|Mi-35M flight test. Photos by Andrew Drwiega|
For a journalist who was brought up during the Cold War, when NATO and Soviet Bloc forces were layered in depth either side of Churchill’s Iron Curtain, witnessing the transformation that has taken place within Russia over the last decade has been a revelation. (See more photos from the Rostvertol visit.)
A decade ago when I travelled to Kazan city to view the Mi-8/Mi-17 production line, my presence was treated with some suspicion by plant managers with a thin veneer of liberalism but who, in practice, owed their way of thinking to their experience of life in the Soviet Union. Even then, the prospect of me visiting an attack helicopter factory was beyond the realms of possibility.
Fast-forward a decade and that visit became a reality in August this year. It was an event that really underlined to me not only how much Russia has gained in confidence about its own status in the world, but how it has watched and learned in a short number of years what it needs to do in order to reach out to the international market. It has learned that, more now than ever and especially in the defense sector, it is a buyer’s market and if customers want this type of avionics, that type of engine performance and their own unique mission systems, they can go out and find OEMs eager to please and grab the business, foreign military sales (FMS) permitting.
I eagerly accepted the invitation from Russian Helicopters (overseen by the state owned aerospace organization Oboronprom) to visit its subsidiary, the Rostvertol helicopter plant, located at Rostov-on-Don. This is the main production facility for the Mi-28 Night Hunter and the most recent version of the Mi-24/35, the Mi-35M combat support helicopter. If that were not enough, it also produces and updates the world’s largest helicopter, the Mi-26.
Russian Helicopters CEO Dmitry Petrov provided the welcome in Moscow, claiming that his organization had recorded stable growth over the past five years. The organization’s revenue grew by 21 percent in 2012 over 2011 to RUB 125.7 billion ($3.9 billion) and that net profit was RUB9.4 billion ($297 million) showing a growth of 35 percent. He stated that Russian Helicopters had manufactured 290 helicopters between all the various production facilities (Mil, Kazan, Kamov, Rostvertol and Ulan-Ude) over the last year, with an order book at 828 helicopters.
Focusing more specifically on the Rostvertol helicopter plant, he announced that planning was well under way to move the facility from its present location in the city to an old military airfield with an existing runway around 20km away on the other side of the Don river. When the plant was first laid down in 1939, it was on the outskirts of the city but in 70 years the city has expanded and now surrounds it. The move would begin in 2014 with flight testing relocating first, to relieve the noise for residents surrounding the existing plant. However, the move would have to be carefully managed as the Rostvertol plant currently has manufacturing scheduled out to 2020.
|Mi-28NE Night Hunter.|
Founded on July 1, 1939, the first aviation plant at Rostov-on-Don produced wooden propellers for fixed-wing aircraft, then during the World War II (or Great Patriotic War as it is known locally); actual aircraft were produced in the form of Yakovlev UT-2M trainers and Polikarpov PO-2 biplane bombers.
Today, Rostvertol works is at the forefront of Russian military helicopter production turning out the latest Mi-28NE Night Hunter attack helicopter. Rostvertol claims that it is the first in Russian aviation history capable of loops and barrel rolls.
The training version of the Mi-28, the Mi-28UB, was just publically revealed in the summer during the MAKS airshow in Moscow, although its maiden demonstration flight was conducted prior to that in Rostov on August 9. This version incorporates a duel hydro mechanical flight control system for pilot training, while still retaining its attack capability. In order for flight control to be available in both cockpits, Rostvertol expanded the instructor’s canopy and made changes to the energy absorbing seats.
The Mi-28UB’s weight has slightly increased. There was an initial investigation into installing a fly-by-wire control system but, according to chief engineer Andrey Varfolomeyev, “we believe mechanical systems are more reliable in battlefield conditions. We don’t have a big experience in fly-by-wire but believe combat survivability is best ensured by mechanical systems.”
One oddity of the Mi-28 is the focus on crew survival. Not only is the landing gear designed with shock absorbers, but there are also shock-absorbing seats to ensure survival of the crew at a landing speed of 12m/second – basically in free fall, stated Varfolomeyev. In 90 percent of emergencies this will apply. But there is also a parachute system to enable the crew to bail out of a stricken helicopter in an emergency. The pilot and observer/weapons officer exit from the top right and bottom left of the aircraft, respectively, after pulling an emergency handle. This activates the door ejection system and the wings are also detached. However, there is a 4-5 second wait for the built-in inflatable chute (ballonet – which “resembles a sofa”) is deployed to stop the aircrew falling back into the landing gear, explained by chief engineer Varfolomeyev. Once all this is deployed the crew abandons the aircraft using their parachutes, although Varfolomeyev states that this would only be used in extreme cases. How practical this would be in an actual emergency has not been proven.
Also sharing the production line is the newest version of its successful Mi-24 attack helicopter, the Mi-35M (Hind E). Improvements include composite main and tail rotor blades and gone are the old steam gauges, replaced by glass cockpits and a sensor pod with thermal imager and laser range finder.
