New Regional Aircraft: East plays catch-up in race for RJ prominence

 - October 23, 2006, 11:17 AM

Antonov: An-148–The only aircraft program ever launched in the former Soviet Union without direct public funding continues its march toward CIS AP-25 certification, scheduled for next April. Now flying a pair of test vehicles, the first of which took to the air last December 17, Antonov has confounded skeptics at home and abroad by consistently reaching program milestones, if not on schedule, in time to put virtually every other CIS program developed in the post-Soviet era to shame.

Siberia’s KrasAir plans to become the first to fly the airplane in scheduled service next spring, when it starts taking deliveries of a planned batch of 12. During August’s Moscow Air Show, Ilyushin Finance Leasing signed lease contracts with St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo Airlines for 18 and Voronezh-based Polyot Airlines for 20, including five cargo versions. KrasAir also agreed to take one of the program’s prototypes, refurbished as an 18-seat VIP variant.

The project team, consisting of program leader Aviant of Kiev, KSAMC of Kharkiv and Russia’s Voronezh Aircraft (VASO), has already begun building five production airplanes, all due for completion by the time the airplane wins approval from CIS authorities. VASO will supply An-148s primarily to Russian customers, while Aviant assembles the 80-seat jets for other markets. Along with final assembly, VASO contributes the empennage, nose and rear fuselage and nacelles. Kharkiv builds wing box components, wing panels and cockpit canopy frames.

AVIC I: ARJ21–Scheduled for first flight in 2007 and certification in time for the 2008 Summer Olympics, the ARJ21 embodies China’s most ambitious attempt to assemble an international supplier base for an indigenous aircraft program. So far its efforts have attracted more than a dozen major North American and European companies, including GE Aircraft Engines, tasked with adapting the 18,000-pound-thrust CF34-10 turbofan to the ARJ21’s fuselage-mounted engine requirement.

With the help of a new supercritical wing design from Ukraine’s Antonov, an extended-range, baseline-capacity ARJ21-700 would carry between 78 and 85 passengers as far as 2,000 nm at a cruise speed of Mach 0.78. The proposed ARJ21-900, to follow in a time frame defined by future market interest, would carry between 98 and 105 passengers as far as 1,800 nm. The certification program calls for roughly a year-and-a-half of flight testing with three flying prototypes and a pair of static ground-test articles.

The ARJ21 owes much of its design and appearance to a failed partnership formed in 1992 between McDonnell Douglas and CATIC to produce MD-90s in China. Although the Chinese managed to build only two airplanes, the tooling remains in Shanghai. Now they plan to use that very same tooling to build the ARJ21.

As in the case of the MD-90, the Shanghai factory has taken responsibility for the ARJ21’s tailplane and final assembly. Xian Aircraft, maker of wing sections for the Airbus A320, Boeing 737 and ATR 42/72, would build the airplane’s wings and all its fuselage sections. Chengdu Aircraft, located some 400 miles southwest of Xian, would build the nose section, while Shenyang Aircraft supplies the empennage.

Bombardier: C Series–Bombardier’s newly constituted board of directors officially authorized its airline division to offer the C Series line of single-aisle jets to potential customers in March, marking the start of the company’s first venture into the major airline market. But six months into the sales campaign, the company has yet to land an order, forcing changes to the launch target, now set for some time before the end of this year.

After failing to convince both IAE and CFM to design and build an all-new engine for the airplane, Bombardier received a much-needed boost just before this year’s Paris Air Show, when Pratt & Whitney Canada agreed to develop a 21,000-pound-thrust turbofan capable of delivering enough fuel savings and range to meet project targets. By press time the companies had yet to sign a firm contract, however, and P&WC remains tight-lipped about its technical progress.

Not really a regional jet in the traditional sense, the smaller member of the C Series family, called the C110, would carry between 110 and 115 seats, while the larger member, the C130, holds as many as 135. A short-range version of each would fly roughly 1,800 nm, while planned transcontinental-range variants would fly as far as 3,000 nm. Maximum takeoff weights would range from 120,600 pounds for the short-range C110 to 146,000 pounds for the long-range C130.

