Murphy's Law: Kicking The Russians In The Engines


May 25, 2009: The U.S. has been putting pressure on Russia to not sell S-300 anti-aircraft systems to Iran, and to stop threatening its neighbors. Most of this pressure is exerted quietly, but occasionally, the arm twisting becomes visible. Sort of. A recent example has been the delay of granting Pratt & Whitney Canada permission to build the PW127 helicopter engine in Russia under license. This would have been the first such deal since Britain licensed Russia to build a Rolls Royce jet engine just after World War II. Once the Cold War got underway, there were no more such licensing deals.

The Russians want the PW127 helicopter engine for their new Mi-38 helicopter. Now they will have to switch to a less efficient Russian engine, the TV-7-117. This will delay the introduction of the Mi-38 for another year (until 2012.)

Russia had a hard time finding customers for its new helicopter designs, like the Mi-38. This was largely because Russia has been so successful in selling the old (updated 1960s design), but reliable, Mi-171. But now they have found a way to fund the new Mi-38 (basically the successor of the Mi-8/17/171 line). There is a demand inside Russia for a large, rugged, helicopter to support the growing number of oil and gas development projects in Russia's vast eastern forests. The Mi-38 was developed in the last decade for military use, but seems ideal for the oil industry needs. The Mi-38 is a 15 ton helicopter that can carry up to six tons and can stay in the air for up to six hours per sortie (cruising at 200 kilometers an hour). Russia can make money selling these for less than $10 million each.

The popular Mi-171 is based on the 1975 era Mi-17, which is the export version of original 1960s Mi-8. Weighing about 12 tons, and carrying a four ton load, the Mi-171 has a range of 590 kilometers at a cruising speed of 250 kilometers per hour. There is a crew of three, and as many passengers as can be squeezed in (about 40 people, but usually just 20 or so.) A sling underneath can also carry up to four tons. Several hundred Mi-171s have been exported. The helicopter is rugged, inexpensive ($4-5 million each) and better suited for less affluent nations.

Development of the Mi-38 was completed in 1998 and Russia has been pushing sales hard. There are apparently enough Mi-38 orders to get production started by the end of the year. The Mi-38 is much easier to sell if it is in production, and has some satisfied users. The Russians are not happy about being denied the more reliable American helicopter engine, and may yet agree to play ball on the subject of selling missiles to Iran, in order to get the U.S. engine.  




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