Paris Air Show

Russia Attempts to Boost Irkut MC-21 Airliner Prospects

 - June 12, 2013, 2:00 PM
The Irkut MC-21 narrowbody jet is expected to make its first flight in 2015, followed by certification in 2017 and deliveries in 2020. The Russian government is targeting it for export.

The Russian government is seeking to put in place measures to boost the export prospects of the Irkut-led MC-21 next generation narrowbody jetliner, which is now scheduled to have its maiden flight in 2015, certification in 2017 and availability to airlines in worthwhile numbers from 2020 onwards.

The program’s development and production preparation budget is 190 billion Roubles [$6 billion], of which the government has agreed to provide RUB 70 billion (40 percent).

However, on the eve of the Paris Air Show, the Kremlin indicated that an increase in the government share up to 69 percent is being considered. The remainder is to be covered by Irkut’s own funds (15 percent) and funding raised on the commercial market (26 percent). To ensure the latter part, the manufacturer is negotiating with the nation’s largest Savings Bank for about a $1 billion, 10-year credit line.

The MC-21 is expected to generate cash for airline operators starting in 2019. This gives the Russian government a reason to plan for the gradual withdrawal of the now-active “temporary import rules” staring in 2020: from that moment the local airlines will no longer enjoy tax-free import of Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 family aircraft with seating capacity similar to that of the MC-21.

Local airlines are likely to be given another five years to operate foreign aircraft types, acquired previously, without paying import taxes. The government also said that it is ready to provide “strong support” for the MC-21 to help the manufacturer commence series production of the MC-21-300 baseline version (160 seats) and MC-21-200 shrink (130) in 2017. Today, Russia’s commercial jetliner fleet is a mix of some 500 imported and 153 indigenous jets, with its total strength expected to rise up to a thousand jetliners by 2020.

Russia’s minister for industry and trade, Denis Manturov, said recently that customer-wise, the MC-21 program has shifted focus from foreign to domestic buyers. This is because Malaysia’s Crecom Burj Resources Ltd., which was initially set to act as launch customer for the new jet, has not firmed up its preliminary order for 50 MC-21s announced at the 2010 Farnborough Airshow. At the same time, Russian lessor Ilyushin Finance Co. (IFC) has firmed up an order for 50 MC-21-300s, dated August 2011, as it paid a $2 million nonrefundable deposit.

The manufacturer claims it has received commitments for over 250 MC-21s–and Irkut president Oleg Demchenko insists that 185 of those are firm orders. The largest buyer is Aviacapital Service (ACS), an aircraft-leasing arm of the Russian Technologies state corporation. It has signed for 85 MC-21s, and plans to place them with Aeroflot and airlines associated with the national flag carrier.

Having effectively lost Crecom (although it retains its soft order), the MC-21 does not have foreign buyers. To ensure the airplane gets some, however, the Russian government is considering ways to promote foreign sales through structuring attractive financial packages for overseas buyers. In addition to laws already in place which are aimed at encouraging high-tech inward investment, which makes it possible to foreign countries acquire Russian products under hire purchase with sovereign guarantees, the Kremlin is also working with Russia’s large banks to form attractive financial packages for airline customers in foreign countries.

According to Manturov, this year’s injections of cash into the project total RUB 12.4 billion. Being the largest investor in the MC-21, the Kremlin is urging the manufacturer to “increase localization” of the type production, “to have a much larger domestic content than that in the [Sukhoi] Superjet [100],” as the minister put it.

Manturov admitted that there are high technological risks embedded in the MC-21 project, but that these are worth taking in order to see Russia taking a leading position in the development of critical jetliner technologies, and by doing so attaining competitiveness in the global civil aviation market.

The main gamble centers on composite materials. Irkut’s parent, United Aircraft Corp. (UAC), is busily erecting modern manufacturing facilities for the AeroComposite company, which will have two modern plants–in Kazan and Ulianovsk–completed next year. These will produce composite parts for MC-21 wings, empennage and fuselage, using advanced technologies such as vacuum infusion (instead of baking in large autoclaves) and automatic laying of dry fiber threads. Assembly of the first full-sized “black wing” for the MC-21 is scheduled for 2014, according to UAC president Mikhail Pogosyan.

In June 2012 Irkut signed a “final agreement” with P&W on the use of PW1400G engines as the MC-21’s “factory standard” powerplants. Although airline customers still retain the right to select Russia’s United Engine Corporation PD-14 engine as an alternative, the latter has been increasingly seen as a poor substitute to the PW1400G for governmental users such as the defense ministry.

The MC-21-300 has emerged as the factory standard with an 85-percent share in Irkut’s (claimed) portfolio of orders. Authorization-to-offer is still valid for the MC-21-200 shrink, whereas sales of the MC-21-400 stretch are not open, leading to speculations that this version might never come into existence.

Last year the MC-21-300 entered a phase where airframe specimens were being manufactured for testing. The fuselage middle section, manufactured in Irkutsk, was airlifted to Zhukovsky for testing at TsAGI, Russia’s Central Aerohydroynamics Institute.

TsAGI has reported the completion of tests on MC-21 scaled models in the T-104 wind tunnel. These set out to determine the influence of engine hot gases on the leading and trailing edges of the wing in takeoff, landing and clean configurations in the area of wing-fuselage attachment, as well as to study the elevator’s aerodynamic performance with wing-in-ground-effect conditions. Wind tunnel data should enable MC-21 designers to carry out a more accurate stress analysis, and improve aircraft handling qualities, while ensuring flight safety, reducing fuel burn and firming up actuator specifications.

TsAGI has at its disposal four scaled specimens of the MC-21 wing box manufactured by Austrian firms Diamond and Fisher under contact with AeroComposite. Two of these developed cracks following excessive loads during tests. TsAGI is working on technologies for repairing force-bearing composite parts, while climatic testing is due to commence on the latest wing box specimen soon. A full-scale wing box is to be manufactured in 2015 and subsequently subjected to comprehensive testing. The first composite empennage set is expected in 2014.

Most recently completed is the fuselage tail section, which is now in the Latvian capital city of Riga where it is being subjected to continuous tests lasting for several years at a stand capable of high air pressure. While there, the tail section will undergo 300,000 five-minute pattern tests, each emulating one flight cycle, in order to guarantee the section can withstand 60,000 flight hours in service–the MC-21’s guaranteed lifetime.

Modern technologies embedded in the MC-21 design are intended to ensure higher passenger comfort (in comparison to in-service narrowbodies–supplemented by a wide fuselage), 7-9 percent reduction in direct operating costs, 12 percent in fuel consumption per passenger and 24 percent in emissions.