International] needs deep analysis from a commercial point of view and a certification point of view," Masalov says. "Many issues are involved. That is why we need to analyse everything and then go into a name both for SCAC and Superjet International."

The immediate focus on the commercial front for UAC is to keep the MC-21 on track for certification and delivery in 2019.

Concerns arose in late March when UAC reported that a static article of the MC-21 wing failed an ultimate load test.

"The design was stressed to almost 150% of normal stress," Slyusar explains. "At some point near that, it became evident that something is wrong, but it's a small fracture and without taking the wing off the aircraft. We're strengthening it. It's local strengthening maybe making [certain areas] thicker or stronger. The strengthening will be only 25kg."

UAC still has a lot to prove. The Superjet is starting to gain momentum, but the development phase and initial production ramp-up revealed deep cracks in Russia's industrial system. After the MC-21 passes through the same gauntlet, China and Russia must endure the same journey that has already proved so difficult for both countries on previous commercial aircraft programmes.

It is not surprising then that Slyusar is not looking for new projects to add to his to-do list. Asked if UAC had any interest in pursuing Boeing's current fixation on a 230-270 seat, 5,000nm-range aircraft to fill a perceived gap between single-aisles and twin-aisles, he replies: "We are unlikely to look at a new member of the family."

Source: Flight International