News & Publications

Assessment of the Prospects of Development of a Russian Wide-Body Aircraft. Article by Alexey Sinitskiy in the Air Transport Review Magazine

09 April 2015

Issue No. 157 of the Air Transport Review magazine published in March 2015 an analytical article by Alexey Sinitskiy titled MC-21: What Will Come Next? We believe the author most precisely described the current situation with the prospects of development of a Russian wide-body aircraft.

МС-21: What Will Come Next?

Alexey Sinitskiy

The active work being under way on the MC-21 program gives confidence that Russia will see a family of state-of-the-art narrow-body aircraft. No doubt, there are still some major issues concerning the general level of competitive ability of these aircraft on the world market. Besides, situation is unclear in the margins of the model range: in the bottom margin of passenger capacity there is still the issue of harmonization of the MC-21 and Sukhoi Superjet 100 aircraft programs, while in the top margin there is no understanding of the future of the aircraft in its largest configuration – МС-21-400, i.e. whether or not it will be implemented and, if yes, what engines will be installed. Yet, we can assume that Russia will get some product in the world's most popular and wide-spread segment of narrow-body long-range aircraft.

With work on the short-range SSJ 100 currently in progress, discussions also focus on regional aircraft, including turboprops.

In this view the following question naturally arises: will Russia develop a wide-body aircraft and does it really has to do it?

So far we can name three programs existing to this or that extent. The easiest way is to start with the Aircraft-2020 project which calls for the development of technological platform for a wide-body aircraft (with different opinions voiced as to the range and capacity). This is the easiest way because in the draft amendments to the Federal Target Program (FTP) Development of Civil Aircraft in Russia for the Period from 2002 till 2010 and Further Till 2015, the Russian Ministry of Industry and Trade proposes to cancel funding of this program in 2015. According to the current revision of the FTP, it is proposed to invest in the project RUR 1.489 billion from the federal budget and another RUR 2.5 billion from extrabudgetary sources. According to the amendments, however, funding from the federal budget is proposed to be discontinued in full, while extrabudgetary funding is proposed to be limited to RUR 50 million. This is explained by the cuts of federal budget allocated for the FTP in 2015.

As part of the Aircraft-2020 project, the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) announced in 2008 a possibility of development of a wide-body short- and medium-range aircraft (WBSMRA). The aircraft was expected to be airborne as early as in 2012.

Project funding, however, was started not until 2011. By that time a decision was made to determine the market niche for the aircraft, and applicable market studies were ordered. In 2013, contract for shaping the aircraft technical concepts and architecture was awarded to the Zhukovsky Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI).

According to the FTP, works in 2014 were supposed to include, among others, the development of the advanced concepts and the list of key technologies for the aircraft, and risk assessment. It was also planned to develop such technologies and to commence the "engineering design, modeling and prototyping phase" and to test models and prototypes in 2015. Thus, this project can be viewed as actually frozen for the lack of funding.

Second project is the so – called Russian-Chinese wide-body long-range aircraft. Agreement on the development of the aircraft was signed by the UAC and by the Chinese COMAC late last May.

In February, the new UAC President Yuri Slyusar said that the corporation would be pushing the Russian Government to ensure budgetary funding of the project. So far the goal is to ensure funding of the first program phase. According to Yuri Slyusar, funding is now obtained from extrabudgetary sources, with RUR 50 million allocated in Q1 2015. Mr. Slyusar believes that the aircraft development costs which were earlier estimated at RUR 13 billion should now drop because of the weakening of the Russian Ruble. Funding will be split between China and Russia equally.

As Mr. Slyusar said before, most of the works on the new aircraft will be done in Russia. The roles will be allocated in the course of front-end engineering which is expected to be completed in July 2015.

According to the preliminary estimates, the aircraft (designated as C929) should accommodate 250 to 280 pax. The project calls for the development of a shortened and an extended versions. Initially, the aircraft is expected to be fitted with western engines which will later be replaced by power plant jointly developed by Russia and China. Maiden flight is scheduled for 2021, with certification expected to be done in 2023 through 2025. Thus, the plans look quite well-shaped although there is no state funding and the project itself is only in its early phase.

Third project is the Frigate Ecojet. This seems to be the most unusual project for a number of reasons. First, it is not funded by the state at all, and is pursued by a private engineering company Frigate Ecojet using extrabudgetary funding. Front-end engineering should be completed by the middle of this year, and, once developed, the project should dispel any doubts as to the unconventional technical design of the aircraft. The fact is that Frigate Ecojet is a short- and medium-range aircraft featuring an oval-section fuselage to ensure that it can accommodate 276 to 358 pax. (subject to configuration), and having overall dimensions comparable with those of the Boeing 757. For medium-range flights, the new design is expected to allow for a 15 to 25 % fuel saving as compared with the aircraft of similar capacity, whereas take-off/landing charges should be some 50 % lower.

Of the three projects, the Frigate Ecojet has seen the most advanced phase. In February, a series of scaled model tests was completed in the European cryogenic wind tunnel (ETW) for cruise conditions within Reynolds numbers range up to the full – scale values, which makes cryogenic wind tunnels different from conventional wind tunnels. The Frigate Ecojet tests demonstrated a world-level lift-to-drag ratio, good aircraft stability and absence of any problems associated with the unusual fuselage shape. Besides, Frigate Ecojet and Thyssen Krupp jointly defined the concept of mass production of the new aircraft.

It is clear that pursuing three different projects is too much. And the question is essentially whether to run one project or none of the projects.

The factors supporting refusal from wide-body aircraft works include not only an apparent lack of state financing, but also the steady position held in this market segment by the world leading manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing. And although this duopoly is sometimes contested when it comes to the narrow-body aircraft (with Bombardier and probably Embraer in the bottom, and COMAC C919 and МС-21 in the middle), no one is trenching on the wide-body segment except for the Chinese-Russian project which is by now quite vague.

However, the Russian history, geography and even economy put forward their arguments in favor of a wide-body aircraft. And if the state comes to the conclusion that the project should be pursued, it will be reasonable to consolidate the experience gained under all of the above-said programs. In this context the Frigate Ecojet project is of a special interest, for its market niche does not call for a direct competition with Boeing and Airbus. Although today medium-range transportation is sometimes accomplished by wide-body aircraft, this entails extra costs, while the world manufacturers do not find it necessary to spend on the development of a medium-haul wide-body aircraft as part of their products. On the other hand, the project may attract interest of the Chinese manufacturers because it offers unique opportunities even within the existing technologies.

Consolidation of various projects certainly gives rise to many organizational issues – first of all, everything has to be brought under the state control. This will not solve technical problems, though. Yet, this scenario is worth thinking about.

As for me, I have no doubt that in 50 years all aircraft will feature oval-section fuselage as this layout offers added advantages and does not entail any insuperable certification or infrastructure related problems, like, say, in the case of the flying wing layout. The question is whether Russia will pioneer the new trend or everything will be left on the level of ideas.