What’s wrong with resuming serial production of the Tu-214

© UAC Press Service / Tu-214 RA-64518

For many years Russian civil aviation has relied on imported Boeings and Airbuses. Through the efforts of high officials and some airline executives, our skies were filled with foreign aircraft, displacing domestic aircraft, thus preventing such machines as the Tu-204/214 from developing and modernising. They were looked down upon, what should you do in the 21st century? They themselves carried passengers on B737s, which could be much older than Tupolev aeroplanes in terms of age, and in terms of economy were no better, and maybe even worse.

But numerous packages of sanctions imposed on our country changed the situation. Now Tu-214, which were previously built at Kazan Aircraft Plant only for special needs and in the amount of no more than one aircraft per year, suddenly turned into a kind of a wand. Even such airlines, which had earlier withdrawn all Russian aircraft from their fleets and replaced them with foreign cars, have paid attention to it. One can no longer hear talk that managers do not see a place for Russian aircraft in their airlines. Aeroflot, Red Wings, Yakutia and UVT Aero have announced their intentions to receive Tu-214s, with the airline from Bugulma being the first to receive new aircraft, while Red Wings is restoring the airworthiness of Tu-214s already in service.

In April 2022, Kazan announced a scheme to increase production of this airliner. According to the republican Prime Minister Alexei Pesoshin, the Kazan aircraft plant should produce three aircraft in 2023, seven aircraft in 2024, and 10 aircraft each in 2025-2026. In the Comprehensive Programme for the development of the aviation industry, the growth of Tu-214 production has been slightly adjusted, and for 2026 it is planned to produce 15 aircraft, and from 2026 and onwards the aircraft plant should reach the construction of 20 aircraft annually.

The plans are grandiose, considering that the construction cycle of the Tu-214 is about 24 months. Kazan Aircraft Plant has two slipways for the construction of this aircraft, but at least one more is needed to fulfil the set tasks. In mid-June 2022, Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said that it would take three to five years to launch serial production of the Tu-214 in the required quantity. Modernisation of production, education and training of personnel is required, and funds are needed for this.

And the fight for them is going on. In July 2023, the Kazan newspaper Business Online voiced the opinion that the Tu-214, the “stepchild of the aviation industry”, could become its backbone and could start cash flow as early as 2023, unlike the MC-21, the prospect of serial production of which is still “rather vague”. The publication’s source believes that the Tu-214 is capable of squeezing the MC-21 from the market.

“Theoretically they are not competitors: if MC-21 is, conventionally speaking, Airbus 320/321-200 and Boeing Next Generation series, then Tu-214 is Boeing MAX series and Airbus 321neo in its Long Range and Xtra Long Range modifications. The task of the latter is to surpass the niche of Boeing 757, and this is the Tu-214”, – said an engaged expert of the publication. But, according to him, the trick is that one of the key performance indicators of airlines is available seat-kilometres. It is calculated by multiplying the number of available seats by the distance travelled. If we operate with officially published technical characteristics, the Tu-214 has 1.7 times more seats available, and accordingly, the capital turnover per flight is higher. In addition, MC-21 cannot fly to where Tu-214 can reach, but vice versa is realistic.

“Business Online” sets itself a specific task and solves it by manipulating figures. The task is to downplay the capabilities of the MC-21 and exaggerate the Tu-214; this will be a plus when planning the federal budget and allocating additional financial resources for the development of civil aircraft construction in Kazan. Why manipulate the figures? Because the officially published technical specifications are as follows: the range of the Tu-214 with maximum commercial load is 3800 kilometres. The range of the MC-21 in a two-class layout with 163 passenger seats is 5100 kilometres. This is the data of the United Aircraft Corporation. Yakovlev PJSC for a range of 5100 kilometres indicates the maximum commercial load in a 211-seat configuration. And then the parameter seat-kilometres makes the Tu-214 much less economically attractive for air carriers.

