From City Air-Taxi To Oil-Well Derricks

At MAKS-2019 Air Show “Russian Helicopters” Holding presented a whole new line of civil helicopters. MAKS-2019 Air Show held at the end of August in Zhukovski near Moscow showed that one of the most important trends in developing the Russian military and industrial complex with regard to diversification is confirmed by actual developments.

The feasibility of presidential instruction to gradually increase the share of manufactured civil and dual-capable high-tech products up to 30% by 2025 and up to 50% by 2030 looks different for various branches of defense industry.

Anyway, “Russian Helicopters” Holding incorporated in Rostech Corporation is not one of those, who has got nothing to offer in the global market. Although, the company has stable positions in the military market (it is planned to supply 423 helicopters including two hundred Ka-52 and Mi-28 attack helicopters for the Russian army only, according to state armament program 2027), the domestic air show was held to showcase civil helicopters which make up a line of helicopters to meet any challenge.

Taxi and limousine

Light VRT500 was one of the most eye-catching novelties not only in the helicopter area but at the entire air show. It was showcased earlier as a simplified mock-up model at the specialized exhibition HeliRussia. It is now a project that bears no classic Soviet brands such as “Kamov” or “Mil” but has a new name – VRT, “VR-Technologies”: the new design bureau of “Russian Helicopters” Holding established in 2014. This DB has already drones VRT300 and VRT30 in production.

VRT500 is a light six-seater single engine coaxial helicopter. In terms of weight – it is in the same class as world-famous helicopters such as Airbus Helicopters H120 or Bell 505. However, due to its coaxial rotor design it is much shorter and its overall dimensions are much smaller than those of not only the mentioned helicopters but of much lighter Robinson R44, too. As there is no need to install the tail rotor transmission, it became possible to arrange the power unit in a more compact manner and allowed to have the maximum-size cabin for this class – by one cubic meter more than in above-mentioned H120/Bell 505. In addition, the helicopter has also received a big afterhatch right in the cabin, which is unusual for a helicopter of these dimensions and very suitable for its ambulance and rescue versions.

Its enhanced safety on the ground should be noted as well – due to elimination of constant danger coming from the tail rotor and height of the main rotors position (almost 3 m to the lower one), which completely removes any threat to passengers during boarding and unloading. The helicopter can be easily converted from one modification into another due to its quick-detachable seats and equipment. Among standard options it is worth mentioning a passenger one (for four or five passengers), ambulance, cargo, police and VIP-carriage versions.

At the moment the helicopter is being prepared for its first flight that will take place next year. It is going to be manufactured at Ulan-Ude aircraft factory. In 2023 after certification it is scheduled to be delivered to customers. The first deals have been already made – a contract to purchase five helicopters was signed at the air show by Malaysian company Ludev Aviation, which has dealer plans to promote this helicopter in the region. Negotiations are on-going with other potential buyers from Asia and Europe.

The biggest news related to VRT500 at MAKS-2019 was a joint project announced between Yandex and Russian Helicopters to establish an air-taxi service in Moscow – and this helicopter was selected especially for its maximum economic effectiveness, which can make the project profitable with an affordable ticket price. At the airshow VRT500 was showcased in conventional “air‑taxi” colors with passenger cabin layout featuring five seats for air lifting on short distances.

VRT500 is aimed at the largest market, where Russian machines hardly have been presented before (Ka-226 and Ansat are much heavier helicopters). The project’s key strengths are its coaxial rotor design, which is unique to the global market but at the same time well mastered in Russia, as well as its large cabin, modularity and application of most advanced technologies.

One more project aimed at transporting passengers – this time not for mass transit but a luxury one, showcased at MAKS-2019 for the first time was a special version of well-proven light double engine helicopter Ansat developed together with Russian luxury car brand Aurus. What makes the car and the rotary-wing machine related is, first of all, common design solutions for cabin trimming. This has produced a machine with a unique ratio of highest comfort and price lower than that of competitors. Much lower operational costs as compared to the Mi-8 family helicopters may catch the state customer's interest as well.

Comfortability is created not only by using wide seats and cabin trim with premium quality materials but also by employing purely engineering solutions including sound insulation, adjustable tint coating, personal climate control, cabin ceiling redesign etc. The engineering solution employed in the basic version – the passenger cabin’s overall dimensions, which are quite large for this helicopter class, make passengers comfortable. Interior trim of the helicopter demonstrated at the air show was finished right before the exhibition. Now it is necessary to complete the test cycle, obtain additional certificates and then it will be possible to supply the helicopter to clients.

