The Magazine

The Great Plane Robbery

Russia’s troubled Sukhoi Superjet 100.

Aug 16, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 45 • By REUBEN F. JOHNSON
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Farnborough Airport

The Great Plane Robbery

The great white hope of Russian civil aviation, at the Farnborough air show.

Russia’s aerospace industry is trying to convince the world that it has turned the corner and is about to be able to compete in the commercial aircraft market. Soon, we are told, we will see the Sukhoi Superjet 100 regional airliner parked on the ramps right next to Embraer, Boeing, and Airbus. Having experienced a long drought in commercial aircraft sales, Sukhoi would have us believe that the Superjet is now selling almost as fast as Apple’s iPad.

Except that the entire program may be a scam on a level that is unprecedented even by Russian standards. Several “orders” for the aircraft were just announced at the Farnborough International Airshow in late July, but whether they are real, whether the carriers placing the orders will ever be able to use their Superjets, and whether the aircraft will even be delivered is unclear.

Worst of all, the European firms that are partners on the program and the EU agencies charged with maintaining aviation safety standards show a casual indifference to problems with the aircraft’s design and repeated failures of the engine during certification testing.

There are numerous critics of the Superjet in Russia asking worthwhile questions. First: Why was it necessary to design a 75-95 seat short-haul aircraft from scratch when Brazil’s Embraer would have been happy to sign a deal to license-produce its E-series of regional jets in Russia—an aircraft in the same class. The Superjet design represents one of the more expensive examples in history of reinventing the wheel.

Sukhoi built nothing but fighter aircraft for decades. The latest estimates for the Superjet’s development costs are at about $3.5 billion—more than four times the original projected cost. (Embraer’s E-series, by comparison, cost approximately $1 billion to design and develop.)

Countries that have an aerospace industry sometimes reinvent the wheel anyway—as designing or building a plane locally rather than buying it from another country is good politics. It costs more money, but also preserves jobs, retains a core set of personnel and technological competencies, keeps politicians in their elected seats, etc. But nothing about the Superjet has anything to do with trying to preserve Russia’s aerospace industry.

When I asked one of the most senior Russian industry officials a few years ago about the objectives of this program, he simply shook his head and said, “no, skolko deneg spizdili (“you cannot believe how much money they have f—ed off with”). “Like so many other high-profile, government projects in Russia, the Superjet has become a fabulous mechanism for people to put money into their own pockets,” said another Moscow-based colleague.

There is an almost tacitly accepted tradition in Russia that high government officials are supposed to take advantage of large, state-funded initiatives to enrich themselves. Ever since Count Sergei Witte oversaw the building of the major rail networks under Czar Nicholas II at the end of the 19th century—including the famous Trans-Siberian railroad—and became a nouveau riche St. Petersburg courtier in the process, the persons in charge of major national programs have used their positions to derive personal benefit.

The difference between then and now is that in the past Russia actually ended up with technological and industrial achievements that had some benefit for the economy at large. Witte became a wealthy man, but at the end of the day Russia also had a functioning railway system. In contrast, it remains to be seen if the Superjet will ever amount to anything that benefits anyone other than a small circle of the select.

The Superjet was supposed to spur a financial revival for Russia’s aerospace sector, but the industry has seen little windfall from the spending on this program, says a senior editor at one of the most respected industry publishing houses in Moscow. “There has been some work for GSS [Sukhoi Civilian Aircraft] and the engine designers, but when you start talking about the third-tier suppliers—people who make hydraulic systems, actuators, and the other smaller bits of an airplane—all of this kit on the Superjet is made by foreign suppliers, so this is not saving jobs or putting Russian aerospace industry back to work on any kind of a measurable scale.”

Confirmation of this came three years ago from GTK Rossiya, which operates the fleet of aircraft used by Russia’s presidential administration—and by Vladimir Putin’s alma mater, the Federal Security Service. They rejected the Superjet in 2007 partly on the grounds that it contained far too many foreign-made components. Specifically, the aircraft’s SaM146 engine is produced by PowerJet, a joint venture of France’s Snecma/SAFRAN consortium and Russia’s NPO Saturn/Rybinsk Motors.

