Antonov rolls out An-148

 - December 19, 2007, 4:38 AM

Antonov plans to fly the first An-148 regional jet this month, marking the culmination of three years of preparation and the dawn of a new era in Ukrainian civil aviation. The first passenger jet built in the former Soviet Union without the help of direct state investment, the 70-seat RJ marks the first time a CIS aerospace company adopted the Western model of risk-sharing partnerships–a necessary step in gaining the needed development funds absent an equity stake by the government. Meanwhile, the program’s lightning-speed progress (by CIS standards) is sparking a flicker of hope that Antonov can actually meet its delivery and support promises–historically one of the main barriers to marketing CIS-built airplanes in Western Europe and Asia.

Whether Antonov can surprise once again by convincing a Western airline to take a chance on an unproven support structure remains another question altogether, but for once a program from that part of the world appears to stand a realistic chance of doing so if, in fact, the company finds the funds to fit the airplane with Western-designed engines.

Now powered by a pair of ZMKB Progress D436-148 turbofans, the An-148 will meet all ICAO Chapter 4 noise requirements “by a wide margin,” but even Aeroflot wants Western engines. Essentially the same engines used on the Tupolev Tu-334 and the Beriev Be-200, the 14,110-pound-thrust turbofans include FADEC and a reworked gearbox to fit into underwing engine nacelles. The engine carries the capacity to produce as much as 18,740 pounds of thrust, enough to power a stretched derivative with a maximum takeoff weight of up to 108,025 pounds.

“Our engine is not inferior to western designs,” insisted Antonov general designer Piotr Balabuyev. “As for reliability, there is a stain on us, as if indigenous engines are not so good. But if we look at facts this is no longer true.”

Balabuyev has started talks with Snecma and NPO Saturn on the SaM146 and with General Electric on the CF34-10. For now, the only Western suppliers include Litef, Goodrich Hella Aerospace, Hawker, Pall, Monogram System, Deutch, Filotex, Thales, Liebherr, Rockwell Collins, ASCC and Raychem.

At a conference in April, project participants decided to launch the aircraft into production without waiting for certification. Work is under way on a batch of five airframes, all due for completion in time for planned certification in early 2006. The latest change in the partnership structure has involved a reduction of Kharkov-based KSAMC’s role to that of center fuselage supplier. Kiev-based Aviant has assumed the position of program leader, accepting responsibility for final assembly. Russia’s VASO has begun building a second assembly line. VASO also makes the empennage, wing leading edges, control surfaces and engine pylons for Aviant. The planned production rate covers 36 aircraft a year (24 at VASO, 12 at Aviant) starting in 2008.

On September 24 Antonov moved the An-148 instrumented prototype from its Kiev assembly plant to its paint shop, in preparation for an official rollout ceremony last month. From September 19 through 21 it underwent frequency tests. “So far so good,” said Balabuyev. “The tests indicated no need to change wings or ailerons: the flutter area is far away, and the aircraft can fly reliably in all corners of the flight envelope.”

Antonov expects to finish the second aircraft, outfitted with cabin interior, by the end of next month and fly it early next year. Plans call for the two airplanes to log 600 flights over the course of a year to achieve CIS AP-25 type certification in the first quarter of 2006. The third airframe, just taken out of its jig, will serve as the ground test article.

All Digital Design
Antonov advertises the An-148 as the world’s first “100-percent digital airplane,” developed from scratch on computer screens [a claim that Boeing made a decade ago with the 777.–Ed.]. “That’s a great milestone for us,” said Balabuyev. “It required a drastic change in our mindset. Since 2002, all our specialists have undergone training in computers. Today Antonov is a huge computer with human brains plugged into it, yet it is only a beginning of the computer design age.”

Antonov has reached a third stage of computer development, having gone from Silicon Graphics SGI O2 graphic workstations in 1997 to Hewlett Packard HP C3000s in 2000 and HP C3600s in 2002. A total of 300 now occupy 600 work stations, since engineers work in two shifts.

More than 1,500 PCs using Intel Pentium processors supplement the HPs, some used for initial work before designers produce final drawing on Paremetric CADDS’5 v12.0 or Optegra 6.0 software on the C3600s. Eighteen HP server stations connect the network at the neighboring Aviant (formerly KiGAZ) production plant.

