During Vladimir Putin’s tour of the Gulf countries earlier this autumn, Moscow made efforts to lure wealthy Arabs into ambitious aviation projects, most notably the next-gen supersonic business jet (SSBJ). Such an aircraft would accommodate 16 to 19 travelers and cruise at speeds of 1,090 to 1,620 knots.
The Russian president touched on the theme when talking to the King Salman of Saudi Arabia and Crown Prince Mohammed of Abu Dhabi while letting ministers discuss the matter in detail during sessions of inter-government commissions that were held in his presence.
Talking to journalists after the ninth session of the Russo-Emirati inter-government commission held on October 15 in Abu Dhabi, Denis Manturov, the minister for industry and trade said, “Russia is interested in cooperation with the Gulf monarchies on the supersonic passenger jet…since they are pre-positioned to be customers for such an aircraft.” Earlier, Russian officials said the focus of a sales campaign on the future supersonic jet would be placed on Southeast Asia and the Middle East, the two geographic areas “where the factors of time, distances, and traffic intensity allow for supersonic travel.”
“As for the potential market, this geographic area [the Gulf] looks like among the main ones that we are interested in,” Manturov said. During a question and answer session, he added: “As per investments, yes, they can help us materialize such a project.” His ministry has already injected Rouble 1.4 billion ($21.8 million) into the research and development effort headed by TsAGI (the Russian Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute, near Moscow) in cooperation with six other scientific research establishments.
Advanced technology is the key to this project, the minister stressed. Without that, the SSBJ would be very costly, “much more than existing subsonic jets.” Rough estimates render a deliverable SSBJ to be twice as expensive as subsonic business jets of similar seating capacity. Last year, the aforementioned ministry forecast that, at a unit cost between $100- and $120 million, the solvent demand for next-gen supersonic transports would come to 30 in the inner market, and “many more” outside the country.
Answering further questions on the SSBJ, Manturov said that “a demonstrator” shall be ready in 2023, so as to enable the creation of “a real aircraft” in 2027. The technology demonstrator will be smaller, serving to test key technologies and design solutions developed for a full-size supersonic transport.
Middle East Contributions
The minister further said that Moscow is ready to render assistance to Emirati companies in developing their own competencies in the aerospace domain. “Do we need [foreign] investments? Yes, we do! In turn, we can help them [in the UAE] develop their competence. This is not going to be a kind of global competence that would enable them to offer a turn-key solution worldwide…And yet, it might enable them to move forward.”
One of the areas where the Emirates can provide an industrial contribution to the future SSBJ and the MC-21 next-gen narrowbody jetliner is airframe parts made of advanced materials, since “they already have a superb plant for composites,” said Manturov.
A wide application of polymeric composites and metal-composite structures promises to reduce the SSBJ’s structural weight, and thus reduce the intensity of the sonic boom. Russian designers are set to use modern heat-resistant materials, including polymeric ones with carbon threads. These are lighter than aluminum, yet stiffer than steel.
The Russians are also considering a new kind of force-bearing structure, one that is more reminiscent of bionic structures such as birds’ skeletons, than the classic solutions applied to aircraft worldwide. Academic Sergei Chernyshev, the head of science at TsAGI, told journalists: “We offer a net-like structure, with variable cells. These are smaller in area with higher aerodynamic pressure, such as that on the wing, and larger in the tail and nose sections of the fuselage.” This is a big departure from the Tupolev Tu-144 first-generation supersonic transport that flew 50 years ago and saw limited passenger service. “The Tu-144 is a legend and an interesting page in TsAGi’s history. We commenced studies into supersonic transports even before the Tu-144 launch, and have never stopped working on the theme since then. Today, we do this work with other priorities and standards in mind. As part of the ongoing effort, we work on some technical issues related to tough ecological requirements,” said Chernyshev.
Earlier this fall, TsAGI demonstrated a mockup of the force-bearing structure for the forward section of an SSBJ airframe. The main structural members are made of composite materials, while outer and inner skins are made of “advanced non-metallic materials.” TsAGI makes a special point that the mockup employs parts made by 3D printing. It further notes that the mockup represents “a hybrid metal-and-composite forward section of the airframe” and “features a non-conventional force-bearing structure with implementation of modern engineering decisions arising from bionic principles.” Such structures are also applicable to prospective long- and medium-haul passenger jets.
Another exhibit is described as “a multi-walled composite panel of integral nature.” It consists of two outer skins, longitudinal walls, and lightweight filling. This exhibit is “a specimen for production” as “an element in force-bearing structure for high-loaded sections of the airframe.” Apart from stiffness and strength, such elements provide for high resistance to impact, good thermal insulation, and noise reduction qualities, as required for supersonic jets, Chernyshev noted.