In the flight manual of the Tu-214 with a commercial load of 20,760 kg the aircraft can fly 5200 kilometres. It will cover a distance of 7,200 kilometres with a commercial load of 11,110 kg. The maximum commercial load of the airliner, which is set by the type certificate is 25,200 kg and then the range will be only 3,800 kilometres. It follows that airlines will choose the number of passengers and loaded cargo depending on the passenger traffic on certain routes and set for each particular flight the amount of fuel required to make the flight economically viable.

But in addition to the range, which determines the economic attractiveness of the aircraft, the airline must pay the airport for a tonne of the maximum take-off weight of its aircraft and for parking. According to the type certificate, the maximum take-off weight of the Tu-214 is 110,750 kg and that of the MC-21 is 79,250 kg. In reality, these figures will be somewhat less, but the difference will always remain significant simply because the MC-21 itself is lighter than the Tu-214.

The cost of parking at airports depends on the wingspan of a particular aircraft. According to this indicator, the MC-21 belongs to ICAO Group III (up to 118 feet, 36 metres) and the Tu-204/214 to Group IV (137 feet, 42 metres). A difference of six metres requires other parking places and, consequently, a higher fee for the Tu-214.

This is the manipulation of figures, we are told only what is convenient and necessary for the speaker. In this case, it is lobbying the interests of Tatarstan and Kazan Aircraft Plant for additional funding to the detriment of other programmes, specifically MC-21.

Therefore, Yakovlev PJSC with its “dark horse”, as the Svobodnaya Pressa publication called the MC-21 aircraft, should act as a donor. It believes that there is a dispute between specialists about “which aircraft should be given priority in the production of the main domestic aircraft for passenger transport” – Tu-214 or MC-21.

In this case, the publication accuses federal government agencies of lobbying, which by their status, appointment and tasks assigned to them should bring to the market both MC-21 and Tu-214. “… It seems that the MC-21 project is lobbied by the Ministry of Industry and Trade and Rostec. For what purpose is another question. Here we can only make assumptions. Perhaps, to redirect state funding. After all, the development of the aircraft from scratch, production of prototypes, testing, certification, launch into production, defect elimination – all this is a constant injection from the state budget, and stretched over time”, – writes the edition.

Evgeny Yelin, Chairman of the Board of Directors of S7 Group, added fuel to the fire. On the same day as the article was published on the Svobodnaya Pressa website, on 30 November, speaking at the Russian Industrialist forum in St. Petersburg, he showed a slide with data on the overhaul life of three engines: PD-14, PS-90A and CFM56. His presentation showed that the average flight time before overhaul of the most modern Russian engine PD-14 will be 3,600 hours in 2026 and 12,500 hours in 2030. Whereas the PS-90 has 6,000 hours and the US-French CFM56, developed in the 1990s, has 40,000 hours.

“This means that, God willing, by 2030 we will be close to the engines that are state-of-the-art today. So we have a lag of somewhere around 15 years in any case. Not because our engineers are stupid or we don’t know how to do anything, but because there is such a thing as a proof base, certification, so that we could fly safely,” he explained.

However, Gosep Yelin did not specify that the overhaul life is developed through years of intensive engine operation, and the CFM56 since 1982 – the beginning of operation – by the mid-90s the average time to the first “de-winging” was just over 12,000 hours, i.e. at the very beginning the overhaul life was about the same as that of the PD-14. Now the CFM56 has 12,000 to 16,000 hours before removal from the aircraft, while the PS-90A has 10-12,000 hours. Here is an example of another manipulation of figures. It is unlikely that the Chairman of the Board of Directors of S7 Group does not know them accurately, and if he does not know them, it is strange how he holds such a high position in one of the leading Russian airlines.

Let’s clarify the following. On 25 December 2021, the MC-21 with registration number 73361 (now 73057) made its maiden flight. This particular aircraft was to be the first commercial MC-21 in the Aeroflot group. Its wing was to be made of imported polymer-composite materials. However, the cessation of supplies of foreign composites to Russia in 2018 led to the need to install on it a wing made of Russian composites and connect the board to certification flights under the import substitution programme.

The preliminary type certificate for the MC-21 in imported form was obtained in December, and the aircraft with the standard design was 73054. Aeroflot was scheduled to start delivery of serial aircraft in October 2022. Later the aircraft was painted in the livery of Rossiya Airlines and now it performs transport flights in the interests of UAC, Yakovlev PJSC and the Ministry of Industry and Trade.