Antonov chose the hardware and software after conducting work for Airbus in 2001 and 2002. “We did an A320 dry bay,” an Antonov manager told AIN. “Through this work we learned the ropes. The Airbus system looked workable, so we purchased the same software and hardware they had at that time.”

The An-148 drawings are in Russian. They can be translated into English, following the example of the IrAn-140, the Iranian version of the An-140 turboprop built under license at the HESA plant in Isfahan. To convert the drawings from their Russian originals, Antonov produced a special computerized converter system with a strictly formalized translation process. “The most difficult part was to turn into some kind of canonic form all that wording that our designers had produced in the original language. After that we encountered no problems.”

The baseline An-148-100B seats 70 in economy at a 34-inch seat pitch or 80 at 30 inches in a five-abreast configuration inside a 10.9-foot wide, 6.6-foot-high cabin. Other “-100s” will feature the same airframe and landing gear, with differences in the thickness of force-bearing members adjusted to maximum takeoff weights. Systems and maintenance techniques will stay the same, allowing yearly utilization of 4,500 hours. A, C and D maintenance checks will come due after 750, 7,500 and 30,000 flight hours, respectively.

Variants A, B and E have same the airframe, with range and payload variations. The E carries additional fuel tanks in the belly cargo bays. Derivatives E1 and E2 would fly still farther in VIP and corporate service.

Optimized for short routes, the -100A has an mtow of 81,790 pounds to achieve a customer-specified lifetime of 60,000 cycles and 80,000 flight hours. That version, configured with eight business and 60 economy-class seats, would compete with the Embraer 170, Bombardier CRJ700, Tupolev Tu-334-100 and Sukhoi RRJ-75 in the Aeroflot tender for 50 regional jets.

Aerodynamics studies conducted with Russia’s Central Aerohydrodynamics Institute (TsAGI) took two years. Long-range cruise speed would typically settle at Mach 0.775 between FL380 and  FL410, while maximum cruise is designed for Mach 0.825.

The two-crew cockpit will use mainly Russian avionics made to the latest Western standards, including modular design for simple expansion and replacement with similar devices from other makers. Balabuyev claimed the suite can handle “all ICAO requirements [planned] for introduction up to 2020.” The platform comes standard with ICAO Category IIIa landing aids, with optional IIIb capability. The glass cockpit features five 6-inch by 8-inch LCDs and two Rockwell Collins input units. The An-148 uses fly-by-wire controls with “mini-yokes” and computer-adjustable forces.

Antonov is also studying a 10.66-foot stretched variant dubbed the An-148-200. A 100-seat platform, the -200 would not appear before 2008. “I have no customer and no financial sources for its full-scale development,” Balabuyev confessed.
Antonov says it expects to sell 490 An-148s by 2020, including 280 in the CIS and 210 in 15 foreign countries. Africa, the Middle East and Asia would take 130, while it projects a market for 80 in the West. On the international market the An-148 might find a niche in regions with unfinished and short airfields, where it could hold an advantage over low-wing aircraft.

Antonov has priced the An-148 at between 25 and 30 percent below the Embraer and Bombardier designs, while it claims customers will see a direct operating cost benefit of 10 to 15 percent. The An-148’s launch customer will pay $16 million apiece. Its main CIS competitor, the Sukhoi-led Russian Regional Jet, lags some three years behind the Ukrainian jet.

“Our market is primarily the CIS, but today it is a dead market,” said Balabuyev. “Airplanes fail to sell not because they are bad. Airlines do not have funds to afford them. But traffic is beginning to pick up, and the airlines need to prepare for the growth.”

While designing the An-148, Antonov assembled an airline council, inviting those Russian and Ukrainian airlines that it saw as potential customers. Aeroflot, Pulkovo, Kras-Air, Sibir and AeroSwit topped the list. This year KrasAir signed a letter of intent for 12, AeroSwit for 10 and Pulkovo for 20. Together with requests from smaller airlines, CIS carriers have sent tenders for 70 aircraft.

At Air France’s request, Antonov presented the An-148 in Paris past summer. “They told us they like our airplane,” said Balabuyev. “They also say they like the RRJ and that they will be looking to Aeroflot and acting according to its choice.”