Fourth Superjet 100 Flies on Borrowed Powerjet Engines

 - February 26, 2010, 6:00 AM

Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC) managed to fly the fourth prototype of the Superjet 100 this month, no thanks to Russian engine maker NPO Saturn, which partners with Snecma in building the Superjet’s Powerjet engines. Clearly feeling desperate after the Saturn-Snecma partnership failed to deliver the program’s seventh and eighth Powerjet SaM146 turbofans in due course, Sukhoi removed the engines from the first prototype and installed them on the fourth, simply to get the airplane airborne, in time perhaps to gain Russian certification by July. Meanwhile, a lack of ready production airplanes likely means launch customers Aeroflot and Armavia won’t receive their first examples until late this year.

Plagued last year by near financial collapse, an exodus of more than 200 engineers, quality-control inadequacies and a change in ownership structure, Saturn not only failed in its commitment to Sukhoi, it also might have validated skepticism over the wisdom of Snecma’s partnership with the Russian company. Snecma, which is controlled by France’s Safran Group, agreed to build the high-pressure side of the engine and ceded responsibility to Saturn for the low-pressure side and final assembly in Russia. But rather than result in an equal partnership, the deal has seen Safran send a team of engineers to Saturn’s assembly facility in Rybinsk to help Saturn work through its quality “issues.” The partnership has also reallocated production of certain low-pressure components–most notably fan blades–to French suppliers.

Alas, Powerjet—one of the earliest examples of aerospace collaboration between Western Europe and the former Soviet Bloc—might well serve as a cautionary tale for other companies. Happily for Safran, Sukhoi and the marketing joint venture between Italy’s Alenia and SCAC known as Superjet International, the Russian government has intervened with monetary support for Saturn–but not in time to save the program from another year-long delay and perhaps a loss of credibility that will require more than money to recover.