Russia's helicopter industry remains hampered by overcapacity, but has managed to adapt to the new realities and stabilise annual production

As it entered the post-Cold War era, Russia's helicopter industry was suddenly faced with a rapidly disappearing domestic market, while being left with a vast manufacturing base.

The initial enthusiasm for penetrating Western markets through co-operation deals quickly faded, with the focus returning to long-standing export customers which valued the low purchase and operational costs and rugged design of Russian helicopters. Although new designs are on the cards, the emphasis is on upgrading existing types, many of which are expected to be in demand for at least another decade.

New designs in flight test include the Mil Mi-28N, Mi-38 and Kamov Ka-50/52 and Ka-60. These will not, however, replace production models as long as updated designs of old workhorses such as the Mil Mi-8/17, Mi-24/35 and Ka-27/32 remain available. The manufacturers believe there is no reason to accelerate the introduction of new types while the "old but gold" machines are selling and have development potential.

Steady sales

Russia's state arms export agency Rosoboronexport predicts sales of 400-500 combat helicopters between 2001 and 2010, a figure that general director Andrei Belyaninov says is "materialising well the market is growing, stimulated by the arrival of improved Mi-17s and Mi-24s with more powerful engines, growing replacement needs and expiring Soviet-origin stocks".

The large military and excessive civil fleets inherited by newly independent states after the break-up of the Soviet Union led to a drop in prices on the used aircraft market in the 1990s. The local market disappeared overnight, and production levels dropped by a factor of eight. Manufacturers were forced to rely on exports and in general have adapted well. Between 1994 and 2000, Russia's largest rotorcraft producer, Kazan Helicopters, clocked up $1.1 billion-worth of exports and is looking for sales of $3 billion by the end of the decade. Since 1983, the company has delivered more than 1,100 helicopters to 80 countries.

Domestic market demand is showing signs of recovery, with sales for this decade forecast at 435 units. Russian commercial helicopter operator UTAir reported 200,000 passengers carried last year and a 52.5% rise in flight hours amassed by its 180-strong helicopter fleet. Fossil fuel companies were the main contributor, although services outside the country grew substantially.

Last year UTAir won United Nations contracts worth $35 million, its Mi-26s alone flying 5,400h. Three Mi-26s, 11 Mi-8MTVs and three Mi-8Ts were in operation in East Timor, Eritrea, Sierra Leone and Western Sahara. The growing market justified the procurement of two new Mi-26s in 1999-2000, plus one Mi-26 and four Mi-8MTVs in 2002. "We consider new acquisitions, and will be restoring grounded Mi-8Ts as the market continues to recover," says UTAir general director Andrei Martirosov.

With an initial order for 10, UTAir is the first customer for Kazan Helicopters' Ansat. The 3,300kg (7,270lb), nine-seat, fly-by-wire helicopter sells at $1.7million in its standard civil version with two 650shp (485kW) PK207K engines (Pratt & Whitney Canada PW206s built by Klimov). "This is the machine we need to supplement our heavier helicopters, and we will take it despite postponement of deliveries from 2003 to 2005," says Martirosov. "We looked at lightweight Eurocopters, and would take a few if the import tax were eased. But in the middle and heavyweight class, we will stay with Russian designs - they surpass their foreign counterparts in cost-effectiveness."

Kazan Helicopters has invested $80 million in developing the Ansat, a light, twin-turbine, multipurpose helicopter, which has a fuselage built from aluminium and about 20% composites and an all-composite rotor system with hingeless main rotor.

Four prototypes are undergoing certification to Russian AP-29 airworthiness standards, harmonised with the US FAR 29. About 150 flights remain before the completion of certification tests planned for the end of this year. Production will start in 2004, and annual production of 20 machines will be reached in 2005. A purely Russian version is funded by the country's air force, which has a requirement for 100 training helicopters.

The Ansat is competing in the lightweight helicopter market with the Mi-2A and Ka-226. Mil has identified a need for retrofitting up to 450 of 700 PZL Swidnik-built Mi-2s in the Russian inventory with ZMKB Progress AI-450 engines and composite main and tail rotors. Four Ka-226s have been assembled, meanwhile, powered by Rolls-Royce 250-C20R engines, and use of the Turbomeca Arrius 2 is being studied.

