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The Irkut MC-21: an introduction to Russia’s latest jetliner

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Yesterday an Irkut MC-21 undergoing flight testing overran the runway at Moscow’s Zhukovsky Airport (ZIA). No one was injured and it looks as if the aircraft avoided any major damage. Initial reports from Irkut, the company making the MC-21, indicate this happened during a simulated engine-out test. It also said no system failures were involved. Details are scarce for now. The runway at Zhukovsky is one of the longest in the Moscow area at 15092 feet (4600 meters) so it will be interesting to find out what happened. Hopefully we’ll get more information soon.

Many may have seen this news and wondered just what on earth the Irkut MC-21 is. Even compared to other relatively obscure new aircraft like China’s COMAC C919, the MC-21 has kept an especially low profile during its development. With that in mind, here’s a brief introduction to Russia’s newest airplane.

Russia’s latest jetliner

The MC-21 is a new single-aisle plane that sits more or less in the same category as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 aircraft families. (The Chinese COMAC 919 also competes in this category.) As this is a very popular aircraft segment globally, it’s no surprise Russia and China both are putting their efforts into this size of plane and hoping to capture a bit of market share.

The MC-21 is designed and built by the Irkut Corporation, which itself is part of the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC). In the early 2000s, Russia combined many of its aerospace companies into one large company – the UAC. Irkut was part of this big reorganization alongside other known Russian aerospace names like Ilyushin and Sukhoi. Irkut was designated the division that would oversee commercial airliner production, and for that reason it also now oversees the Sukhoi Superjet project.

Irkut MC-21 what is Russia's first jetliner
The Irkut MC-21 on a test flight.

There are two variants of the MC-21 in testing now, the -300 and a shorter -200. The -300 is said to seat 211 passengers in a single-class configuration and will have 3240 nautical miles of range (6000 kilometers). The -200 can seat 165 maximum and can fly a little further – around 3500 nautical miles. The specs are broadly similar to the Airbus A320neo family. The -300 variant is closer in length and capacity to the A321neo, but falls short of its segment-leading range figures.

An intriguing choice of engines

When Russia has attempted to develop new aircraft and sell them globally, we’ve seen it bring together American and Western suppliers alongside Russian technology and manufacturing. That was certainly the case with the Sukhoi Superjet. The MC-21 is no exception, although it has an unusual distinction in that it can be purchased with American engines (the Pratt & Whitney PW1000G geared turbofan) or Russian-made powerplants. That Russian engine is the Aviadvigatel PD-14, and the first MC-21 with those mounted under the wings just flew for the first time late last year.

Irkut MC-21

It looks as if Russia will be moving composite structure production for the aircraft back within Russian borders as well. That and the engine move are the result of US sanctions which make it difficult to cooperate with international partners to source essential components.

When can we fly on one?

Irkut has said it expects deliveries of the MC-21 to begin in late 2021. That represents a multi-year delay to its original plans that has only been compounded by COVID-19. It would not be surprising to see the first deliveries slip further into the future. Hopefully this latest runway incident won’t have knocked the schedule too much further behind.

When the plane is delivered, it will go to Aeroflot first. Nearly the entire order book (said to be 175 planes at the moment) is made up of airlines in Russia or the former Soviet sphere. Azerbaijan Airlines is one of those. The only airline beyond that is Egyptian carrier Cairo Aviation. That’s no surprise. The market for Russian planes beyond the old USSR borders has long been a small one, and there was never any doubt most of the initial orders would come from Russian carriers. But Irkut will be hoping to expand that customer base to other parts of the world and show the world that it’s possible.

Irkut MC-21 Russian jetliner

Can it compete?

Irkut will be hoping to show this plane can compete with the big kids on the block like the 737 MAX and A320NEO. Doubtless the company knows that will be an uphill battle. But depending on how fast aviation demand makes a comeback after this year, the MC-21 may be able to find buyers – especially if the price is right and Airbus and Boeing continue to see large backlogs.

Much will come down to the quality of the plane – its performance in the real world and its reliability especially. Most non-Russian customers of the Sukhoi Superjet, the last major Russian attempt to export a plane, ended up dropping their models because of reliability and maintenance issues. Irkut says it’s focusing specifically on addressing some of the problems that plagued the Sukhoi like a lack of spare parts available, especially for customers outside of Russia.

We’ll be watching closely as it develops.

Featured image © ShipSash
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