By not bringing its latest product to Le Bourget, Russia’s Irkut has indeed missed a golden opportunity, but with a purpose. The MC-21 next-generation narrowbody jet will instead make its show debut two months later at MAKS in Moscow. Technically, everything appears ready. Two heavily instrumented operable prototypes (first flown in 2017 and 2018) sat at the Ramenskoye Airport near Moscow while the third, outfitted with a passenger cabin, landed there on May 14 after receiving a paint job.
Apparently, the decision to omit Paris has centered on political considerations. Geopolitics dictates that United Aircraft Corporation (UAC)—of which Irkut is a member—put the interests of the Russian public, customers, and rulers first. That policy hadn’t taken hold at the start of the program, when the Russians welcomed aboard a dozen European and U.S. suppliers with their engines, systems, instruments, and construction materials. UAC unveiled a full-scale mockup of the passenger cabin at the 2010 Farnborough Air Show, months ahead of its presentation to local interests.
At the start, developers considered the MC-21 as a second major cooperative program between Russia and the West in the sphere of civil aviation following the Sukhoi Superjet 100. Today, Russia’s import substitution effort calls for both types to become completely indigenous products. The Kremlin instituted the policy in 2014, shortly after the U.S. and EU began placing economic sanctions on Moscow.
Current plans call for type certification of the Pratt & Whitney PW1400G-powered MC-21, replete with vital Western components, to local standards next year and to EASA standards in 2021. With Washington pressing ahead with more economic sanctions on Moscow, however, it is becoming increasingly unclear whether that early version will ever enter service with commercial operators. The White House has openly pledged not to issue export licenses for “turbojet engines” into Russia under newly filed requests. If the U.S. carries through with that promise, UAC and Irkut could no longer buy engines from Pratt & Whitney.
Speaking in Moscow on the eve of the Paris Air Show, Irkut head of sales Cyril Budayev said shipments of indigenously powered MC-21s will commence in 2022. Earlier this year the manufacturer received two Perm Motors PD-14 engines to install on the MC-21’s fourth operable prototype, scheduled to start certification trials next year. Plans call for the effort to take two years. “The engine itself has already obtained certification,” said Budayev. “It has been showing quite good results. Let’s see how it would perform on our aircraft. We do believe in our partners in Perm.”
Despite the chill in relations between East and West, Moscow still wants European certification for the MC-21, including PD-14-powered versions. “For several years now EASA specialists have been working with Irkut,” said Budayev. “Earlier in 2019, EASA pilots performed their first flights on the MC-21. They appreciated our sidestick with innovative feedback that ensures completely predictable and safe flight in all modes.” Following completion of flight testing on the P&W-powered prototypes, the work will proceed with indigenous propulsion, he added.
Of course, Russian industry needs European certification to sell its products worldwide. UAC estimates the global market for narrowbodies at approximately 30,000 over the next 20 years, of which Russia accounts for only 900. So far, Irkut holds firm orders for 175 MC-21s and commitments for another 150.
Budayev said that, initially, Irkut will place deliverable airframes with local operators and provide them with proper aftersales support to ensure new airplanes fly rather than sit grounded. “We intend to spend several years to make the machine run smoothly on the routes of the national flag carrier and some other local airlines,” he said. “There is a comprehensive plan for initial level of utilization and its steady increase as time goes on.”
Target figures for utilization call for flight hour totals no worse than the 4,000 to 4,500 Airbus and Boeing jetliners typically achieve annually given the high level of competition any narrowbody faces globally.
Russian engineers claim that, technically, the MC-21 is a more advanced airplane than the Boeing 737 Max or Airbus A320neo and compares favorably to the most recent widebodies from the duopoly. Because of that, preliminary specifications show the MC-21’s operating economics beats the competition by 5 to 7 percent per seat.
“There is no doubt such a plane is very much in demand,” said Budayev. “Our cabin solutions are, to our minds, what most airline customers want.” However, he also acknowledged a trend toward higher capacities in the narrowbody sector. “It is expected that the demand will peak at two hundred seats in the future,” he said. “Today, we focus on the MC-21-300 (163 seats in two-class layout) with a possibility for a higher capacity in the future."