Russian Industry Struggles to Fly ; at Russia's First Civil Aviation Show This Week, Aircraft Designers Showed off Their Latest Offerings

By Weir, Fred | The Christian Science Monitor, August 16, 2002 | Go to article overview

Russian Industry Struggles to Fly ; at Russia's First Civil Aviation Show This Week, Aircraft Designers Showed off Their Latest Offerings


Weir, Fred, The Christian Science Monitor


When the United States needed somebody to retrieve a damaged US Navy EP-3 Orion re- connaissance aircraft that crashed in China last year, it turned to a Russian airline.

Flying the giant Soviet-built Antonov An-124, the world's largest operational transport, the Polyot company from the Volga city of Ulyanovsk was able to haul the huge $80 million American plane home in a single trip.

It's stories like that are fueling optimism in the Russian aviation industry.

Despite a decade-long slump that saw thousands of engineers and specialists leave the industry, executives of top Russian design bureaus say they still have plenty of ambitious projects in their cupboards. With Russian airlines carrying about 15 percent more passengers every year, and companies looking to replace their ageing Soviet-era fleets, many believe that formerly world-class Russian aircraft producers could be poised for a comeback. "Our new offerings are up to global standards and comparable to the products of Boeing, Airbus, and other Western companies," says Mikhail Bakharev, head of the export department at Ilyushin, one of Russia's most famous aviation names. "We have recovered from the post-Soviet crisis, and are ready to work."

Russia's first civil aviation show, now under way at Domodedovo airport just outside Moscow, has brought together most of the country's aircraft industry leaders to talk up their wares. But despite the hopeful atmosphere, it's hard not to notice a touch of desperation just below the surface. Most of the "new" aircraft models on display are actually late-Soviet-era designs which independent experts say are arriving on world markets at least a decade late.

Getting off the ground

"Russian producers can carve out a place, but they have to make a very swift transition to the market mentality," says Alexei Komarov, editor of Air Transport Review, a Russian industry journal published in partnership with Aviation Week. "If they don't grab this chance within a couple of years, they can forget about it entirely."

Among the more interesting products from Soviet drawing boards is the An-124's big brother, the An-224, an airborne behemoth capable of lugging a 250-ton payload around the world with two complete crew shifts living on its comfortable upper deck. Then there is the world's only jet-powered flying boat, the Beriev Be-200, which producers say could revolutionize fire fighting and air-to-sea search and rescue. On display at the air show is the Tupolev Tu- 334, a mid-size passenger jet whose makers claim could compete head- to-head with comparable products of Boeing or Airbus. Unfortunately, only a single flying prototype of each of these planes exists, and no one knows when the companies will be able to afford more.

"Without orders, nothing can happen," says Alexander Tafeyev, an executive of Klimov corporation, a leading aircraft engine builder. "The Soviet military used to be the main client for our whole industry, but now the armed forces buy almost nothing. Even when you have great designs, it's hard to sell them on the market."

Experts say Russia's chances on global markets are slim to none.

Apart from selling a few new Tupolev Tu-204 airliners to Egypt last year, no big carriers are showing interest. …

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