Russia—a country made for helicopters
Gifted engineers, new ways of thinking and versatile applications dominate
Police helicopters are not an everyday sight in Russia, but some Eurocopter models such as this AS355N Ecureuil 2 have already made their way into special forces use and more rotary-wing machines will surely follow.
While the giant Mil MI26 is an all-rounder, the Kamov KA32 is considered by many the best dedicated firefighting helicopter.
There are a number of reasons—a 5-ton external payload, great maneuverability even in turbulence (due to its coaxial layout), and small rotor diameter.
When this is not enough, the MI26 comes in with a 15-ton bucket. Between them, the 3 KA32s and 1 MI26 of the Moscow Aviation Center spent 370 flight hours putting out fires during the devastating summer of 2010.
VIP and private
"We acquired 2 AW139s for our VIP operations," says UTair's Loginov. "It doesn't compete with other helicopters in our fleet, even though some of them are used to carry senior executives.
In some cases, when we say 'VIP,' only the Agusta will do. It's very expensive, fast, comfortable and quiet. Not too many people can afford to own or fly it, but there is definitely a niche for it in the market."
It's interesting that the big local professionals confine the AW139 to a limited segment, while staking their offshore operations on the EC175. However, the government and Russian Helicopters had enough confidence in the Italian limo to propose a joint venture and build an assembly line in Tomilino, a suburb of Moscow.
Helicopters of Russian manufacture have no fear of the cold. They support polar missions, like this MI8 pictured with the nuclear icebreaker Rossiya.
The first AW139 assembled by HeliVert, the new company, achieved its first flight in Dec 2012. HeliVert Dir General Alexander Kuznetsov comments, "It took us 5 months to build the first machine, but our target output is 15–20 helicopters per year.
We will be moving toward this figure as the processes become more streamlined and our staff gets more experience. The big advantage for customers is that they can come and see us, take a look at their helicopter and discuss changes, without having to fly to Italy and speak a foreign language."
Not everyone in Russia can afford a 6.8-ton private helicopter, whatever some extravagant oligarchs might lead us to believe. Even among those lucky few who can buy any helicopter at all—for example, an R44 costs over $700,000 due to import duties and VAT—most go for preowned or piston models.
While private ownership in itself is exciting only for the owners themselves, the helicopter sports in which some owners take part are a sight to see, as well as a matter of national pride. At the last FAI World Helicopter Championship, the Russians won almost everything.
Among them was Maxim Sotnikov, a helicopter enthusiast who has been particularly successful at mastering vertical flight, despite having started when he was almost 50 years old. He upgraded from the R44 to the Bell 407 last year, describing it as like driving a Mercedes compared to driving an everyday car.
From his position at the forefront of private helicopter flying in Russia, he says, "I went to the US to get my 407, and I must say that it's a paradise for pilots. You can fly from coast to coast and nobody asks questions.
People in America treat flying in a completely different way—that's why there are so many private owners. On the other hand, they are very disciplined. If regulations say something is forbidden, they don't do it. In Russia this is still a problem."
The uses and roles listed here for helicopters don't cover everything. There are police and TV helicopters, and polar aviation at work in the far north of Russia. The numbers, however, are quite small.
When it comes to helicopter operations in Russia, it seems that both characterizations are correct. "Fire, war and special ops" are currently the most important uses of helicopters in Russia.
And, most definitely, "Russia is made for helicopters"—of local and foreign make, of all shapes and sizes, and destined for all sorts of missions. The local exhibition, HeliRussia, held in May, could be a good start if you are looking for a market with huge potential.
Ivan Veretennikov is editor-in-chief of Altitudes Russia magazine and the publisher of Upcast JetBook, an iPad bizjet reference and comparison tool.