A military niche secure, Mil targets bizav market

 - February 8, 2008, 6:10 AM

Having found some success with military orders for the Mi-28N and Mi-8/17, Moscow-based Mil is seeking to expand its offerings and attract some interest from the business aviation market. The Moscow design house reinstated itself as the “brain trust” of the national rotorcraft industry after the foundation of state-run Helicopter Holding, a consortium of all national helicopter developers and manufacturers in which Mil managers took commanding seats.

In the 60 years since the company was founded, Mil has built more than 30,000 helicopters. While happy with that statistic, Mil general designer Aleksei Samusenko hopes to improve the company’s recognition in the business aviation market, particularly in Russia. He recognizes that the business community– even within Russia–prefers quieter and more comfortable European and American designs to the home- grown Mil designs. The company plans to challenge Western rivals with its revamped Mi-34A, all-new Mi-54 and refined Mi-38.

The list of ongoing development programs contains a dozen “from-scratch” and renewed designs. A small company with less than 1,000 designers and engineers, Mil is funneling the bulk of its resources into three major programs: the Mi-28N night attack helicopter, the civilian Mi-38 and dual-purpose Mi-8X. The three helicopters will share the same glass cockpit, blades, rotors, gearboxes, engines and flight control system, making transition from one to another easier for operators.

An Eye on the Civil Market
On the brink of bankruptcy, having received no government orders since 1994, Mil in 1999 won a government contract for the comprehensive upgrade of 20 Mi-8s, focusing on advanced night vision and electronic reconnaissance systems.

Since 2000 the number of government orders has remained stable, and Mil sees that work as a foundation for its expansion into the commercial market. The company hopes to achieve a 50/50 split between government funding and commercial revenue by the end of the decade.

The 15-ton Mi-38 is among the priority projects at the company. Mil intends for the Mi-38 to supplement, rather than supersede, the Mi-8/17. Modifying and certifying the Mi-38 will take a couple of years, with service entry following in 2010. Quieter and more luxurious than its progenitor, the new rotorcraft is aimed at the VIP and passenger transportation market in Europe, leaving harsher territories, such as Siberia or Africa, to the more robust Mi-8/17.

The one-ton revamped Mi-34 is aimed at the lower end of the market. Developed as an initial trainer and screener for flying clubs with sports in mind, the original Mi-34 can perform aerobatics, including loops and 3-g turns. The Mi-34A semi-commercial derivative saw limited production at the Arseniev plant but it appeared unable to compete with Robinson helicopters on performance and reliability. In the new version, a Vedeneyev M9V piston engine replaces the outdated Vedeneyev M14V. Turbine derivatives will be powered by the Ivchenko-Progress AI450 or a Turbomeca Arius 2G, with “Mi” suffix.

According to Mil general designer Samusenko, the Mi-34A will have a “fly-away price of less than $500,000.”

AgustaWestland has emerged as a candidate to be the strategic Western partner Russia has been seeking since Eurocopter pulled out of Euromil (a joint venture working on the Mi-38). Helicopter Holding could offer AgustaWestland local assembly of the AW139 at the Ulan-Ude UUAZ plant and codevelopment of the Mi-54, designated the AW149. An Agusta-Westland spokesman dismissed any AW139 and Mi-54/AW149 collaboration as speculation, but he confirmed there are discussions between AgustaWestland and the Russian industry about “possible cooperation.”

Mil general director Andrei Shibitov, who is also the chief of Helicopter Holding, said that research and development costs for the Mi-54 are estimated to be $300 million. The helicopter, powered by either Klimov VK800 or Ariel 2C engines, is slated to fly in 2011.

The military Mi-8/17/35/28N account for 90 percent of total production of 100 helicopters. Time will tell whether Mil designs tailored for business aviation sell as well as the company hopes.