China’s Comac and Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) have shortlisted several suppliers for the CR929 widebody ahead of a planned first metal cutting this year, despite sagging prospects for widebodies in the context of the Covid pandemic. The moves come amid another confirmation of the strong intent by Beijing and Moscow to work together on major aerospace programs. During a June 4 online press conference with heads of the world’s leading wire services, Russian president Vladimir Putin mentioned the “development of a widebody passenger jet” among other ongoing programs between Russia and China.
The program’s research and development effort has passed several milestones. In March, Russia’s Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) reported completion of yet another set of tests in the T-128 wind tunnel in Zhukovsky near Moscow, devoted to refining the jet’s wing featuring “sickle-like” tips.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is maintaining pressure on Russia through economic sanctions and on China via trade restrictions, which make it increasingly difficult for those countries to obtain high-tech Western components for locally developed aircraft. Although the developers haven’t yet chosen a powerplant for the CR929, geopolitical considerations leave no plausible alternative to the ODK-Aviadvigatel PD-35, now in development since 2014. According to Russia’s United Engine Corp. (ODK), it continues construction of new production and testing facilities for the 35-tonne-thrust-class turbofan with the intent of installation on a variety of military and civil platforms.
But the first airplane meant to use the PD-35 remains a would-be twin-engine version of the Ilyushin Il-96-400M quad, sometimes referred to as the Il-496. Plans called for it to fly a year before the CR929 to serve as a testbed for newly developed items and to provide contingency in case the Sino-Russian effort fails.
The Kremlin allocated funding of 50 billion rubles ($687 million) for the development of the Il-96-400M as an intended replacement for the smaller Il-96-300 quad, which has been in low-rate production at VASO plant in Voronezh since 1993. While the latter remains in operation with Cubana de Aviacion, the type no longer flies with Russian airlines, although it continues to fly with government agencies.
Efforts to find commercial customers for the Il-96-400M have so far failed. Faced with a decline in traffic due to Covid-19, the airlines have shown no interest in the type despite promises of financial aid and other sales-promoting measures from the Kremlin. Although an official confirmation on the closure of the respective program hasn’t yet come, Russian media have reported that the Il-96-400M will go no further than the construction of two airframes for which the Kremlin already has paid. The early plan called for assembly of eight operable aircraft by 2027.