Russia has produced a number of noteworthy civil aircraft over the past seventy years, ranging from the reliable AN-2 to the current MC-21. During the course of this blog, we will trace the development of Russian civil aviation from its earliest days to the designs of today.
The development of civil aviation in Russia began in 1913, when Igor Sikorsky built the Russky Vitaz, the world's first four-engine airplane and the largest in the world at that time. This enthusiasm continued into World War I, with the production of Sikorsky's four-engine Ilya Muromets and persisted into the Soviet era, in which an ANT-25 aircraft designed by Andrei Tupolev carried Valery Chkalov and another pilot from Russia over the North Pole to Washington state in 1937. While further development of civil aircraft was largely curtailed due to the demands of World War II, Russian aviation was unwittingly aided by its Western allies. In 1944, four American Boeing B-29 Superfortress bombers were forced to make emergency landings at Vladivostok after a raid on Japan. Stalin had them flown to Moscow and set Tupolev to work reverse-engineering to create a Soviet version. The result was the TU-4, which first flew in 1947.
Once the TU-4 was flown, Tupolev attempted to funnel parts from the project to build a civilian counterpart to the aircraft. He even lobbied the Soviet leadership for permission to develop a civilian version of the TU-4, but to no avail. Stalin had a fear of flying and traveled frequently by train and believed Soviet citizens should do the same. Stalin's attitude was that planes were primarily military instruments.
However, in spite of its leadership, Russian civil aviation continued to develop. The AN-2, a single -engine biplane, was produced in 1947 and is still in wide use today. The AN-2 is actively used in agriculture, air sports and passenger aviation. With over 1,500 examples operating in Russia today, the plane makes up about 90% of the small aviation sector and is affectionately known as the eternal aircraft. Nikita Khrushchev, who became premier after Stalin died in 1953, loved flying and viewed civil aviation as a means to promote the Soviet state and its achievements. Andrei Tupolev sought to convert the recently developed TU-16 four-engine jet bomber into a civilian jetliner, but was initially rejected by the Communist Party Central Committee. However, by late 1953 the Central Committee had reversed its earlier decision and the TU-16 conversion began the following year. Converting a new jet bomber design to civil use was no simple task. The bomb bay had to be transformed into a baggage compartment, in addition to providing a pressurized cabin along with extra holes cut into the fuselage for windows and doors. About this time, the British had experienced two crashes of their Comet jetliners on transoceanic flights. Tupolev, suspecting the Comet crashes had stemmed from metal fatigue, adjusted the thickness of the Soviet jetliner, now designated the TU-104, fuselage skin thickness to 1.5mm, compared to the Comet's 0.9mm. Though the added thickness almost halved the range of the 104 due to increased fuel costs, the Soviet leadership erred on the side of safety. Tupolev also opted for round cabin windows instead of the Comet's square ones, eliminating the corners as pressure points. Tupolev engineers built a testing pool outside Moscow, where jet mockups could be used to simulate atmospheric pressures. The 104 was equipped with advanced avionics, such as radar, not in use by previous Soviet airliners. The Tupolev plant had grown to nearly 10,000 employees, with the TU-104 conducting its first flight in June 1955, two months ahead of schedule.
Though the TU-104 was a successful aircraft, it was not capable of transoceanic flights, with a range of only 1,900 miles. About the time the TU-104 entered service, an event occurred which prompted the development of another Soviet airliner. During a summit with President Eisenhower in Geneva, in 1955, Soviet Premier Nakita Khrushchev flew to the meeting in an Ilyushin ll-14. The ll-14 was a durable twin-engine airliner, but was overshadowed in appearance by Eisenhower's four-engine Lockheed Constellation, Columbine III. The Soviet Air Ministry turned to the Tupolev Design Bureau, presenting a requirement for a large transport aircraft with a range of approximately 5,000 miles. Tupolev didn't need to look too far for a solution. His solution was to develop an airliner from the TU-95 Bear, a successful turboprop bomber with true intercontinental range. Though not a new concept, since Boeing had already developed its 307 Stratoliner and 377 Stratocruiser airliners from its B-17 and B-29 bombers, the TU-114 featured an entirely new fuselage which could carry up to 224 passengers. The 35-degree swept wing was relocated from the high wing position used on the TU-95 to the low wing position on the TU-114 airliner. Powered by four Kuznetzov NK-12MV turboprop engines driving counterrotating propellers, each delivering 14,795 hp., the aircraft had a takeoff weight of 385,809 lbs., with a wing span of 168 ft. and a length of 178 ft. The 114 aircraft had a good performance for its day with a top speed of 541 mph. and a cruising speed of 478 mph. with a maximum range of 5,244 miles. Khrushchev flew the TU-114 on several overseas trips, including one to the United States in September 1959. Although the latest US jetliners, the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 were slightly faster, the TU-114 had a larger passenger capacity and range than either aircraft. The 114 began commercial operations in April 1961 and remained in service until 1976 with a near perfect safety record.
