Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dry Ice and Models for Superjet Rollout

Itar-TassModels looking at Sukhoi's Superjet-100 at its unveiling in Komsomolsk-on-Amur in the Far East on Wednesday.
KOMSOMOLSK-ON-AMUR, Khabarovsk Region -- Amid a fanfare of music, dry ice and a bevy of fashion models, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov on Wednesday unveiled the first Sukhoi Superjet, the long-awaited hope of the civilian aircraft industry.

The rollout of the midsize plane -- the country's first to be wholly designed in the post-Soviet era -- was emotional for many of the aviation workers in the giant aircraft hangar at Sukhoi's Komsomolsk-on-Amur plant, which until now has only made fighter jets.

"We have every right to say this is a real super plane," Ivanov told an invited audience of about 1,000 Russian and foreign executives, engineers, workers and reporters. Many of the guests were flown the 8,000 kilometers and seven time zones from Moscow for the ceremony.

With the new passenger plane, Sukhoi is entering a midsized jet market dominated by Bombardier of Canada and Embraer of Brazil.

Malev, the Hungarian airline owned by AiRUnion chief executive Boris Abramovich, is considering buying 15 Superjets and will make a decision in the first half of next year, Abramovich told reporters at the plant Wednesday.

Sukhoi currently has 73 firm orders for the aircraft, including 30 from Aeroflot, 15 from AiRUnion and 10 from Italian carrier ItAli. Under the most recent agreement, Armenia's Armavia earlier this month bought two long-range jets in a deal estimated at $55 million to $60 million.

After Ivanov and other speakers had lauded the project, a large video screen was lifted to reveal the plane amid clouds from dry ice. As the invited guests cheered and applauded, the doors to the hangar slowly opened and the plane -- decked out in the red, white and blue of the Russian tricolor and featuring a Sukhoi emblem on its tailfin -- was towed out into bright sunshine. Amid a fanfare of sentimental music, some in the audience looked distinctly emotional.

Ivanov basked in the spotlight of the television cameras as he and other officials came out to touch the plane. "If it's the Superjet, then everything should be super," said Ivanov, who has enjoyed blanket coverage in the state media in recent months and is considered to be a leading contender to succeed President Vladimir Putin.

Ivanov and a small army of senior officials, including Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko and Rosoboronexport chief Sergei Chemezov, were on hand to witness a key moment for the $1.4 billion Superjet project, which has involved hundreds of design engineers as far afield as France and Italy. Engine production is estimated at another $600 million.

The ministers were there barely 36 hours after attending the first session of the new Cabinet, chaired by Putin in Moscow.

The Superjet rollout is widely seen as a landmark for the Russian commercial aviation industry, which all but collapsed after the demise of the Soviet Union.

Marina Lystseva / Itar-Tass
The Superjet, the first all-new airliner built since the Soviet collapse in 1991.
To resuscitate the industry, Putin last year ordered the creation of a state aircraft champion, the United Aircraft Corporation, that encompasses the country's main jet makers and design bureaus.

On Wednesday, Ivanov said the Superjet was a "priority product in the strategic lineup" of the corporation.

In a sign of further expansion, the corporation is in talks to buy VTB's 5 percent stake in EADS, the parent company of European plane manufacturer Airbus, United Aircraft chief executive Alexei Fyodorov told reporters on the sidelines of Wednesday's rollout. The corporation would seek to raise financing for the stake, which VTB bought last year for about 1 billion euros ($1.4 billion).

Sukhoi general director Mikhail Pogosyan said his company had to wrestle with skepticism that the fighter-jet maker could pull off a commercial project. In 2000, Sukhoi created a commercial unit, Sukhoi Civil Aircraft, to develop a range of regional jets.

Mikhail Simonov, Sukhoi's veteran chief designer, who spearheaded the creation of the country's best fighter jets, said it was good that military production was giving way to commercial aviation.

"This means we are in line with the economic course," said Simonov, 77, who had a Hero of Russia medal pinned to his chest.

Sukhoi's two main Superjet partners are Italy's Alenia Aeronautica, which has 25 percent plus one share in the project and will help promote the plane in the West, and France's Snecma, which together with NPO Saturn is making a SaM-146 engine for the jet. U.S. airplane giant Boeing is a consultant on the project.

