Sum of Superjet’s parts more than an airplane

 - July 25, 2007, 9:41 AM

The simulator for the PowerJet SaM146 engine destined to power the Superjet 100 regional airliner had recently arrived at the Sukhoi Civil Aircraft (SCAC) headquarters in suburban Moscow when, early last month, engineers incorporated the device into the so-called electronic bird, a systems integration rig complete with cockpit simulator and wrap-around visual system.

Meanwhile, nearly 4,000 miles to the east, the first airframe takes shape at the Komsomolsk-na-Amur Aircraft Production Organization (Knaapo) facility in the remote vastness of the Russian Far East. There, 400 engineers and IT experts convert the digital designs from SCAC into the 3-D used to drive newly installed automated production machinery elsewhere on the airfield.

Sukhoi will roll out the first real airplane next month, if all goes according to plan. The company has scheduled first flight for December and first delivery, to launch customer Aeroflot, for November next year.

Knaapo, the industrial mainstay of the city since its foundation in the early 1930s and best known in recent years for building Sukhoi’s successful Su-27/30/ 35 fighters, makes the Superjet’s center fuselage and the two adjacent sections, as well as the wings. Su-32 fighter and Antonov An-38 regional turboprop maker NAPO produces the Superjet’s nose, tail and vertical and horizontal stabilizers in Novosibirsk, while Ilyushin Il-86 and Il-96-300 maker VASO creates the composite components at Voronezh. All work from the same digital 3-D model.

At the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) at Zhukovsky air base, 25 miles southeast of Moscow, another simulator has operated since last year for initial training and implementation of the sidestick-controlled fly-by-wire twin’s control laws. Pilots–Sukhoi has trained six to fly the new airplane so far–have already insisted, for example, on faster retraction of flaps and slats to improve its maneuverability in busy terminal airspace. They are also refining the operations and flight manuals.

The program partners froze the airplane’s configuration last year, so the company must balance pilots’ requests against the cost implications for the program. “When pilots ask for improvements it means reopening the configuration and increasing the cost, so we have to find a compromise between performance and cost,” said Igor Vinogradov, first vice president and program director.

Also at TsAGI sits the second airframe, shipped from Komsomolsk in January. Wings already attached, it has started the static tests that will support certification. For the first time in Russia, the landing gear is being tested in the airframe rather than on separate benches.

SCAC plans to move the simulator at TsAGI to Moscow, alongside the electronic bird, once this month’s MAKS airshow ends. Systems developers such as Germany’s Liebherr, which supplies the flight and environmental control systems, receive the results of the integration rig testing.

Engine Progress
In Rybinsk, an hour’s flight northwest of Moscow, large sections of the sprawling Saturn engine design and production complex undergo a transformation. VolgAero, a separate joint venture between Saturn and Snecma, is building a workforce of 280 people to manufacture parts for the SaM146 and other engines. It has modernized other shops as well, and two new indoor test benches under construction alongside the existing cell will allow engineers to monitor up to 2,000 parameters simultaneously.

Saturn is responsible for the low-pressure sections of the SaM146, Snecma for the high-pressure core and for integration of engines and control systems. Newly appointed PowerJet CEO Jean-Paul Ebanga explained the company’s strategy to develop one engine to cover the 15,400- to 17,500-pound-thrust range required by 60- to 100-seat regional jets. The main characteristics of the new engine include a long-duct nacelle for good acoustic performance, a wide-chord fan and just three low-pressure compressor stages–fewer than any other engine on the market. Fewer stages mean fewer blades, requiring less maintenance. Designers located a low-emission combustion chamber and one high-pressure and three low-pressure turbine stages behind the six-stage high-pressure turbine. The architecture, based on Snecma’s CFM experience, cuts the parts count by 20 percent.

PowerJet will offer power-by-the-hour support and maintenance for the engine, nacelle and systems at its existing center in Paris and a new one planned for Rybinsk next year. Snecma and Saturn shops will provide overhaul and repair. The team expects to receive certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency and Russia’s Aviaregister next March.

Along with its industrial infrastructure, the Superjet program continues to build on its commerical partnerships and investor base. SCAC, now 25 percent owned by Italy’s Alenia, signed a deal with program consultant Boeing for access to the U.S. company’s flight crew and maintenance training and parts distribution infrastructure. Just last month SCAC secured a 10-year, U100 million loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for construction funding. And early July brought a $150 million agreement with the Eurasian Development Bank to help fund the organization and to launch mass production.

Ebanga likes to place the SaM146 and Superjet efforts in a broader perspective. A successful aerospace program depends on several factors, starting with good market opportunities and a good business case, he said.

“You need the right technology and technical skills, the right industrial infrastructure, the right support organization and the right leadership and executive skills to make that happen. Last but not least you need the right global environment,” he said.

For Russia, the Superjet program represents a giant step toward “being again one of the key actors in aerospace,” he said. “For Sukhoi, success with the SSJ100 is the entry key to the small club of global commercial airframers. For Saturn it means being part of the main global player in commercial engines. So for Russia it’s more than just building an aircraft and building an engine.”

For Snecma, too, Ebanga said, the PowerJet venture represents more than the introduction of a new engine. More, it marks an attempt to replicate in the East the achievement of the CFM International collaboration with General Electric that became the most successful partnership in the history of commercial engines. Yet that program, he recalled, ceased operations for a year soon after getting under way because no technology agreement existed between the U.S. and France.

“Industrial cooperation is a key issue,” Ebanga said. “In this program we not only have to develop a new engine but also set up a new business framework between France and Russia to make this possible. But when I see the success of CFM 30 years later I think it’s worth doing it. If we are fortunate enough, in 10 or 20 years the landscape of the aerospace industry will be quite different because of what we’re doing now” among Sukhoi, Snecma and Saturn.

Now holding firm orders for 71 Superjets, SCAC plans to build nine aircraft next year, 30 in 2009, 60 in 2010 and 70 in 2011.