And it is the status of that engine that has raised the most questions of late. An internal, nine-page memo written by Russia’s deputy minister for industry and trade, Denis Manturov—addressed to his boss and head of the ministry, Viktor Khristenko—details what he sees as some significant flaws in the engine’s design. In the memo, which was leaked to the press, Manturov says he wishes 

to draw attention to the fact that there are defects that have been discovered in the course of this [engine] testing located in the hot section [the part of the engine PowerJet is responsible for], and there has been an occurrence of the destruction of the disk clip in the third stage of the compressor section that took place on 9 February 2010 with engine number 146101/2 during the 187th flight hour of Superjet 100 tail number 95003, when the incident occurred and it was determined by PowerJet to have been caused by a destruction of a fragment of the third stage compressor disk.

I also wish to draw attention to the fact that this defect has a repetitive character: The first incident took place in 2009, the second on 9 February 2010 and the third in March 2010 while the SaM146 engine was undergoing test runs on the stand.

This document, dated June 3, was leaked at the beginning of July, which is not unusual in and of itself, almost two weeks after the European Aviation Safety Administration (EASA), which is the EU’s answer to the FAA, certified the engine as safe for passenger aircraft operations.

I was curious as to how EASA could have certified the engine without the causes of these defects having been properly identified and without some technical evaluation and “get well” design change having been elucidated. EASA itself offers no insight into these issues, only stating that “with the issuance of the EASA Type Certificate, the compliance of the engine with our certification specifications has been safely demonstrated.”

Asked about the design defects outlined in Manturov’s memo, EASA responded that “questions concerning the engine should be directed to the engine manufacturer,” which is the PowerJet joint venture. Indeed so, but the questions ought to be directed to PowerJet by EASA itself, since they are the regulatory authority of record. Even so, I sent a copy of Manturov’s memo to Snecma/SAFRAN in France, to which I received no response. One of my colleagues at the Farnborough Airshow was told by the CEO of Snecma, “I have not heard of this memo,” which is quite extraordinary given the level of importance that the French enginemaker has assigned to this program. It certainly looks as if EASA has certified a fundamentally flawed and unsafe engine.

All of which precipitated a call while I was on the tarmac at Farnborough for me to attend an audience with the CEO of PowerJet, Jean-Paul Ebanga, to discuss this issue. Ebanga was clearly annoyed at having to answer questions about the memo, and in a style that is quite typical for the French aerospace industry, he launched into a diatribe against people who are paying any attention to the document.

“The facts are that all certification has been performed successfully” and that “there is nothing that would have occurred during the process of testing the engine [at Rybinsk] that the Russian side could have hidden from the EASA inspection and certification team. Starting to argue about other matters does not address the requirements of our customers,” he said.

There were, however, no explanations forthcoming as to why Manturov would have relayed these details in a memo to his boss, but Ebanga stated that the memo was chiefly “written for Russian internal political objectives” and that he was not going to comment on this type of document.

These questions remain unanswered to this day. Not surprisingly, one of my Russian colleagues who is aware of problems with the Sukhoi program told me that “if any of these Superjets ever go into service with an airline, you will never see me flying on one of them.”

Then there is the strange nature of the orders for the Superjet that were signed at the Farnborough show. The customers are an Indonesian carrier, Kartika Airlines, a new leasing company based in Bermuda, Pearl Aircraft, Orient-Thai Airlines, and Gazpromavia, the air wing of the Russian natural gas monopoly Gazprom.

Excluding the Russian order, only Orient-Thai qualifies as an established airline, albeit one with a poor safety record. Indonesia’s Kartika has only three aging aircraft in its fleet, but has ordered 30 Superjets, which prompted a Russian airline industry analyst to comment, “Even if the company finds the money for the planes, where will it get so many additional profitable routes?”

The general assumption is that these Superjet orders are not serious and are instead tribute being paid by Indonesia, Malaysia, and others in order to guarantee their continued ability to order Russian fighter aircraft.

So other than being a great plane robbery that allows a lot of money to disappear into offshore bank accounts, the Superjet also promotes more military exports—a business controlled by Sergei Chemezov, a longtime former KGB pal of Putin. All of which explains why the secret police crowd in the Kremlin are content to let the Superjet charade go on. They know they will benefit even more than those who have already made themselves rich in the process.

Reuben F. Johnson is a veteran reporter on the aerospace industry.

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