During the Soviet era, a number of commercial aircraft types were produced, some of which are still in service. The Ilyushin 18 (IL-18) first flew in 1957 and entered service with Aeroflot in 1959. In production until 1985, the IL-18 was in service on Russian domestic flights for over forty years. The IL-18, a four-engine turboprop, was easy to fly and well liked by pilots, as well as having a wide, comfortable interior. The Ilyushin 62 (IL-62) was the Soviet Union's first jetliner designed for intercontinental flights. First flown in 1963, the IL-62 was the largest passenger aircraft at the time and entered service in 1967, with production ending in 1974. The 62 was powered by four jet engines with two placed on each side of the extreme rear fuselage. Most operators have ceased to use it for commercial service. The Yak-40, with one tail-mounted engine along with two engines, on either side of the extreme rear fuselage, was the world's first turbojet airliner to provide local service. The Yak-40 had no luggage section, so all luggage was delivered during landing and kept in a special vestibule. The TU-154, which entered service in 1972, is the most mass-produced Soviet jetliner with some 1,026 examples produced between 1968 and 2006. With a similar configuration to the Boeing 727, the 154 was also one of the fastest jetliners in the Soviet Union. However, it was also involved in a crash in Uzbekistan in 1985 with 200 passengers aboard, along with another crash in 2010 near Smolensk, which killed President Lec Kaczynski and a number of Polish national leaders. With 106 units produced, the Ilyushin (IL-86) was the most mass-produced wide-body jetliner in the USSR. The 86 was test flown in 1976 and entered service in 1980. The four-engine plane could carry 350 passengers, though there were plans to upgrade the plane to a 400 passenger capacity, which never materialized. The Topolev TU-144 was the world's first supersonic transport, completing its maiden flight on December 31, 1968-two months earlier than its European competitor, the Concorde. Due to its high cost and a crash at the 1973 Paris Air Show, the TU-144 was sidelined in 1978 after only three years of service with Aeroflot. The plane was later used by NASA to conduct research at supersonic speeds.
In the post Soviet period, the Russian civil aircraft industry has not performed up to its potential. Aeroflot, the state supported carrier, as well as the new privatized airlines are now flying Boeings and Airbuses, despite the steep tariffs in place since the Crimean invasion of 2014. While the major Russian aircraft companies, such as Mig and Sukhoi, sell a number of military aircraft types globally, civilian aircraft sales have proceeded at a sluggish rate with Syria's national airline offering to buy three Tupolev TU-204, medium range twinjet aircraft for a mere $108 million in 2011. In February 2006, a decree was signed in Moscow which established the United Aircraft Corporation, combining all Russian aircraft companies into a large conglomerate. Fifteen years after the UAC was created, the goal of active competition for the global market has not been realized with the emphasis on domestic flights operated by Russian carriers. From the marketing standpoint, two competing philosophies come into play at UAC. Though combining all aircraft companies into a single entity appears efficient on paper, the support of factories whose products are not in demand in the realm of international competition, puts a heavy burden on the budget, which annually covers their losses. The second standpoint is a cultural and historical one, which believes the Russian aviation industry must be supported, even if it is not immediately profitable, to preserve the cultural heritage of the nation, of which aviation is a key part. Thus, it is important to preserve capabilities of the aviation industry to maintain Russia in the top tier of aviation producers. The current UAC strategy is to capture 12-15% of the global aviation market by 2025, though this would be difficult to achieve, since competitors such as Boeing and Airbus produce between 600 to 800 aircraft a year.
However, more recent Russian jetliner designs may yet increase the United Aircraft market share. The Sukhoi SU-100 Superjet entered service in 2011 to provide regional service to airports within a nation. Similar in size and passenger capacity to the Boeing 737, the SU-100 experienced less than a hundred sales during its ten years in sevice, largely due to intense competition from Bombardier and Embraer, long entrenched in the short haul market. As a result of the current pandemic, a new niche is opening up for the Superjet since many flights on which Airbus and Boeing aircraft flew are now underloaded, being more profitable for the smaller Superjet due to economies of scale. The primary operator of the SU-100 today is the Mexican airline Interjet with twenty two aircraft in service. Russia's latest jetliner, the Irkut MC-21 is a single-aisle twin-jet plane slightly larger than the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 aircraft. With the current pandemic and rising global operating costs the market for the MC-21 is a competitive one. One advantage offered by the MC-21 is that it can be ordered with either American or Russian built engines, the Pratt&Whitney 1000G geared turbofan or the Russian Aviadvigatel PD-14. The MC-21 offers seating from 163 to 211 passengers with a range of between 3,200 to 3,500 miles. Though the pandemic may pose schedule problems, Irkut's current projection is for the MC-21 to complete certification tests before the end of 2021. Though the SU-100 Superjet experienced both maintenance and reliability issues when it was introduced, Irkut is concentrating on a spare parts and global support network to ease introduction of the plane.