Albeit having a small share in the global market for business aircraft, the Russian aerospace industry maintains one important stronghold with VIP-configured Mi-8/17 series helicopters. Operational since 1965, the platform continues in production with more than 13,000 copies built so far, including hundreds for use by corporations and government officials.
Exported to more than a hundred countries, the helicopters logged some 100 million flight hours and won worldwide acclaim for ruggedness, reliability, and predictability, the three merits that certain customers place above all else. A Hip (NATO code name for the Mi-8/17) can be much noisier and shakier than most modern designs, but its outstanding flight record and classic appearance prevail when a customer does not want to take any chances.
During the past decade, the annual production rate floated between 100 and 200 units. No official statistics are available for how many helicopters come with a high-comfort interior. Besides, most customers for those aircraft prefer to stay unidentified. But analyzing reports of Russian outfitters on the installation of VIP interiors into green aircraft and conversions of used ones shows that, on average, there are about six VIP/VVIP Mi-8/17 helicopters entering service each year.
“Installation of VIP interiors into the Mi-8/17 family remains our core activity, with three helicopters done in 2020 and four orders won for 2021,” said Dmitry Onyanov, general manager at the Tulpar Aero Group. High-speed airborne connectivity is now a standard customer requirement, he added. The Covid-19 outbreak prompted a desire for cleaner air inside the aircraft through the installation of so-called “improved thermal filters.” The work costs about €100,000 for a Mi-8-sized helicopter and can be done during a shop visit for maintenance.
Another novelty is an improved ventilation system that manages a complete renovation of the air inside aircraft within two to three minutes. A new trend involves the installation of Nuage-like seats—fashioned after the reclining seats designed by Bombardier for its Global business jet family—into the Russian-built helicopters.
Tulpar is considering similar designs for a wider range of applications. “We are working hard on the creation of a similar seat for other jets and choppers,” Onyanov said. Tulpar is also developing improved honeycomb panels for lighter weight and better noise insulation. The company buys them abroad but plans to introduce local analogs made completely of Russian materials.
Another outfitter doing VIP interiors for the Mi-8/17 is AirTaxi-Service, which has developed a quick conversion (passenger/cargo/medical/corporate) cabin with a high comfort variant for up to 13 people. Initially an aircraft operator and MRO provider, the company moved into the aircraft interiors business in 1999.
Together with the Mil design house, AirTaxi-Service outfitted a Mi-38 with VIP interior, for which it received praise from Russian president Vladimir Putin, who showed the helicopter to Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at MAKS 2019. Developed as a growth replacement for the Hip, the Mi-38 produces less noise and flies faster, while offering payload capability of 5.5 tonnes and cabin space of 29.5 cubic meters against Mi-8’s 4 tonnes and 23 to 27 cubic meters, respectively.
There is no Mi-38 yet in the Russian government air arm yet since it buys only products that have already proved safe and reliable in operation. It operates more than a dozen Mi-8AMT-1s and Mi-8MTV-1Ss, which replaced older Mi-8PS VVIP helicopters.
The latter’s leather seats, satellite phone, and air-conditioning inspired Indira Gandhi, and in 1971 her cabinet approved the purchase of six broadly similar Mi-8MPs. Bearing Indian Air Force markings, they served with the VVIP Communication Squadron based at Palam, near New Delhi, until their replacement came in the form of six Mi-17-V5s whose VVIP outfitting was done at the Base Repair Depot at Chandigarh.
Three Mi-8s—registration EW-25049, EW-001DA and EW-002DA—operate for Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko, while two Mi-172VIPs fly for Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. Ugandan president Yoweri Kaguta Museveni uses a Mi-17-1 bought in 2016 and equipped with 12 passenger seats, a cloakroom, snack bar, and a lavatory.
Other recently delivered VIP-configured Mi-17s went to Sudan, Turkmenistan, Egypt, and Bangladesh. In addition to Mi-171A2 UP-MI701 and UP-MI702, Kazakhstan’s Berkut air company, which serves the government, has taken delivery of UP-MI707. The Mi-8/17 helicopters also serve national leaders of Ukraine, Sri Lanka, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Slovakia, among others.
VIP-configured Mi-8/17 helicopters are also found in the fleets of large corporations such as Russia’s Gazprom, Rosneft, and other fossil fuel giants. Recent deliveries include a Mi-8MTV-1 to ZEST leasing company in St. Petersburg for operations with Russair. It is configured for four main passengers and eight members of their entourage.
Similar helicopters are easily available for charter across Russia at rates of between 140,000 and 215,000 Roubles ($1,845 and $2,833, respectively) an hour depending on condition. The pandemic caused a number of operators to place their VIP-configured Mi-8/17 for sale and others to buy them.
At the turn of the century, new VIP-configured Mi-17s sold for $4 million, compared with today's price tag of $23 million for an outfitted Mi-171A2 new from the factory, $16 million for a Mi-8AMT-1-VIP of 2014 vintage, and $6.2 million for a 2006-vintage Mi-8AMT-VIP. The market for such equipment remains alive, keeping Russian industry and outfitters afloat.