Glasnost notwithstanding, it’s possible that you’ve never heard of a company called Russian Helicopters. You might not know that it accounts for some 13 per cent of the world’s helicopter fleet – that’s over 8 500 machines spread across 100 countries – and a formidable 27 per cent of installed attack helicopters globally. But if all goes according to plan, this manufacturer’s name will soon become very familiar indeed.
MOVING IN FOR A CLOSE-UP of the rocket launch tubes protruding from the helicopter’s stubby wing, it suddenly hit me: there I was in the Russian heartland, photographing a deadly piece of military hardware, and no one was showing any interest in locking me up. In fact, everyone seemed to be smiling.
How times had changed, I remarked to one of our hosts, an amiable young man who had just remarked that he ranked Cape Town as the world’s top travel destination. Back in the days of conscription, I confided, my old .303 Lee-Enfield and I had represented South Africa’s sole protection from the invading communist hordes. He looked puzzled. “But why would we want to do that?” he asked. Nonplussed, the best answer I could produce was a lame “Well, you had to be there”.
Diplomatic manoeuvring dispensed with, we proceeded to discuss the tough-as-nails helicopter market, an alarmingly unpredictable arena where politics and lobbying play a role just as critical as reliability and technological prowess.
Interestingly (and it has to be said that our hosts were determinedly non-committal on the subject), the US military has recently found itself in a dilemma, having entered into a $375 million contract for the purchase of 21 Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters for deployment in Afghanistan. This is a problem because Rosoboronexport, Russia’s state-run arms trader, also supplies arms to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, who is not exactly the world’s most popular leader. The helicopters in question feature Western navigation and other equipment, and reportedly work rather well in the extreme Afghan arena.
A report last year by analysts Frost & Sullivan said the global helicopter market across military and civil end-user segments was facing a growth in demand, reaching a potential market size of nearly 24 000 platforms in the period 2011 to 2020. The key factors contributing to this industry growth were upcoming replacement cycles in worldwide military and state-run fleets, growing disposable income in emerging markets, and the structural growth of the global economy.
However, there are signs that this could change. Despite the expected growth for military helicopters, say Frost & Sullivan, the industry faces significant challenges – including defence budget cuts in some of the traditionally strong western markets as well as some emerging markets where end-users may be exercising caution in terms of procurement, both operationally and financially.
Russian Helicopters is a Big League player in this multinational game, with credentials to match. It builds the legendary Mi-8 – if you live in Cape Town, you’ve probably witnessed its firefighting prowess during a Table Mountain blaze – as well as the heavy-lift Mi-26, a monstrous machine capable of hoisting 20 tons into the air (that’s about the weight of 20 Citi Golfs), and the Mi-35M – billed as the only design that can be used as an attack and transport helicopter.
Arguably the biggest news from subsidiary Kazan Helicopters is the successful completion of the first demonstration
light of the multi-role Ansat helicopter with a hydro-mechanical flight control system. To date, Kazan Helicopters has
produced two prototypes for aerial and ground-based testing. Russian Helicopters is currently marketing the civilian version of the twin-engine helicopter with the new flight-control system, targeting its traditional markets across the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States, former Soviet republics), South-East Asia, Africa, and Central and South America.
Here’s the interesting bit: the company previously developed a version of the Ansat featuring a fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system, but because no FBW civilian helicopter had been certificated before, there were no standard requirements to meet – and there it has stalled, at least for now. Says Kazan Helicopters General Director Vadim Ligay: “To avoid being dependent on certification of the FBW Ansat, we decided to offer the global market a helicopter with a traditional hydro-mechanical flight control system. We hope to obtain certification for this version of the helicopter in the second half of 2012.” Meanwhile, the company will continue to develop the FBW version for the military.
It’s been a long and occasionally rocky ride for this Russian company, which first began building aircraft in 1940, when it
produced the first batch of Polikarpov Po-2 biplanes. Although they were hardly at the cutting edge of aviation – the Po-2s had wooden frames and fabric coverings –the factory continued to churn out these aircraft throughout the war years, eventually building over 11 000 – mostly for the Red Army.
Some of these were allocated to pilots of the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, all of whom were women, as were the ordnance loaders and mechanics. Although they were regarded more as nuisance raiders than a strategically important element of the Russian war machine, it seems the psychological effects of the night-time sorties had the desired effect on their German enemies, who began referring to the female pilots as Nachthexen or “night witches”.
Marat Kiyama, the dry-humoured head of marketing at Kazan Helicopters, reveals that the famous Mi-8 has logged a total of over 5 million flying hours worldwide, a figure that would seem to support its reputation for durability. We’re also told that the Kazan factory’s main product – manufactured with the help of 7 000 employees and 1 500 sub-contractors – is the single-rotor Mi-17, a versatile and low-maintenance helicopter that comes in many guises: it can be equipped for passenger transport, search and rescue, firefighting, and even airborne surgery.
Kiyama pauses, then disarms us with a straight-faced apology. “I’m sorry,” he says, “this is very boring. Disney is better.” It’s not, actually.
PLAYING WITH FIRE IN CAPE TOWN
Back in March 2004, PM writer Sean Woods spent a few illuminating hours with seasoned helicopter pilot Hugo Barnard, who devoted most of his flying time to putting out fires with the help of a Russian-built Mi-8 MTV and a so-called Bambi bucket – used for water-bombing mountain blazes – with a capacity of 3 000 litres.
Barnard swore by the versatile, “user-friendly” and ruggedly built Mi-8, introduced here in 1993, although he didn’t underestimate the risks involved in water-bombing fires, some of them spectacularly large. Among the critical challenges for the pilot: scooping up the water from a dam, reservoir or the sea; flying with a full load in gusty conditions; lining up the load for dumping; and finally, compensating – very quickly – for the reduced load after dropping the “bomb”.
Sadly, the Mi-8 no longer operates from the base in Cape Town’s Newlands Forest. As far as he knew, said a member of the National Parks staff, it had since been deployed in Afghanistan.
South African company Titan Helicopters has two of these machines in its fleet, the Mi-8 MTV (equipped with powerful TV3117VM engines and Western avionics and radio systems) and the slightly different Mi-8P, with a tail rotor positioned on the opposite side.
Video: Alan Duggan came back from the Russian Helicopters factory in Kazan, east of Moscow, with lots of cool video clips. Click blow to watch our edited selection.
Wallpapers: Download wallpaper images of the helicopters and set them as your desktop background.