Suchoj SuperjetFlight testing of the Suchoj Superjet
Many people view it as one of the few opportunities for Russian civil aircraft construction: it is hoped that collaboration with Western companies on a scale never seen before will help the Superjet achieve the crucial breakthrough. Delays have nothing to do with aircraft size: it is not just the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 that are afflicted by delays; regional jets such as the Sukhoi Superjet 100 have to contend with them too.
According to the original plans, the Russian product was supposed to have its maiden flight in the spring of 2006, but the deadline kept slipping. It was apparently delays on the engine tests of the new SaM146 from PowerJet which recently prevented flight testing from getting under way. Although integration of the powerplant on an IL-76 flying testbed did actually take longer than planned, that is unlikely to have been the only reason. As one insider put it, "It was an easy excuse."
Nonetheless, there was much jubilation when the aircraft on which all the hopes of the Russian aircraft industry are pinned finally took off from Komsomolsk on Amur on 19 May. "Today is the most important day for us," said Sukhoi Director General Mikhail Pogosyan. "I am sure that we will win and that the aircraft will be a success." The pressure on the Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company (SCAC) is enormous.
After all, the Superjet is the first new passenger aircraft that Russia has produced since the demise of the Soviet Union and it has swallowed up a considerable amount of state support. At least the pilots are happy. "This aircraft is a real success and it is as easy to pilot as Airbus or Boeing planes," said SCAC chief test pilot Alexander Yablontsev after the maiden flight, which he carried out together with test pilot Leonid Chikunov.
The flight lasted one hour and fifteen minutes and in the course of it, the prototype attained a maximum altitude of 1,200m and speed of 333km/h. The second flight on 24 May was somewhat more extensive. Yablontsev climbed to 3,000m and retracted the landing gear for the first time. After two and a half hours he landed back in Komsomolsk. "The aircraft met our expectations as of general controllability and stability characteristics, as well as engine and systems operation." He singled out the autopilot for special praise. "I am sure that its quality will outbeat the rivals."
But as of the middle of June these were the only two flights to have been carried out. Altogether the Superjet is scheduled to complete 40 flights in Komsomolsk before the certification tests start in Shukovski. These will involve four aircraft altogether. The second prototype is currently being fitted out with systems and is due to fly in the summer. The third one is currently having its empennage fitted, the fuselage and aerofoils having been already joined together. The fuselage of the fourth jet is ready and in the final assembly hall.
All four jets are due to take to the air before the end of the year. Certification is currently planned for March 2009. At the moment the company is considering whether to test one of the aircraft in Italy in order to shorten the test programme. It goes without saying that the date originally envisaged for delivery to launch customer Aeroflot this November is no longer feasible, and has been postponed to the second quarter of 2009. Parts production for the first customer aircraft began back in April. S
CAC currently has firm orders for 73 aircraft. The only Western customer is ItAli Airlines of Italy. Nevertheless, Sukhoi is confident: "We expect our order backlog to rise to 100 aircraft this year, and some of those customers will be international airlines as well." The Russians are promising that the Superjets operating costs will be ten percent lower than those of the international competition. Fuel consumption should likewise be ten percent lower due to the aerodynamics and the SaM146 engine.
Orders are currently concentrated on the SSJ100/95 (list price $29.9 million). The 60-seat version no longer features in the plans. However, the original, 75-seat basic version is still on the table. "It fills a market gap, for example in India. SCAC is ready to start production of the SSJ100/75 as soon as there are sufficient orders," we were told in response to a question. The key to success lies in a breakthrough into the Western market. "Here Sukhoi was smart enough to realise it needed a Western partner. The Russian industry was quite weak on customer service and credibility at the time," says Carlo Logli, Senior Vice President, Strategy and Business Development at Alenia.
The Italian company had been trying for some time to add a regional jet to the turboprop portfolio of ATR (a joint venture company between Alenia and EADS). "The AIR joint venture with British Aerospace came to nothing. At the beginning of 2000 we tried to acquire Fairchild Dornier with the 728, but unfortunately it was too far from our expectations. Then in 2004 we met with Sukhoi. A family with both jets and turboprops makes sense." For this reason the Italians climbed on board with 25 percent and one share in SCAC, investing 250 million in the venture.
Although the relevant contracts were signed back in November 2006, negotiation of the fine print is still under way. The acquisition of one share was necessary to ensure that Alenia had a right of veto and two places on the SCAC Board. Logli holds one of these positions. To establish a customer service network for the Superjet, Alenia (51%) and Sukhoi Holding (49%) founded the joint venture company Superjet International, which is based in Venice at Aeronavali (which belongs to Alenia and performs maintenance and conversion work on civil and military aircraft).
The new company will market the Superjet in Europe, America, Africa, Oceania and Japan and, in so doing, will definitely benefit from experience gained with ATR. SCAC will be responsible for the regions of Russia, the CIS, China, India, the Middle East and South-East Asia. In addition, the joint venture will be responsible for future conversions to cargo and VIP versions so as to be in a position to take advantage of synergies with Alenia. However, the Italians are also considering offering a new cabin interior for the regional jet as an option. Designed by Pininfarina, this incorporates LED lighting with alternating colour tones. Negotiations regarding a feasibility study are still under way, and a decision is expected this September.
Otherwise, Alenia is helping Sukhoi with the design, amongst other things, "But at present there are no plans to share in production," Logli confirms. However, the possibility of making greater use of composite materials in future versions is being discussed, as up to now they have only been used on control surfaces and fairings. "We want to keep the aircraft as it is. We might use more composite materials in the stretched version, which we are currently studying." He expects a decision on the 115- to 130 seat version to be taken this year. Given the relatively low price thanks to the low cost of labour in Russia, he believes the prospects for the present version are good, initially in Europe and later in America as well. Sukhoi at any rate estimates the possible sales volume at 800 aircraft, 500 of which it expects to go to foreign airlines.
by Patrick Hoeveler