It turns out that commercial operation of MC-21 should have started already in the fourth quarter of 2022, many “childhood diseases” would have been cured by now, a dozen of serial machines would have been produced. But our former partners do not want us to have our own aircraft, and now they are preventing us from flying our own aircraft. And the speech about the need to return to Tu-214 appeared after 24 February 2022, remember the words of Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov – how much time is needed to achieve the construction of at least 10 aircraft per year – 3-5 years. And in the meantime, no less than five serial MC-21s in varying degrees of readiness are already waiting for engines and Russian equipment at the Irkutsk Aircraft Plant – this is to mention that doubts are being expressed about the possibility of IAZ to hand over six aircraft to Aeroflot at the end of 2024 – beginning of 2025.

And what about the Tu-214? “Roll-out of the long-awaited Tu-214 of the new series is postponed. One of the aircraft planned for 2023 has reached the final assembly shop, all the others still exist only in the form of separate units,” Business Online reported. The publication’s experts believe that this outcome is natural. Our website expressed doubts about the reality of Kazan Aircraft Plant’s plans back in January 2023.

The events that took place during 2023 confirmed – the production and the aircraft itself are not ready to increase output. On November 9, at the meeting of the Board of Directors of Tupolev JSC in Kazan discussed the progress of the programme of scaling up the production of Tu-214 aircraft. It was announced about all possible support of the Kazan aircraft plant by the country’s leadership. On the territory of the plant the construction of a machining centre for manufacturing of long parts and a new building for aggregate and final assembly of aircraft is underway, new equipment is being purchased and personnel is being trained. The new buildings will make it possible to multiply the rate of construction of Tu-214 aircraft. Similar measures and capital investments at the Irkutsk Aircraft Plant were made earlier.

On 3 November, Rostec announced that Ramensky Instrument-Making Plant has started production of RMI-3 radio magnetic indicators for the Tu-214. The equipment combines simultaneously magnetic and radio complexes, and has course and glissade signallers. Similar products are also installed on Be-200 and Il-96 aircraft.

In addition, the TU-214 avionics includes a number of imported products. The aircraft is equipped with HG2030AE21 inertial navigation system, EGPWS early ground proximity warning system and RDR-4B weather radar station of the American company Honeywell, as well as Air Cruisers rescue equipment, and foreign-made seats are used in the cockpit. In other words, the aircraft requires import substitution, albeit small, but import substitution. The deadline is strict – by the end of 2024, KAZ and Tupolev must replace all imported parts in the Tu-214 aircraft with Russian ones – that’s 13 per cent.

Thus, the two Russian aircraft Tu-214 and MC-21 are not competitors to each other, they are fictions. The aircraft are of different generations and quite different in terms of technological sophistication, but they are not currently ready to carry passengers, and both aircraft have the same readiness date of December 2024. The Tu-214 will provide Russian airlines with a proven and reliable means of transporting passengers, and this machine may also be of interest to carriers in Cuba, DPRK – where they are familiar with Russian technology and still continue to operate Tu-204/214. Iran was also interested in this aircraft, as the country is under strict sanctions of the West, although it buys second-hand Airbuses.

MC-21 cannot be considered a “dark horse” in any way, if only for those who are completely unfamiliar with this aircraft. At the same time, it will take some time for pilots to identify all the problem areas that will arise with the new machine, and for airlines to gain experience in operating the airliner and to work out optimal business processes to get the maximum possible profit from owning a modern Russian aircraft.

The Russian aircraft industry is not benefiting from the tug-of-war that some media outlets, experts and some executives are engaged in. Kazan Aircraft Plant cannot start producing not only ten Tu-214 aeroplanes a year, but even three at the will of officials or at the snap of fingers. It needs modernisation of production facilities, new additional equipment and trained personnel. The necessary funds are allocated to Tatarstan and state support is provided. Therefore, in the conditions in which the domestic aviation industry is currently operating, unity is necessary for success.