Russia squares up to Boeing and Airbus with maiden flight of jet
Medium-range aircraft capable of seating more than 200 completes 30-minute flight
The MC-21-300 passenger airliner during its maiden flight in Irkutsk, Russia. Photograph: Irkut Corporation/EPA
Russia carried out the maiden flight of its new MS-21 medium-range passenger aircraft on Sunday, its first post-Soviet foray into production of a mainline commercial aircraft which it hopes will rival those of its western competitors.
In a surprise statement, manufacturer Irkut Corporation and its state-controlled parent company United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) said an MS-21-300 model had successfully completed a 30-minute flight at a height of 1,000m and travelling at 300km/h.
Squeezed by western sanctions over its role in the Ukraine crisis, Russia is trying to rejuvenate domestic industrial production to make the country less dependant on foreign firms.
The test flight, which was not announced to the media beforehand, comes just three weeks after China staged the maiden flight of its new C919 passenger jet, highlighting the growing competition to industry heavyweights Boeing and Airbus.
Russian officials have said the MS-21 is superior to its western-made counterparts in many respects and will be snapped up by both Russian and foreign carriers, but western analysts say both Russia and China face a huge challenge to shatter the transatlantic aircraft duopoly.
“The flight mission has been completed. The flight was fine, there were no observations which will prevent further testing,” test pilot Oleg Kononenko was quoted as saying.
Western aviation sources however expressed surprise at the flight’s brevity and relatively low altitude compared with recent three- to four-hour debuts of North American and European models.
“It suggests they either have severe limitations or may have had something happen and decided to come back,” said a western flight test engineer, speaking on condition of anonymity.
A western aircraft-making source called it a “genteel flight”.
A UAC spokesman said the flight had been long enough to test everything that needed to be checked in the air.
Russia has fought hard to shake off its Soviet reputation for old and creaking aircraft flown by inexperienced crews.
Flag carrier Aeroflot last year earned its fourth star from independent ratings website Skytrax, ranking it alongside major European and Middle Eastern competitors and ahead of big US carriers such as Delta and United.
President Vladimir Putin called Irkut general director Oleg Demchenko to congratulate him and his employees with what the Kremlin called “a significant event”.
The twin-engined MS-21 will be built in two variants: the MS-21-300, which will have 160-211 seats; and the later MS-21-200, which will have 130-165 seats. It is sometimes referred to as the MC-21 when using the Russian name and Cyrillic letters.
Production is expected to start in the next two years and state media has said numerous contracts with domestic and foreign carriers have already been agreed. Irkut said it so far had “firm orders” for 175 aircraft.
America’s Boeing and Europe’s Airbus remain far ahead of their Chinese and Russian rivals, with bigger sales books and more advanced technical know-how.
But the new aircraft could win sales in Russia and some eastern European and Asian countries, industry analysts say, with buyers attracted by its lower running costs.
With a range of up to 6,000km, the MS-21 will be competing against the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 aircraft which currently dominate the medium-range narrow-body market. Both companies recently upgraded those families to achieve comparable 15 per cent operational savings compared to previous versions. – (Reuters)