Certification obstacle

Certification of the Ka-226 has been repeatedly delayed, and is "dependent on cash flow", says Kamov design bureau chief Vineamin Kasyannikov. Russia's ministry for emergencies is funding the project and is launch customer with an initial order for five helicopters. The status of an "optional agreement" with RAO Gazprom for 50 machines is uncertain.

Kamov recently began deliveries of the Ka-31 airborne early warning helicopter to India, which has ordered nine aircraft worth $200 million. The contrarotating-rotor Ka-31 carries a multimode radar supplied by the Radio Engineering Research Institute of Nizhny Novgorod, featuring a 6m (20ft) antenna mounted below the fuselage to provide 360¡ surveillance. "It is the world's only AWACS helicopter with a purpose-designed radar," says Kasyannikov.

This year a third FAR 29-certified Ka-32 went to Canada for timber logging operations and South Korea has received 36 aircraft. Turkey has yet to decide between the Bell AH-1Z and Ka-50-2 Erdogan. Kasyannikov says Bell's reports of victory in Turkey were "premature", and that "the chances remain 50/50".

Kamov continues testing unmanned helicopter designs in the 300-400kg weight class, but Kasyannikov says: "There is not much market interest. The merits of unmanned helicopters are yet to be recognised." But he holds out hope that shrinking defence budgets may lead to unmanned helicopters being used for radar surveillance and target designation.

East-West joint rotorcraft development has been limited to a co-operation deal signed between EADS and Rosaviakosmos in 2001 to develop the 30-seat Euromil Mi-38. Mil was to handle general design and flight tests, Kazan Helicopters the manufacturing, and Eurocopter design of the cockpit and avionics. The first prototype was handed over for flight testing in July, but Eurocopter's recent decision to sell its 33% stake in Euromil may lead to cancellation of the programme in favour of the purely Russian Mi-38-2 powered by Klimov VK3000 powerplants instead of the planned Pratt & Whitney PW127Hs.

Industry sources say Eurocopter's withdrawal will remove barriers to the project and they say the use of Western components is no longer justified because "Russian avionics and engine manufacturers have achieved or exceeded the specification of Western items".

Under a government programme, Mil is working on the Mi-8GM (deep modernisation) helicopter, which should enter production in 2008. Its new-generation, two-crew cockpit is being evaluated on an Mi-17T5, with four 150 x 200mm (6 x 8in) liquid-crystal displays (LCD) and two control display units with 125 x 150mm LCDs, plus a navigation/moving map system.

Among recent mutations is the Mi-17KF, fitted by Canada's Kelowna Flightcraft with a Honeywell EDZ-756 electronic flight instrument system, Primus II integrated radio, altitude/heading reference system, colour radar and flight director.

BAE Systems has entered the programme, offering a mission system based around the Titan 385 stabilised multi-sensor turret, integrated helmet display with head tracking system, infrared jammer, radar and laser/missile warning receivers, chaff and flare dispenser, digital moving map and tactical colour multifunction display.

Growing orderbook

Mil general designer Aleksei Samusenko says a large contract is being finalised with "a country from Indochina" for a new Mi-17V-5 variant powered by 2,400shp Klimov VK2500 digitally controlled engines, replacing the 1,900shp TV3-117VMs.

The Mi-17V-7 is due to become Kazan Helicopters' production standard in 2005 with a reworked gearbox, glassfibre blades, improved flight control system and a Czech-built Safir auxiliary power unit. The prototypes have a 1,000kg increase in payload capability and 11kt (20km/h) faster cruising speed.

Since April 2001, when Mil emerged from bankruptcy, turnover has more than tripled, and income in 2002 rose from $17 million to $35 million. Under the new management, relationships with the Rostvertol, Kazan Helicopters and UUAZ production plants have improved considerably.

With help from Rosoboronexport, Mil has ended "unhealthy competition" on the export market, restored developers' intellectual rights on the Mil brand, and taken an aggressive stance on unauthorised repair and upgrades. "Mil acts as the main developer for any change on Mil helicopters, and carries responsibility for the whole cycle of testing and certification," says Mil general director Yuri Andrianov.

Source: Flight International