Evolving Russian helicopter technology attracts buyers

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

The KA62 mockup unveiled at HeliRussia this year is similar externally to the one helicopter enthusiasts may remember from Zhu­kovsky as far back as 1992. The insides have changed completely, however.

The MI26 "Halo" is, by the way, the largest helicopter to ever enter mass production. With an MTOW of 56 tons and an 8-blade 105-ft main rotor, it is arguably a much more fascinating sight than both of the Kremlin peculiarities. It also has a significant advantage over them—while the cannon was never used in a war and the bell was never rung, this massive chopper has enjoyed almost 30 years of busy service with more than 300 built.

It has no equal, and the sight of one flying is breathtaking. By size, it is a C130 with VTOL capability, having an almost identical cabin and payload. The MI26 has a maximum speed of 160 kts and can cover 360 nm with a load of 18 tons. It is employed all over the world when nothing else will do. Notably, it has been leased twice to recover downed US Army Boeing CH47 Chinooks in Afghanistan.

Even with a new glass cockpit, already operational on a test aircraft (presented at the Moscow Airshow MAKS 2011), the MI26 requires 4 people to fly. It can carry a 15-ton water bucket in firefighting mode, or up to 60 stretchers as a medevac helicopter. Priced at about $18 million and readily available for lease from some Russian operators, it is an extremely accessible machine for the tremendous amount of work it is capable of doing.

A Russian dandy

This MI171 looks just like any other, with its nonretractable gear and no-nonsense design. On the inside, however, it is a VIP machine with an interior to make any business jet traveler happy.

Unlikely to ever appear in the fleet of top government officials or corporations in the US, the MI171 still has what it takes for a startup oligarch. It looks bulky even in a classy livery—its military roots shine through any makeup, declaring the victory of function over form. But on the inside it's glorious.

The cabin is cavernous. Its dimensions (same width as a Falcon 900, but 3 inches shorter) and a square cross-section allow a bizjet-like layout, with standup height. The large windows let in plenty of natural light. All the VIP cabins are tailor-made by a special branch of Russian Helicopters called AirTaxi Service.

Its specialists claim that their experience in active noise and vibration canceling systems guarantees a quiet and smooth ride on a usually jumpy and loud helicopter, although personal experience says that things are still not ideal. On the other hand, no other rotorcraft of this size can be bought with comparable money—somewhere around $14 million with interior.

The modern MI171 can reach a maximum speed of 135 KTAS, while range at cruise speed is 345 nm. It has a takeoff weight of 13 tons—a ton more than the Sikorsky S92—while its payload is a formidable 8815 lbs. Although the basic helicopter dates back 50 years, there is an ongoing modernization program, and small wonder—it's still the most popular Russian helicopter in the world.

Conquering America?
Russian helicopters can certainly be put to good use in the US, and some of the unique selling points and capabilities of the models mentioned in this article—as well as the upcoming (and far more advanced) 3.3-ton Ansat and 14-ton MI38—may prove favorable, especially taking into account the acquisition price.

For example, 2 Mexican Navy MI17s were employ­ed in the relief effort after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, performing SAR missions. This relatively cheap and robust helicopter, seating up to 26, can be a great substitute for the far more expensive domestic machines at times when passenger numbers are more important than comfortable seating and lower noise levels.

The KA32, whose coaxial rotors can be folded for storage and transportation, is unmatched in hover capability and precise maneuvering. It has been praised by many as the best firefighting helicopter there is. It can also be employed with great success in jobs that require finesse or good performance at altitude—high-rise construction in big cities or erection of power lines in mountainous areas. And the mighty MI26 comes in when no other rotorcraft can do the job—at least until the Chinese decide that they should make an even bigger one.

FAA certification will surely be a nightmare, just as Russian certification is a nightmare for Western helicopter manufacturers. But these tough, no-nonsense machines may eventually find limited use even on the US market.

No matter when that happens, American pilots don't have to wait for it. There are plenty of Russian helicopters in operation today around the world that you can have a go in. It's always better to fly one yourself than to listen to what others say.

Ivan Veretennikov is editor-in-chief of Altitudes Russia magazine and the publisher of Upcast JetBook, an iPad bizjet reference and comparison tool.


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