The use of composite materials in Russian construction techniques, particularly in main and tail rotors, are giving the aircraft more lift capability and maneuverability.
Varfolomeyev said that the Mi-35M now has a common tail rotor design with the Mi-28N. “In the previous model Mi-35, we had three rotor blades but with the new design we use four rotor blades,” he said, adding that it allows for a more powerful thrust from the main rotor. The blades set together rather than at 90 degrees also reduces noise signature, something the aircraft have in common with Boeing’s Apache AH-64.
There is a schedule to update the Mi-35M with dynamic software every two or three years, but Varfolomeyev predicts that there will be little further in the way of modernization except for main rotor system components. “Probably the most cutting-edge design of the rotor blade will be finalized and of course, if new armaments systems appear we will fit them,” he added.
Finally, the Mi-26 occupies the left-hand side of the production line in workshop 3 (the final assembly building). It is here that the attack helicopters are fitted with their engines, avionics and weapons systems. On my visit there were three of the huge Mi-26 airframes in the building, although none were the new Mi-26T2 version that is completing testing, some of which was conducted in Algeria. This latest version will again offer a glass cockpit and new avionics, which has allowed a reduction to only two crewmembers (three when conducting external lifting). Testing will be completed during 2014 at which point it will be marketed internationally. “This is a helicopter that can carry 20 tons, a requirement all over the world,” stated Varolomeyev.
One of the most impressive features resides within the rotor blade production facility is the spa winding machine that creates the fiberglass blades for main and tail rotors. This is a new addition to Rostvertol’s range of manufacturing tools and has its own isolated room away from the main blade production area. According to the company, winding the fiberglass thread impregnated with a binding compound onto a blade takes two days on the machine, with winding taking place at an angle of 30 degrees. The tension that is kept throughout the winding phase gives the blade a 30 percent increase in resistance to combat damage, said chief engineer Varfolomeyev.
|Russian Helicopters CEO Dmitry Petrov
at the Moscow headquarters.
Meeting Boris Slyusar, Rostvertol’s director general, was akin to taking a step back in time. Sitting at the far end of his large office, he talked about his first day at the factory 53 years virtually to the day: “I worked as an assembler in Workshop 43, on Aug. 17, 1960. The only time I left the company was for three years to do my military service. The first helicopter that I worked on was the Mi-6, where I was a riveter. Looking back, it seems as though the whole of the oil industry in Siberia was developed using the Mi-6.”
Slyusar is looking forward to the company’s 75th Jubilee year in 2014. Reflecting on bygone years, he recalls: “In the 1960s, 70s and 80s we were busy because we supplied all the counties of the Soviet Union with aircraft.” He quickly adds that when the “hard times” arrived in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, many companies could not keep personnel due to a lack of revenue being generated. “But we managed to survive and kept paying the salaries of our staff,” he affirms.
Today, Rostvertol is trying to push the boundaries of each aspect of aircraft production. Slyusar believes that the Mi-28UB training aircraft is one that will have great appeal. “Even the Americans envy us as it is better to train a pilot on a live helicopter than on a simulator,” he stated [although this will not be a sentiment shared by those at the U.S. Army’s Flight School XXI].
Slyusar confirmed that a customer already exists for the Mi-26T2 and that factor is driving the test program: “We have to keep pace with the contract as the first delivery is scheduled for the fourth quarter in 2014,” he said.
The company’s work schedule is governed by two production plans he revealed. One is a short-term plan to 2015 while the second maps out activity to 2020. “Each year we specify how improvements will be added to the helicopters we produce, from materials to systems upgrades.”
The director general was proud of the fact that investment has been made in modernizing the plant, particularly in the galvanizing of parts, and in the investment in main and tail rotor production. He highlighted European-made equipment, which is helping to refine production in various areas. “We are the only company that is buying such high priced equipment.”
|Production line for the Russian Helicopters Mi-35M.|
Now a reality is the objective of manufacturing tail rotor blades across the whole Mil family of helicopters, all the way to those used by the Mi-26. “We have a huge dynamic testing laboratory and we will be certified to produce these tail rotor components across the market. Full-scale production of tail rotors will commence in 2014.”
Slyusar concludes in estimating that the relocation of the Rostvertol company to its new home will take between three and five years beginning with flight testing. When asked if the production rate would increase at the new site, or if more types would be added, he was non-committal, saying that it depended on the national military requirement and the international market.
A final impression of this visit would be to underline the hospitality, openness, and willingness of all those at Rostvertol to discuss any points relating to the aircraft’s armament, performance and future plans for the development of the business. This could easily have been a visit to a Boeing, Eurocopter or Bell facility in terms of information exchanged. And a final closing point, English labels have replaced Cyrillic around the aircraft – a small point perhaps, but a firm concession to international customers.
More Photos: Visit to Rostvertol Plant in Russia