You may have not heard of the MC-21 but it could very well be the next must-have short-haul aircraft filling our skies – putting Airbus and Boeing on notice.
But building a new Boeing 737 competitor from scratch isn’t easy, especially in a country filled to the brim with politics – this plane faces a future of flying high, or becoming a footnote in history.
In today’s video, we will explore what the aircraft is actually like, What challenges await for the firm to get it to the market and how does it compare to the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. Let jump in.
The MC-21 is the Russian 737 or A320
Why Russia needs an MC-21
The end of the cold war saw Russian airlines turn away from soviet planes and embrace western technology, filling their fleets with western made Airbus and Boeing aircraft that were, at the time, seen as more reliable and advanced technological products than the Russian made counterparts.
But one Russian aerospace firm has kept that commercial aviation dream alive with the MC-21 design, taking the very best ideas from the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737 to make a true world-class competitor in their words.
The MC-21-300, pronounced MS-21, the first version to pass flight tests, will be able to carry up to 211 passengers in a single cabin configuration and can nearly match the 737 and A320 in range. And it has state airline support as well, with Aeroflot backing the firm with an order for 50 MC-21 aircraft and options for 35 more in the near future.
But all of this may be moot if the aircraft fails to enter production and become a failed attempt by the Russian aviation industry to reclaim its former glory.
The MC-21 story begins back in 2006 with the United Aircraft Corporation of Russia. They realized that growing demand in aerospace over the next twenty years would mean at least 500 new aircraft for Russian airlines – a lucrative aviation pie that could be captured by its domestic aircraft industry.
The plan to beat the 737 and A320
Thus, they set out with a plan for a new type of short-haul aircraft code-named the Yak-242, a similar project from the 90s that never flew. They would have the following conditions:
First, the new UAC design was to seat 130–170 passengers over 5,000–6,350 km (2,700–3,430 nmi) range, ideally to replace the aging Tu-154.
It would be far more advanced than its counterparts, with a carbon fiber wing and tail, fly by wire controls in a glass cockpit, and feature cutting-edge technologies well beyond the 30+ years old design of both Airbus and Boeing.
UAC also plans there to be three models, the MC-21-300 with PW1400G western made engines, the MC-21-310 that has Russian built PD-14 engines, and a shortened MC-21-200 that can seat up to 132 passengers in classes and fly 3,500 nautical miles. This last version will not go ahead, as it covers the same market as the Sukhoi Superjet 100, and its future stretch, the Superjet 130.
The goal was for this plane to enter service in 2012 for an initial target price of US$35 million, $20 million below the similar 737-700 a shocking upset to the world aviation market. Airlines would essentially be able to buy two MC-21s for the same price as a previous generation Boeing 737 – something that might be too good to pass up!
lastly, it can be built fast, with all the components built-in Russia and tremendous backlogs in both Boeing and Airbus lines, the MC-21 could fill in the market gap – well at least in good times before the current crisis.
Confident, the team launched the new program in 2007, planning a 2016 introduction with Russian carrier Aeroflot. Future years would see these goals adjusted, such as lowering the general efficiency gain to 10–15%, with the factory producing up to 120 airframes per year past 2025. Certainly an ambitious goal.
Building the first
But for UAC, creating a prototype would ultimately end up being a much harder dream to realize.
Thanks to Russian protectionism, the firm had to rely on local suppliers to essentially reinvent the wheel for western avionics, landing gears, hydraulics, power systems, and even the engines, delaying the rollout of the first prototype – something that if had been done in partnership with Airbus or Boeing could have been done in far less.
You see this MC-21-300 was designed to be totally isolated from the international aviation supply chain, using entirely Russian parts and being a 100% homegrown product. Something that was tough to do considering Russia had only had limited commercial aircraft in recent years, and of course, politics, which we will get to in a moment.
Six years since the launch, the first prototype rolled out the hanger for ground testing with western engines and a new name, the MC-21-300. These engines would be used as the Russian ones were not yet ready to be used, but it would fly, and herald in the beginning of the new Russian aviation age.
Well, kind of, for it one thing to build a few prototypes, but another to actually enter full production, even with 175 orders on the books and 150 more intentions!
The challenges that UAC faces are more than just building a new plane and reinventing the wheel to compete with Boeing and Airbus. Since last year, Russian has faced western sanctions that have cut off access to technology, components, and funding – including the ability to build the carbon fiber wing, taking months to figure out a domestic supply of materials. The Russian government has had to step in and give multiple rounds of subsidies to the carrier in an effort to save the program delaying the entry into service well into 2021.
Other channels include getting the aircraft certified in other regions. So far they have started the process in Russia and the EU, but the goal of getting the FAA to sign off on the Russian design is a little more difficult.
In addition, the airframe maker needs to face the twin challenges of rolling out this aircraft internationally – parts and training. Airlines will need a good second-hand market of parts that they can source from to keep flying during Aircraft On Ground situations, and they will also need their pilots to undergo training to learn how to fly and maintain the aircraft. This might be too much for a western airline that already has aircraft, but Asian markets and Africa might leap at the chance to secure what is essentially an A320 or 737 for half the price, and in half the time it takes for the latter western manufactures to deliver the aircraft.
With these four aircraft, one of which is powered by the new Russian PD-14 engines, the team is confident that the MC-21 will soon be certified and enter service in Russian, and then the EU – with the fifth or the first production model, rolling off the line late next year.
Into the future, UAC has also suggested it could build an MC-21-400 that could seat 250 seats and cater to that mythical middle of the market that airlines all apparently crave – it remains to be seen however if they can beat Airbus and Boeing to the punch.
But how does it actually compare to the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737?
The MC-21-300 can fly up to 211 passengers in a high-density configuration to a range of 6,000 km (3,200 nautical miles).
The Boeing 737 MAX 8 can fly 200 passengers (28 inches seat pitch) to a range of 3,550 nautical miles (6,570 km).
The Airbus A320neo can fly 195 passengers in a crushing high-density configuration to a range of 6,500 km (3,500 nautical miles).
The MC-21-300 is wider than both and has enough room in its aisle that two crew carts can pass each other, and has plenty of room below for cargo which we have seen is very lucrative in this day and age. Plus, we can’t forget that UAC has the benefit of learning from the Boeing 737 and A320 mistakes and using new principles in aircraft design, as well as the latest technology, to build what could very well be a superior aircraft.
However, only time will tell if they are able to produce these airframes and restore what was once a glorious aviation industry.