The Irkut MC-21-300 narrowbody flew for the first time on May 28, carrying not only “Heros of Russia” crew commander Oleg Kononenko and copilot Roman Taskayev, but also the aspirations of Russia’s aviation industry to regain a measure of prestige not felt since Soviet times. Lasting only 30 minutes, the flight from the Irkutsk Aviation Plant airfield in Siberia took the 163- to 211-seat airliner to an altitude of 3,280 feet and a speed of 162 knots. The flight plan included aerodynamic stability and controllability checks as well as engine control tests, and the crew performed a simulated landing approach, followed by a pass over the runway and climbing and turning maneuvers.
“This is not just a first flight of a new aircraft, but rather an advance of the product that will determine the shape of the Russian civilian aviation industry for the next 50 years," said Yury Slyusar, president of Irkut parent company United Aircraft Corporation.
First flight came only two weeks after United Aircraft subsidiary Irkut announced first taxi tests at its Irkutsk airfield and nearly a year after the airplane’s rollout in the Siberian city last June 8. At the time, officials eyed Russian certification in 2018, although earlier plans to fly the airplane by the end of last year were dashed. During the rollout ceremony Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev referenced plans for first flight “within a year,” and UAC officials acknowledged that the previously quoted target might prove too optimistic. A UAC spokesman told AIN February 2017 appeared more realistic, but since then virtually all went quiet at Irkut, until this month’s taxi tests.
Powered by Pratt & Whitney PW1400G geared turbofans, the MC-21 features the widest fuselage of any narrowbody on the market, promising cabin comfort for full-service airlines and cost advantages for low-fare carriers, according to UAC and Irkut. The MC-21’s list price of $91 million suggests a 15 percent lower acquisition cost than that of the current A320.
Irkut claims that either the PW1400G or a Russian engine alternative—namely, the Aviadvigatel PD-14 now undergoing a second round of testing aboard an Ilyushin Il-76 flying testbed—will produce a 12- to 15 percent operating cost advantage over the current Airbus A320. Apart from the engines, the MC-21’s most radical advance centers on its carbon fiber wings, which take the airplane’s composite content to 30 percent. AeroComposit in Ulyanovsk, Russia, builds the wings using an out-of-autoclave resin transfer infusion process never before tried on a commercial aircraft. Both Airbus and Boeing use a more expensive process that requires an autoclave to cure their composite wings on the A350 and 787, respectively. Both of the MC-21’s chief competitors—the Boeing 737 Max and Airbus A320—use metal wings.
While UAC’s definitive plans call for that innovation to extend to the smaller, 150-seat MC-21-200, Slyusar suggested it has seriously revisited prospects for a larger version airplane in the form of the MC-21-400. At the time of the rollout, Slyusar said discussions on the larger variant could start in 2017, but that any decision would depend on what competition ultimately exists in the segment of the market the MC-21 would occupy, or the so-called “Middle of the Market (MOM).”
“We should take into consideration the plans of our colleagues; that’s why we [plan to] make a decision rationally,” he said.
In terms of production capacity, Irkut claims it could build as many as 72 aircraft a year in its newly refurbished and modernized final assembly hall in Irkutsk. While the company’s need—or ability—to deliver six airplanes per month won’t likely materialize for several years, the production plan satisfies the company’s projected demand for 1,060 MC-21s over the next two decades. Slyusar, meanwhile, expressed satisfaction with the early level of commercial interest in the product: so far the MC-21 has drawn firm orders for 175 airplanes.
Although Irkut and UAC claim they have received payments on all supply contracts signed so far, some of the intended customers say they will firm their “preliminary orders” after the first flight, or when the airplane demonstrates advertised performance during fight trials.
Sergei Chemezov, general manager of state corportation Rostec, expressed optimism about the export potential of the new jetliner, most notably in the developing markets of Southeast Asia, Latin America, India and the Middle East. Rostec has long projected a presence in those regions selling weapons and now wants to expand its footprint through civilian projects. “We are ready to render complete support to United Aircraft promoting the MC-21 to these markets,” said Chemezov.
Aeroflot expects to receive its first MC-21 from Rostec-controlled lessor AviaCapitalService in 2019. Other lessors and financial institutions committed to the project include Ilyushin Finance, VEB and Savings Bank of Russia, while only two Russian airlines signed direct contracts with the manufacturer: Nordwind for five jets and IrAero’s for 10. Holding a commitment for six MC-21-300s, Egypt’s Cairo Aviation stands as the only confirmed non-Russian customer for the airplane. Malaysia’s Crecom Burj Resources placed a tentative order for 25 airplanes at Farnborough 2010 that has yet to become firm. Other carriers that have indicated interest include Russia’s Red Wings, Azerbaijan Airlines and Air Tanzania.