Ansat, Ka-62

Ansat is one of the examples confirming successful design of civil helicopters in Russia. Designed by Kazan helicopter plant design bureau and manufactured there, this helicopter is not only supplied to the Army as a trainer machine but is also produced in great amounts for civil needs. Purchases of ambulance Ansats form the core of a large-scale program for renovating Russian ambulance aviation. It also attracts much interest as a passenger machine – for example, at MAKS-2019 Rostech SC signed a contract with “Polar airlines” to supply seven helicopters, in this case, the helicopters will be provided with special technical features for the Extreme North: with increased fuel range, anti-ice system and an option for instrument-aided flight in adverse weather conditions.

The number of Ansats in operation grows: according to data by “Russian helicopter systems”, in 2018 their flying time overpassed that of the previous year by 6.7 times. China has become the first foreign buyer of this helicopter, the supplies of ambulance helicopters under the contract for the PRC’s Association of Disaster and Emergency Medicine will start this year.

In the medium class

Medium multi-purpose helicopter Ka-62 was another debut demonstrated in the flight program at MAKS-2019. Despite similar appearance with Ka-60 designed for military customers and some common design solutions employed (one of the most noticeable is its tail rotor of Fenestron type, in other words, a multi-blade rotor located in the tail unit ring), it is a new machine, development of which was started in 2008–2009.

At the air show the fourth built helicopter was showcased (considering one helicopter for tethered testing and one more, assembled but not air-tested yet), tests of which were started in August. Based on testing experience of the first two helicopters (the first flight was performed in 2016) a number of changes was introduced to design of the third helicopter, including reinforced design of its tail rotor and tail unit, airframe, reworked transmission.

VRT-500, Mi-38T

The helicopter demonstrated at MAKS-2019 was in a corporate transport modification, however, there will be other standard modifications as well. One of the most promising versions is for offshore carriage. Due to its six big windows – emergency exits, the 12-passenger helicopter (a basic passenger version is up to 15 people) will meet the strictest safety requirements. In 2020–2021 it is planned to have the basic corporate modification certified in Russia, there is already a solid contract for this version. When the European certification is passed in 2022, it is planned to enter the global market.

Key strengths of the helicopter include a powerful French engine providing good flight performance especially in hot climate or high mountains. With initially adopted principal approach in selecting components – “picking up the best worldwide” – there was also a room for Russian components (where they met this strict rule). So, for instance, the cabin equipment and navigation system are designed and manufactured in Russia, as well as the fuselage.

Helicopters Ka-62 and Ansat must replace a significant number of large Russian fleet comprised of old Soviet MI-8 – quite often it is too over-sized for some tasks and as a consequence its operation becomes very expensive due to high fuel consumption.

However, the fact that a great number of MI-8 in service needs to be replaced with modern machines does not mean that the proven family will vanish completely. A niche for the “upper-medium” class helicopter always remains, especially in Russia, where operation is often needed in adverse geographic and climatic conditions, and the oil and gas industry though operates mostly on the ground but in hard-to-access regions.

Mi-171A2

The latest civil representative of the MI-8/17 family, MI-171A2 was showcased at the air show, its commercial operation started in February 2019 in Western Siberia. Despite external resemblance to the old machines, this helicopter has a lot of distinctions: a more powerful engine, new main rotor blades made of composite material with longer life and thrust, X-shaped tail rotor, automatic obstacle detection system, completely upgraded cabin allowing to reduce the crew to two pilots and providing for instrument-aided flights at night time and in adverse weather conditions. The helicopter has passed the strictest flight safety certification in Russia. It has passed certification in China as well; in accordance with concluded agreements the first six helicopters are scheduled to be supplied to China in 2022.

To carry out special missions this helicopter can be quickly equipped with additional modular equipment such as a search spotlight, a loudspeaker, several types of winches as well as external load stores and fire-fighting equipment. This family continues to be developed, an offshore version of MI-173A3 with changed fuselage is under development.

The premier series MI-38, demonstrated for the first time and officially certified in its VIP‑version, symbolically ended a wide line of civil aircraft from “Russian Helicopters” at MAKS‑2019. The newest, even more powerful and heavier than the MI-8/17 family helicopters this helicopter was showcased also in a military modification for assault forces. Supplies to the Russian army should start in the nearest future, in parallel this helicopter should be placed in trial civil operation by “Russian helicopter systems”.

Civil supplies of these machines most likely will not be great in numbers, however the MI-38 will gradually take over the MI-8/17 in such missions as top officials air-transporting, most complex search and rescue operations, ambulance missions and airlifting of large-sized cargo and big amounts (up to 29) of passengers in adverse climatic conditions.

The previous home air shows focused mostly on military aircraft, but this time, as we can see, “Russian Helicopters” Holding showcased a new line of civil helicopters. This allows the holding to look into the future with confidence and reach success not only in the domestic market but in the global market as well, where Russian helicopters are a time-proved sign of quality.

Alexander Ermakov

©New defence order. Strategy  №1 (60) 2020

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