Evolving Russian helicopter technology attracts buyers

Coaxial rotor systems and additional refinements of Soviet designs make products more saleable.

By Ivan Veretennikov
Editor-in-Chief, Altitudes Russia

Thanks to its coaxial rotors, the Kamov KA32 is a very stable and agile helicopter, making it an excellent choice in hard jobs such as firefighting. It is seen here filling a 5-ton bucket.

While Russian fixed-wing manufacturers are struggling to build and deliver even 10 commercial aircraft in a year, helicopter plants churn out more than 250 rotorcraft, constantly pushing the production rates to new heights.

A significant portion of these are civil helicopters, of which about half are exported. Russian Helicopters, the company that was created to control all local industry assets, speaks of a backlog of around 900 orders and fully booked production lines until at least 2014.

Why would customers all over the world be interested in rotorcraft of Soviet descent while ignoring the streamlined, modern-looking Sukhoi Superjet, built almost entirely from internationally-supplied components? The answer is that they are unique.

They don't compete directly with aircraft made by other manufacturers, but rather complement them in some missions, winning a niche for themselves on the global market. These brutal, unpretentious and robust machines resemble the Siberian men for whom many of them were made, ready to work in harsh weather and get seemingly impossible jobs done—and do so more cheaply than their more refined and smartly dressed counterparts.

Leaving military helicopters aside, let's talk about the civil ones. Even though the Cold War is a thing of the past, Russian gunships will barely see US skies outside of air shows. Civil rotorcraft of Russian make, on the other hand, can and sometimes do operate in the US.

Living up to the stereotype

Originally a product of the Mil Design Bureau, the gigantic MI26 is the pinnacle of Russian helicopter design—the heaviest rotary-wing machine in the world. More than 300 have been built.

There are many jokes and stereotypes concerning Russia in general, and Russian technology in particular. Most of them were probably started by Russians in the first place. As is always the case, some hold true while most have nothing to do with reality.

The following generalizations regarding Russian helicopters (and not the company Russian Helicopters) help to explain why these machines are so popular around the world. There have been some changes lately with major investments in new programs and the development of a global support network. For at least several years, however, what follows will remain relevant.

Soviet heritage

The term "Russian helicopters" actually means rotary-wing aircraft of Soviet make or Soviet descent. These are modifications of the immensely popular Mil MI8 "Hip" (including the MI17 and MI171), of which more than 12,000 have been manufactured since entry into service in 1967, as well as variants of the coaxial Kamov KA26 "Hoodlum" and KA32 "Helix," and the gigantic MI26 "Halo." Even models that have yet to enter service, such as the more streamlined and modern KA62 and MI38, go as far back as the early 1980s.

US Army Mil MI17 at HSV (Intl, Huntsville AL). This is one of several aircraft being modified for training and other uses at Fort Rucker AL and by the Army Aviation Center of Excellence.

On the one hand, this means that the machines are quite old-fashioned. This notion is supported by looks that come from an era when customer appeal wasn't even on the list of considerations, as well as the clutter of analog instruments in the cockpit, the austere passenger cabin with troop seats, doors that slam shut with a wham that can be heard despite the tremendous roar of the engines, nonretractable landing gear and other features.

On the other hand, over the decades that these helicopters have been in service they have been modified and refined to perfection. The designs still have some years ahead of them, and with modernized engines and rotor blades, a glass cockpit and a stand-up luxury cabin finished with the finest leathers and veneers, a modern MI171 is good enough to make any president or tycoon in the world request a demo flight.

And this goes for all models—just add the right equipment to a tried and tested airframe and powertrain, and you have a helicopter to do the job, be it firefighting, SAR, cargo transportation, construction or whatever else.

Cheap and simple

Mil MI8 helicopters like this one are used to transport passengers in remote areas of Russia, particularly in Siberia, where a helicopter remains the only option for many destinations.

A Russian AgustaWestland dealer once told me, "The most difficult part is to keep people who have been operating domestically-produced helicopters away from the insides of our machines. Whenever anything happens, they are up there inside the engines or electronics, fiddling around with their screwdriver.

They just cannot grasp the idea that our helicopters are meant to be maintained professionally and that we have service centers for that—they shouldn't try and 'fix' anything on the spot."

Legend has it that Russian helicopters are very straightforward and can be serviced literally anywhere as long as the mechanic knows what he or she is doing. A joke you may hear is that a couple of blows with a sledgehammer usually fixes any problem.

Ease of on-the-spot maintenance, however, is more than reasonable when you consider the operating conditions and geography of these rotorcraft. The empty stretches of Siberian plains, the icy deserts of the far north—or the hot and humid Brazilian jungle—are all places where you won't be too close to an authorized maintenance center.


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