Russia flexes its heavy-lift helo muscles with new Mi-26 test flights

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MOSCOW — If there’s one thing Russian Helicopters wants you to know about the Mi-26, it is that this monster of a machine is the largest helicopter in the world. Bigger than the Chinook, and bigger than the Sea King. When it comes to helicopters, the Mi-26 rules the skies, and Russia is looking to leverage this unique capability to dominate the heavylift market.

Defense News was given access to the Mi-26 and elements of its production line at the Russian Helicopters plant in Rostov-on-Don as part of a press tour organized by the company in early April. Defense News can confirm that the helicopter is very big. And in a post-tour interview, Russian Helicopters Director General Andrey Boginsky admitted he was showing off.

“We wanted to demonstrate our competencies in the field of developing and constructing super-heavy-lift helicopters, and this is embodied by the Mi-26,” Boginsky said.

Measuring at 131 feet in length with a rotor diameter of more than 100 feet, the Mi-26 boasts a 20,000-pound cargo capacity. Russian Helicopters says the vehicle can fly higher than other heavy-lift helos, and — with each new generation — is easier to operate. The helicopter has been in production for almost 40 years and is exported across the world.

Russia is taking this expertise to China, with whom it will soon sign a contract to co-develop a new heavy-lift helicopter for Chinese customers. The project is known as Advanced Heavy Lift and will draw heavily on the Mi-26 design. No technology will be transferred — something Russian Helicopters is quick to point out. Russia is acting more as a consultant to Chinese engineers.

Russian Helicopters already works with China to modify, modernize and service a large fleet of Russian-built helos already used by Chinese customers. It is building on these relationships as part of the AHL project, which will be locally produced by the Aviation Industry Corporation of China. Early renderings and models of AHL look a lot like the Mi-26.

“We have long-standing and historic relations with China,” Boginsky said. “Discussions about creating a heavy-lift helicopter for China have been ongoing for about six to eight years, as Chinese specialists have familiarized themselves with our capabilities and defined the technical specifications themselves. They differ from the Mi-26 — it is smaller.”

Russian Helicopters, a subsidiary of state-owned holding company Rostec, is one of Russia’s largest and most successful aviation enterprises. The company did not participate in the 2018 Defense News Top 100 survey, but in 2017 it ranked as the 36th largest defense industry firm in the world as measured by defense-related revenues.

The establishment of a joint development and production model is new for Russian Helicopters, but not for Rostec. Viktor Kladov, Rostec’s point person for international cooperation, said in a statement that customers are “moving away from simple ‘purchase-sale’ transactions,” and instead are showing more interest in localized production.

“Rostec is keeping pace with the times,” Kladov said, “and we are ready to offer the localization of technologies that our customers need ... and are ready to consider a wide range of conditions and cooperation options.” Rostec has signed seven such agreements with Chinese state corporations, Kladov added. The AHL project is just one of them.

One way to think of AHL is “Mi-26 lite,” a version deeply optimized for Chinese requirements: The takeoff weight will be 38.7 tons, with a payload capacity of 15 ton, a flight range of 800 kilometers and a max speed of 300 kph.

One requirement that was especially important for the Chinese, Kladov said, is the ability to fly up tall mountains, like those found in Tibet.

Russian Helicopters will continue to produce, sell and upgrade the Mi-26 to the Russian military and foreign customers. Defense News was shown a test flight of the new Russian military modification of the helicopter, the Mi-26T2V, which has entered state trials. While touring the factory, several older Mi-26 helicopters were seen undergoing full refurbishment.

“Right now we already have a large number of projects planned,” Boginsky told Defense News. “We have versions of the Mi-26 on order for countries such as Jordan and Algeria, who have certain demands. But the Russian Ministry of Defence has demands of their own.” Some of those requirements are brand new, while others involve the modernization of older models.

While heavy lift is a unique capability, Russian Helicopters is pursuing multiple markets and projects, Boginsky said, including high-speed helicopters. The company also offers a large selection of smaller and medium-sized helicopters designed by their two famous design bureaux, Mil and Kamov. As for which markets to target, Rostec is enthusiastic about Southeast Asia.

“We see great prospects and expect growth of civilian helicopter technology exports to Southeast Asia,” Kladov said. He claims Rostec recently “scored hard and soft orders for at least 70 civilian vehicles for over $500 million over the next three years from China and the countries of Southeast Asia.”

Published: 2019-04-15 16:17:30