The test program of Russia’s newest commercial airliner, the Irkut MC-21, is steadily progressing towards certification, but still has not entered the final phase. When this will happen is still in the wings, but Irkut targets a mid-2021 certification of the short- to medium-haul airliner.
Airinsight recently asked Irkut to update us on the project.

The Irkut MC-21 (also designated as MS-21) made its first flight back on May 28, 2017. Before that, it has had a 10-year development history that has its origins in the Yak 252 that was shelved in 1997. Yet, you can still trace its roots as the Irkut has retained the same 4.06-meter wide fuselage cross-section that was proposed by the Yakovlev design bureau. Some expected the MC-21 would be renamed Yak-252 again after its certification, but this plan seems to have been deleted for good as ‘MC-21’ better reflects that this is Russia’s state of the art 21st-century airliner.

The MC-21 comes in the standard -300 version with 163 seats in a dual-class configuration and a 6.000-kilometer range, while still on the drawing board is the smaller -200 with 132 seats in a dual layout and a range of 6.400km. The maximum take-off weight is 79.250 kg for the -300 and 72.560 kg for the -200.

After the brief but successful first flight in Irkutsk, both Irkut Corporation and parent company United Aviation Corporation (UAC) communicated that the MC-21 was to be certified and delivered in 2019. As we know now, this hasn’t happened and the schedule has slipped towards a mid-2021 certification and entry into service in the second half of the year. This depends on when the phase of final certification will begin. “Irkut Corporation is going to officially announce the number and duration of the certification flights later”, a spokesperson tells Airinsight.

The test fleet includes four prototypes. Besides 001 it includes 002, although this actually is serial number 003 as the 002-frame is used for static tests as is 005. The aircraft showing 003 on the fuselage is serial number 004, while the one with 004 is serial number 006. Inside 004 is a single-class interior that usually has 211 seats but which at the moment includes only 172. The aft section of the cabin is occupied by workstations for engineers to perform various tests.

The cabin of test aircraft 004 has a single-class layout, currently with 172 seats as test stations occupy the back. (Irkut)

“Flight tests are carried out by pilots of the Irkut Corporation, as well as by the joint crews: the Corporation pilots and experts of Rosaviatsiya, the Federal Air Transport Agency, the Corporation pilots and the EASA experts”, says the spokesperson. The fleet is based at the Gromov flight test center at Zhukovsky airport near Moscow, but in July water ingestion tests were done at Ulyanovsk-Vostyochny airport. Test aircraft 002 performed 29 runs at various speeds to check the behavior of the MC-21 in a 70 meter long and 20-meter wide pool with standing water. The tests were completed successfully.

The Irkut program has suffered a few setbacks that have been out of its direct control. The first is Covid-19, which has also hit Russia hard. “The Covid-19 pandemic has limited the commuting of Russian specialists across the country and practically stopped the cross-border movements. The same can be said for free movement of cargo.” In the midst of the coronacrisis but unconfirmed if it is related to the disease, Irkut lost its deputy general director of certification and engineering quality, Igor Vinogradov. He played a major role in the certification process of the MC-21, just as he has been involved in that of the Sukhoi SSJ100.

Also outside Irkut’s control has been the effect of economic sanctions imposed by western countries and especially the Trump government. This blocked the delivery of carbon fibers to JSC AeroComposite, which were originally sourced from US-supplier Hexcel. AeroComposite used them to produce the MC-21’s state-of-the-art wings, which are made through a very advanced process called vacuum infusion that doesn’t require an autoclave to produce a very durable and strong and aerodynamically critical wing. It’s a technology studied by Airbus for its next-generation of short- to medium range airliner. UAC and Irkut adopted the technology after first commissioning the production of a batch of prototypes to small Austrian planemaker Diamond Aerospace and Airbus-subsidiary Premium AEROTEC back in 2010.

The ban on importing carbon fibers from outside Russia has forced UAC to look for domestic suppliers that were able to offer identical quality. The Irkut spokesperson is unwilling to detail how the issue has been solved but is only saying: “Full-size structures are made of domestically produced composites.”

