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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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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?”

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