Evolving Russian helicopter technology attracts buyers

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

While not a particularly beautiful machine, the Kamov KA226 has seen some success as an urban multirole helicopter. Cabin modules allow operators to prepare it quickly for various missions.

American pilots who had to start flying Russian helicopters (and a batch of MI17s were acquired for service in Afghanistan amid much controversy, meaning that some of them had to train to teach Afghan pilots) have commented that it was relatively easy to adjust, although the main rotor turns clockwise as opposed to counterclockwise in US helicopters, meaning that different pedal pressures are applied to counteract torque. The main difficulty, though, is language. Even for exported machines, much of the documentation is in Russian.

Another thing that holds true is that rotorcraft of Russian make are relatively cheap, both to acquire and to operate. If you call Russian Helicopters and ask for prices, though, they will regretfully tell you that it's a trade secret. It's no secret among industry professionals, however, who have quite accurate pricing data.

A Russian helicopter of comparable size to a Western machine will typically have less range and speed, but will also be 30–50% cheaper to acquire. What's more, the massive MI26 costs less than a Eurocopter EC225, which it can easily carry on a sling.

Russian service

It's been over 20 years since a market economy and more or less fair competition appeared in Russia, theoretically pushing all businesses to improve customer service. Still, be it a posh restaurant, an expensive hotel or a product supplier, the service is still a great gamble. Foreigners are generally treated with more respect, but this doesn't help much when the language barrier kicks in.

The above is relevant when speaking of helicopter service and support, although in this respect the situation is changing for the better much faster than new designs are becoming serial models.

Russian Helicopters representatives have said many times that the "sell and forget" strategy is a thing of the past, and in today's highly competitive environment aftersale product support has become a top priority. In non-PR parlance this means the creation of joint ventures with existing operators who already know how to train pilots, obtain spare parts and service their machines.

The KA32A11BC has been successful around the world and is operated in many countries as a firefighting, logging, cargo and construction helicopter. This is one of more than 60 flying in South Korea, where they are extremely popular.

This is standard practice among other manufacturers too, but at the moment they are way ahead in sheer numbers. Russian Helicopters lists 10 service centers around the world, while AgustaWestland has more than 60 and Bell Helcopter has about 110.

"Gray" spare parts—manufactured and installed unofficially—are a big problem and their use is extremely hard to control, especially when there are just the 10 centers and most of the responsible personnel are based in Russia.

This, and the lack of trained pilots in some regions of the planet, affects the safety record more than anything else. When you have a helicopter repaired with whatever came in handy, a couple of pilots who learned flying from the stories their dad told them of the war in Afghanistan, a thin atmosphere and difficult terrain, you can barely blame an accident on design flaws.

And the fact that accidents don't happen all that often is yet another testament to how straightforward and forgiving these machines are.

With this in mind, many operators are ready to take on the additional expenses and work needed simply to provide themselves with spare parts, maintenance facilities and qualified pilots. For some reason, they don't just buy something that already comes with an authorized service center, but persevere in creating a good operating environment for Russian helicopters. Why? It's time we talked about the advantages of different models.

A lifesaver

The MI38 is fast approaching certification tests and series production. It will be bigger than the classic MI8, with an MTOW of 14.2 tons, and will feature new engines, advanced avionics and redesigned main and tail rotors.

A uniquely capable helicopter, the Kamov KA32 is widely known in its KA32A11BC variant—a designation that is rather difficult to pronounce. The letters "BC" stand for British Columbia—it was made to comply with the requirements of Transport Canada and the launch customer was Vancouver Island Helicopters.

Although first used for logging, the type has become immensely popular for SAR, power line and pipeline construction, and especially firefighting missions.

With an MTOW of 12.7 tons, the KA32 can carry 11,023 lbs (5.0 tons) as external load. When combating fires, this means carrying a 5-ton bucket that can be filled at sources as shallow as 3 ft in as little as 10 sec. It can then fly at just under 100 kts to its destination and dump the load.

Pilots note that its coaxial rotors make the KA32 extremely steady even in the highly turbulent atmosphere near the epicenter of a fire, while the extra power made available by the Klimov TV3-117 engines helps them get out of the danger zone quickly. It is also a great machine for slinging and longline operations due to its enhanced flight stability.

The flight range of 250 nm is much less than that of the EC225 or Sikorsky S92, which have comparable MTOWs, and the max speed of 125 kts is also lower. So is the price. It sells at around $12 million—about half the price of its competitors. This only makes it more popular—at least 80 are operated outside of Russia, with a particularly large number serving the South Korea Forestry Service and Coast Guard.

The Tsar helicopter

The 2 major Kremlin attractions—the Tsar Cannon and the Tsar Bell—are remarkable sights. The cannon is 19 ft 6 in long and its barrel is 35 inches in diameter, making it the largest bombard by caliber in the world. The bell is over 20 ft tall and weighs 200 tons, making it the largest metal bell ever.


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