True-scale model of the PD-14A. (UEC)

So far, delivery of the Pratt & Whitney PW1400G-JM geared turbofans has been unaffected by economic sanctions but the troubles with the composites will have determined the Russians to accelerate the production of the MC-21 with home-made engines. The Aviadvigatel PD-14As have received Russian certification but flight testing and certification on the MC-21 has yet to begin. The PD-14 is less sophisticated compared to the GTF but promises 10-15 percent fuel burn compared to older generation CFM56s or V2500s.

“The flight test program with PD-14 engines will involve two prototype aircraft. One of them is currently under construction at the Irkutsk Aviation Plant. The airframe is assembled, the systems are being installed, the PD-14 engines are installed. The aircraft with the PD-14 engines is named MC-21-310”, the Irkut spokesperson explains. “The aircraft is planned to join flight tests for the fourth quarter of 2020 and fulfill its first flight until the end of 2020. Moreover, the first prototype MC-21-300 aircraft (001) will be involved in flight tests with the PD-14 engines. After completing its participation in the main certification program, the aircraft will be re-engined.”

It’s not only composites and engines that are to be sourced from Russian suppliers. Earlier this year, Irkut confirmed it was to place a tender with domestic companies for cockpit systems and avionics to replace the US-produced Collins Aerospace package. This would mean re-certification of an airliner that has just gone through a lengthy first certification phase. When Irkut intends to swap US systems for Russian ones isn’t known.

Firm orders for 175 aircraft
Irkut says it has firm orders for 175 aircraft from Russian airlines, leasing companies, and banks, some of them directly related to the Russian state or state conglomerate Rostec, which is the parent company of UAC. The number hasn’t changed since 2019.
Prominent operators include Aeroflot, Red Wings, and IrAero. The local airline of Irkutsk was supposed to become the first operator of the type, but Irkut is unwilling to confirm this: “According to the signed contracts, Irkut Corporation will deliver the first production aircraft to leasing companies. These leasing companies will determine the first operators.”

Through Rostec leasing subsidiary Avia Capital Services, Aeroflot has a firm order for fifty MC-21s. Half of them will be powered by P&W engines, the other half by Aviadvigatel powerplants. It is most likely the number of MC-21 within Aeroflot Group will grow beyond fifty, especially since the airline announced its updated strategy until 2028 (as reported on Airinsight). The plan includes the purchase of 235 Russian airliners, of which an unspecified will be placed with subsidiary Rossiya.
Lessor Ilyushin Finance’ website (unchanged since 2019) shows an order for fifty MC-21 but doesn’t identify any potential customer. It was supposed to take delivery of the first two aircraft in Q4 2019.

Test aircraft serial number 003, which actually has 002 on the painted fuselage. Assembly of the first production aircraft is on its way in Irkutsk. (Irkut)

The first two production aircraft are on the Irkutsk assembly line. “The fuselage of the first production aircraft has been assembled, the fuselage of the second aircraft is being assembled and the compartments for the next serial aircraft are being manufactured. At the Irkutsk Aviation Plant, the infrastructure for serial production is being developed: the logistics center is commissioned and construction of airfield testing and customization.”

Covid affects EASA certification
So far, Irkut has failed to attract serious interest from Western airlines. It will only happen when the MC-21 receives certification from Western regulators. Irkut has been busy with this, opening early contacts with Europe’s EASA and negotiating a working arrangement with them for the new airliner. This has resulted is EASA experts testing the MC-21 simulator in 2018 and participating in five test flights in 2019. In total, eighteen joined working groups are involved with the EASA certification process which Irkut hopes will happen by mid-2022, a year after that by the Russians.

The program was supposed to have continued this year, but Covid interfered here too: “Unfortunately, the international communication was almost completely stopped due to the Covid-19 pandemic. These conditions forced us to correct our plans for working with EASA experts. We hope that we will be able to recommence joint flights as soon as possible.”

Test aircraft 002 successfully performed water ingestion tests at Ulyanovsk in July. (Irkut)

Expect the Irkut program to enter a decisive phase within the next quarter or so as it prepares for final certification. First delivery in the second half of 2021 would mean a two-year delay compared to the 2019 schedule. That’s something they would have loved to have at Mitsubishi…

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