After deciding against the all-composite fuselage many at first anticipated, Bombardier has settled on a 20-percent plastics content. Fiber composites would appear in part of the center and rear fuselage sections, tailcone, empennage and wings. Early development schedules show first flight of the C110 in 2008 and service entry in 2010. The larger airplane would come later, but the company hasn’t set a precise timeframe.

Embraer: 190–Certified by Brazil’s civil aviation authority and the U.S. FAA in late August, the 98-seat Embraer 190 moves the Brazilian company into a market long dominated by Boeing and Airbus as discount airline JetBlue launches service with the first of a firm order for 100 on November 1.

As of press time having taken firm orders for 183 examples, Embraer has long insisted the 190 would appeal to low-fare and major carriers as well as regional airlines. In fact, only France’s Regionál qualifies as a regional customer per se, as JetBlue, Air Canada, Panama’s COPA, Ecuador’s TAME and GECAS account for the rest of the Embraer 190 order base. So far scope clauses continue to hold the line near 70 seats throughout most of the industry, although talks between US Airways and one of its regional partners, Embraer 170 operator Republic Airways, have raised the likelihood that Embraer 190s will soon appear in the US Airways Express livery.

Flown for the first time in March last year, the Embraer 190AR benefits from structural reinforcements that allow for a higher maximum takeoff weight and range than originally planned. The changes, driven by JetBlue’s requirements, add as much as 300 nm of range, allowing the 190 to fly as far as 2,300 nm with a full passenger load.

195–As the last and largest member of Embraer’s E-Jets took off effortlessly on its first flight last December 7, the program’s marketing campaign seemed all but grounded. But Embraer’s patience finally paid dividends during June’s Paris Air Show, when Britain’s Flybe placed an order for 14 of the big RJs, the first since Embraer launched the program way back in 1999.

Things started getting tense for Embraer as five years passed without an order and some industry people began questioning the wisdom of stretching a four-abreast cabin to 108 seats. Overshadowed by the success of the 190, the 195 became almost an afterthought in the minds of many.

Although it holds nonrefundable deposits, Embraer finally stopped considering a 15-unit order from Swiss International Airlines in its annual production rate forecasts after the airline delayed deliveries indefinitely. More recently, a decision to replace Swiss’ last Embraer 145s and Saab 2000s with Avro RJ quad-jets raises further questions about its intentions for the 195.

Happily for Embraer, Flybe decided to replace its own fleet of four-engine BAe 146s with the Brazilian twins, scheduled for delivery from August next year to November 2007.

Under Embraer’s latest schedules, the 195 would gain certification by next year’s second quarter. With structural reinforcements recently introduced in the 190 and 195ARs, the biggest Embraer can now travel as far as 2,100 nm, giving it enough range to fly from the East Coast to the Rocky Mountains.

Sukhoi: RRJ–It didn’t happen in the grand fashion Sukhoi had hoped, but the Russian Regional Jet finally attracted its first firm order at August’s Moscow Air Show, when Russia’s Finance Leasing Company signed a $260 million deal for 10 airplanes. Sukhoi has promised delivery to prospective lessees in the 2008-2009 time frame, perhaps offering a clue to when it can realistically get the airplane certified and ready for series production.

More good news came at Russia’s premier airshow in the form of an equity commitment amounting to 25 percent of the project from Italy’s Alenia. The letter of understanding lent a welcome boost of credibility to a program that had begun to show signs of languor after a letter of intent for 50 RRJs from Sibir expired earlier this year.

Both the 95-seat RRJ-95B/LR and 75-seat RRJ-75B/LR passed their critical design reviews after some 120 technical specialists from Western program partners joined Sukhoi engineers for a July 11 to 16 “dream team” session in Moscow.
Last month the Air France-led RRJ airline advisory board planned to hold its fourth session, during which time Sukhoi was to present the Western airlines a “fully determined product with a frozen configuration of the airframe and all systems.”

Once production gets under way, Beriev will build parts of the fuselage, Yakovlev will supply wing edges, various hatches and doors, while Ilyushin helps with onboard systems and Western certification. Snecma and NPO Saturn continue work on the new SM146 turbofan, a version of which would appear on each of the family’s 75- and 90-seat variants.