Scott Carson, chief executive at Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a videotaped message relayed on the video screen that the new jet "represents hard work and sheer determination of so many people."

"Aviation is critical to Russia's future," Carson said.

More than 30 international subcontractors, including Thales, Liebherr and Goodrich, are working with Sukhoi on the jet. Giorgio Zappa, chief executive of Finmeccanica, Alenia's parent company, praised the jet as a "pillar of [our] future cooperation."

The plane will be about 50 percent Russian-made and 50 percent foreign-made, Pogosyan told reporters at the plant Tuesday.

Around the Soviet-era aerospace plant, known by its Russian acronym as KnAAPO, stand vintage planes and Su-27 fighter jets, which are on duty to patrol the Tatar Straight separating Sakhalin island from the mainland.

The new plane promises to be a shot in the arm for Komsomolsk, a city of 280,000 people 300 kilometers from the Chinese border.

The plant currently provides work for 14,000 people, paying an average monthly salary of 16,000 rubles ($650). It expects to hire another 6,500 workers by 2010, when production of the Superjet should be in full swing.

The city currently does not have a direct air connection with most of the country, and Sukhoi is negotiating with several air carriers to start the flights, a company representative said.

To get about 100 reporters to the ceremony, Sukhoi had to charter a plane to fly them out to the air base at Komsomolsk. There, company officials briefly showed off the plant that it touts as its best production facility.

"This is where we will realize all our plans," Pogosyan said. "I believe that this is the best plant in the country."

By contrast, the situation was so dire at one of Sukhoi's other plants that birds at one point made nests in its workshops, a company spokesman said.

In the tough transition to a market economy, the Komsomolsk plant also wrestled with difficulties.

One of its workshops made children's bicycles to sell to Cuba and Poland in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said Alexander Shcheglov, head of aggregate assembly at the plant. Today that shop makes fuselages and wings for the new jet, and its concrete floors have been lacquered to gather less dust.

Symbolizing the new direction, a slogan on a wall now reads, "SSJ manufacturing is where new decisions meet the challenges of tomorrow."

Shcheglov said the plant aimed to assemble four jets by year's end and another 14 next year. To start conveyor production, the plant needs more equipment, he said.

"A very powerful base is needed," Shcheglov said. "It's just being formed now."

Because the plant also needs to cover the cost of equipment upgrades, it will effectively have to produce every 10th jet for free, he said.

The ultimate goal is to produce fighter and passenger jets in equal numbers. "We aim for 50-50. [But] time will tell," Shcheglov said.

However emotional the rollout is, it is the first flight that really matters, aircraft analysts and plant employees said.

"It's too early to celebrate a victory," Alexei Komarov, a former aviation engineer who worked at Sukhoi from 1977 to 1995, said by telephone. The rollout means that the plane is almost ready, but it is the first flight that is usually considered the plane's birthday, said Komarov, who is now chairman of the editorial board at Moscow-based magazine Air Transport Observer.

Grigory Alexeyenko, deputy head of technical control at the plant, sounded a similar note of caution. "When it takes off, then we'll be proud," he said, adding that the plane still required a lot of work.

Sukhoi hopes to receive permission for the plane's first flight in the next two months.

Konstantin Makiyenko, deputy director of the Russian Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said it was not surprising that the project cost so much, especially if expensive promotions like Wednesday's unveiling are taken into account.

He estimated the total spending on the ceremony, including charter flights, room and board for reporters as well as dozens of fashion models dressed as flight attendants, at $1.5 million. Sukhoi deputy director Vadim Razumovsky declined to disclose the cost of the event.

The Sukhoi Superjet-100 family comprises four aircraft of 75- and 95-seater planes. The catalog price of a 95-seater is $28.3 million.

At Wednesday's ceremony, Aeroflot general director Valery Okulov said the airline had already earmarked funds to buy its 30 Superjets.

Aeroflot is scheduled to receive its first Superjet in November 2008.

By year's end, Sukhoi hopes to notch up 100 orders for the plane.

By that time, it plans to sign the first agreement with a country "close to southeast Asia," a priority market, said Dmitry Matsenov, senior vice president for strategic development at Sukhoi Civil Aircraft.

Under the best-case scenario, the company hopes to produce 1,800 jets, including VIP and cargo versions, he said. A VIP version would sell for $40 million and is currently being developed, said Matsenov, adding that the first orders could come from within Russia.