Russia—a country made for helicopters

Gifted engineers, new ways of thinking and versatile applications dominate
rotary-wing designs.

By Ivan Veretennikov
Editor-in-Chief, Altitudes Russia

Supplementing indigenous helicopter designs, Eurocopter's EC145 has been a successful entrant in the EMS role in Russia. According to EMERCOM, there is room for up to 350 EMS-tasked machines.

HeliRussia, the one and only international exhibition in the region, has a slogan. It reads, "Russia is made for helicopters."

It's true. A huge country with vast stretches of emptiness between towns, lots of work going on in harsh environments and tight spots, plus a lack of roads in remote areas—these are the makings of a rotor-headed nation.

And Russia was always big on helicopters, ever since Aeroflot set up its network in the 1950s. There were times when one could take a shuttle from the airport into town at a very modest price.

Since then the rules of the economy have changed, but for certain missions rotorcraft are the only way to go. What's even more interesting is that only a decade ago these missions would have been performed exclusively by helicopters of Soviet descent. Today, machines from abroad are finding their way onto the market, and demand is high.

Helicopter airlines have arguably not worked out anywhere in the world, and Russia is no different. There are several services in the Far East, subsidized by the government, that take people to and from secluded settlements and deliver supplies.

Helicopter tours are not faring much better for a number of reasons—specifically, high import duties for light foreign machines, many airspace restrictions, and lack of demand. All that's left are "fire, war and special operations," according to Alexei Korolev, head of analysis at consulting firm Upcast.

He considers that the local market will retain steady growth in future years due to demand in cargo transportation, SAR, EMS and firefighting.

Another opportunity lies in pipeline integrity monitoring—a niche that is hugely important, lucrative and underdeveloped.

Players in the game

UTair, Russia's biggest helicopter operator, is "big on Eurocopter" and has at least 20 machines on order, of which 15 are the new EC175.

The Russian helicopter market can be presented in a few figures. It's also worth saying that by Russia we mean the Russian Federation, not the whole territory of the former Soviet Union.

There are about 1900 rotorcraft of Russian make under the RA registry, of which about 1000 are flying, the remainder being grounded. Russian Helicopters—the company that controls Mil and Kamov brands, as well as all helicopter-related plants in the country—has been showing impressive growth of about 25–30% in recent years, delivering 300 machines in 2012.

Of these, however, only a fraction go to civil operators. Robinsons are leading the foreign-built helicopter list, with around 300 flying and another 50–60 delivered each year.

Eurocopter is the undisputed leader in foreign turbine helicopters. Some 120 are already flying, and major contracts with leading local operators ensure that the local subsidiary, Eurocopter Vostok, delivers more machines than the competition in future years. Bell helicopters have been quite successful, mostly as private transport, although a few Bell 407s are used in EMS.

AgustaWestland is the VIP limo of choice, so much so that the AW139 will be assembled in Russia for the local market. Sikorsky is the only major manufacturer that has no market share at present.

As for operators, the big one is UTair, with more than 300 rotorcraft of various types, from the light Robinson R44 to the giant Mil MI26. Gazpromavia—the flight wing of oil and gas giant Gazprom—comes second with about 110 machines, mainly of Russian manufacture.

Three other operators have fleets of about 40–50 helicopters—PANH, Yamal and the aviation department of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. Leisure, private and VIP machines are centered around helicopter clubs (3 major ones around Moscow, 1 in St Petersburg) or operated privately.

Oil and gas

The giant MI26 can lift almost anything, so it is seldom seen without a heavy load hanging on a harness—anything from a pylon like this to a 15-ton water bucket.

This is, unsurprisingly, the biggest industry in Russia that employs helicopters. The total length of oil and gas pipelines in the country is about 150,000 miles. Many of these pipelines are located to the east of the Ural Mountains, where temperatures drop well below –40°C in winter and rise above 30°C in summer.

Towns and extraction sites are divided by hundreds of miles of forests—taiga and tundra. Only a helicopter can access these remote and unfriendly locations to monitor and repair the resource arteries. No other form of transport will do.

Alexei Vinogradov, president of UTair Helicopter Services, describes the missions as "everything, ranging from carrying heavy equipment and construction units using our MI26 heavylift machines [and carrying] people and smaller loads in MI8s, to integrity monitoring and VIP transportation using our light, economical Eurocopters."

He continues, "We do virtually everything for oil and gas companies, except one thing—offshore operations. As soon as we get the first EC175s (by the end of this year), though, this will change."

UTair Helicopter Services Senior VP Nikolai Loginov goes into more detail on offshore operations. "Obviously, we have experience in flying over water, but it's not exactly what 'offshore' implies.

For example, when our helicopters work with icebreakers, we are hundreds of miles away from solid ground, but we can always land right on the ice. Technically, we are working offshore, but we could easily be on a very big snowy field. The only real offshore job we had was when Gazprom was building an oil rig near Calcutta.


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