Customers adjust to Superjet slip

 - July 8, 2008, 10:01 AM

While the first prototype of the Sukhoi Superjet 100 continued its initial round of flight testing over Komsomolsk-upon-Amur in Russia’s Far East early last month, back in Moscow launch customer Aeroflot decided to lease 35 Boeing 737-500s to address delivery delays.

According to Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company (SCAC) president Victor Subbotin, SSJ100 certification has been postponed until next April. The first production aircraft, scheduled for delivery the following month, will likely go to either Russia’s Finance Lease Company (FLK) or Arm-Avia. Those customers agreed to the factory’s 96-seat standard, while Aeroflot wants a tailored variant for eight business and 72 economy passengers, Subbotin explained. In the first year of production Sukhoi plans to deliver three SSJ100s, followed by 30 in 2010 and 60 in 2011, before production reaches peak capacity of some 70 aircraft a year.

The maiden flight on May 19 lasted for 66 minutes, during which RA95001 reached an altitude of 4,000 feet and a speed of 180 knots; the landing gear remained extended during the flight. On the next mission, on May 24, Sukhoi test pilots Aleksandr Yablotsev and Leonid Chikunov retracted the gear and reached 10,000 feet and 243 knots. Sukhoi postponed the third mission several times due to weather, finally finding suitable conditions on May 28. This flight, like the previous one, lasted for two-and-a-half hours. On all three flights the airplane’s ramp weight was 70,850 pounds.

The first prototype was slated to fly 40 sorties from the KnAAPO factory in Komsomolsk-upon- Amur before transferring to Sukhoi’s Zhukovsky flight-test center, near Moscow, early this month. About that time, Sukhoi plans to roll out the second flight-test aircraft. After a short series of trials in the hands of its builder, it will also head to Zhukovsky. A total of 300 Sukhoi specialists are involved in SSJ100 trials at KnAAPO.

The first pair of heavily instrumented flight-test aircraft will fly approximately half of the approximately 600 missions scheduled for CIS type certification. The second pair, completion of which is scheduled for the second half of this year, will fly the remainder. The second pair of airplanes will feature a cabin interior complete with 96 economy-class seats. KnAAPO plans to complete one more airframe for static fatigue testing by year-end.

Meanwhile, testing continues on the PowerJet SaM146 turbofan. One has amassed about 50 “power on” hours under the pylon of an Ilyushin Il-76 testbed, and six others have logged more than 1,000 hours of bench testing.

Because flight testing of the SSJ100 started later than planned, Sukhoi must review its obligations to the six customers that have placed orders for 73 airplanes. Italy’s itAli Airlines, which has signed for 10 Superjets, is so far the only European customer for the airplane. Giuseppe Spandaccini, president of Aeroservices Group, which controls itAli, told AIN the contract calls for delivery of the airline’s first SSJ100 in December next year. Like Russia’s AirUnion, the Italian airline chose the heavier “LR” version; other airlines have ordered the baseline model. The LR needs additional testing, so it appears unlikely that itAli will get its first SSJ100 as planned next year.

Aeroflot Still Aboard

Aeroflot says it remains committed to the SSJ100, calling it “the best ever attempted indigenous aeronautical product.” But the airline reserves the right to cancel its December 2005 order for 30 SSJ100s, and its options on 15 more, should the delay exceed the contract-specified term, reportedly six months. In that case the customer also has the right to seek compensation to the tune of $1.5 million for each undelivered airframe.

As of early last month, the Russian flag carrier had not received from Sukhoi a formal proposal for a revised schedule, meaning that the original schedule remains valid, Aeroflot general director Valery Okulov told AIN. It calls for Aeroflot to receive its first SSJ100 in November this year, and one airplane a month thereafter. However, at the airline’s June 4 annual meeting, Aeroflot shareholders approved a plan to wet lease 15 Boeing 737-500s from Aeroflot-Nord and another 10 airplanes from Aeroflot-Don to serve as replacements for undelivered Superjets.

Despite the difficulties it faces in meeting its contractual obligations to existing customers, Sukhoi remains optimistic about the project, forecasting sales of more
than 1,000 airplanes. Of those, 300 will be for the so-called anchor market, that of Russia and the CIS.

“We do not consider the Superjet as merely one of the many projects of the United Aircraft Corp.,” said Sukhoi Aviation Holding Company general director Mikhail Pogosyan at last month’s Berlin Air Show. “Rather, this program sets standards for all future Russian aeronautical efforts. Materialization of the SSJ100 program calls for modernization of all major directions in commercial aircraft development, including moving to computer-aided design technologies, wide-scale renovation of production tools, which we do right now at plants in Komsomolsk, Novosibirsk and Voronezh, as well as implementation of a new business model, oriented on requirements of a wide range of customers.” He predicted that Sukhoi will double the number of firm orders for the SSJ100 by the end of the year.

“As the program goes through its paces, the technical and financial risks decrease, and our image improves. I expect a major rise in sales following maiden flight and completion of manufacturers’ trials this summer,” added Subbotin, who also hinted at possible changes in the international team of suppliers. “Not all of them performed well when it came to delivering on promises,” he said. “We experienced much difficulty with completing the first operable aircraft.” He declined to specify which companies contributed to the delays, instead choosing to praise Liebherr for its flight control system, “which worked perfectly in the first flights.” Of Thales, which supplies the Superjet’s TopDeck avionics suite and full-motion simulators, Subbotin said, “The French partner did well, albeit it was running late at one time…but then caught up and made everything we asked for.”

The Russian government has allocated $365 million of federal funds to the project, estimated to cost $1 billion in research and development and establishing production, and not counting $800 million for SaM146 funding. Firm orders have come from FLK (10), Aeroflot (30), AirUnion (15), DalAvia (6), itAli (10) and ArmAvia (2).