:: October 2003 Letter ::


Dear Fellow Airplane Culture Vultures,

When I first saw Attila, the Hungarian Aerospace Museum tour guide whose name I am not making up, I was scared. Blue lab coat, earnest, nervous expression—this was going to be a long, drawn out afternoon of darkness. “…And the wing span is measuring thirteen-point-six hect-o-me-ters. You are maybe wanting some more informations, please?” My wife had come along for the visit. This was gonna cost me.

But the museum was actually a delight. Sure, Hungary’s aerospace scene is the least developed of all of the big Eastern Europe countries (I have no idea what Saab is doing for offsets with Hungary’s Gripen lease; I suspect it involves Stockholm school kids eating nothing but paprika for a year). Didn’t matter. These guys, especially Attila, were intensely proud of their aviation heritage, no matter how diminutive, and there was lots of local color and charm. Did you know that Professor Rubik, he of the infuriating, eponymous Cube, also came from a family of respected plane designers? You do now. There was a hysterical 1950s-era jetliner simulator, which looked as though it could inflict as much damage on a pilot as a crash in the real thing. The museum even had a locally built pre-WW1 Fokker fighter. Was the Austro-Hungarian Empire part of some prehistoric JSF precursor?

The best thing about the museum was its collection of leftover ex-Soviet Cold War fighter components. This made the museum look like Crazy Uncle Tibor’s Workshop, but all those hand-me-down Su-22 radars and MiG-21 engines were fascinating. I hadn’t been east of Berlin since The Wall came down, and the stuff they show at Le Bourget is the best and latest, so it looks presentable enough. But this stuff looked like rubbish. In fact, I think rubbish represents a higher engineering standard. Western equipment from 30 years ago looks inelegant, but at least it looks well constructed. The Warsaw Pact stuff looked like it was held together with turnip-flavored Bulgarian chewing gum.

More Russian junk is at Budapest’s airport, in another museum. Apparently, a few years ago, it was hard to tell where the museum collection left off and the functioning Malev gates began (Malev has since re-equipped with Boeings). And, of course, there were the usual jokes about there not being an aviation museum because there was not yet any form of aviation in Hungary that was primitive enough to be considered obsolete.

It all got me thinking. Russia’s once-mighty aerospace industry spent the ‘90s dying a slow, painful death. If it weren’t for Sukhoi’s Su-27/30 sales to such semi-pariahs as China and India, the whole thing would probably be gone. Basically, Russian aerospace evolved in this weird parallel universe, where quantity mattered way more than quality, and where fuel had no real economic value. This made for inferior fighters (“If this plane gets shot down or randomly falls apart, we’ve got six more to take its place”) and inferior transports (“Why burn less fuel? The stuff just shows up when we need it, provided by The State”).

The USSR also had zero access to foreign technologies and methods—after all, their country was run by the same sort of xenophobic cave dwellers who wrote the Buy American Act. Still, this parallel universe created inferior equivalents of many Western planes, from the 727 (Tu-154) to the Concorde (Tu-144).

After communism, exposure to the outside world rendered these assumptions, and all the engineering experience and production equipment that went with them, totally obsolete. So it was no big surprise that the first effort at modernization—re-equipping existing commie designs with Western avionics and engines, as on the An-38, Il-96M, Il-114, and Tu-204—was a failure. Western systems could help, but in the competitive world of air transport, a heavier airframe just wouldn’t cut it (only the Tu-204 has a chance at survival). I remember the report I heard from someone who inspected the first Il-96M up close: “If they could find a place to put a rivet, they put one there.”

It’s gradually dawning on the powers that be in Russia that they need to start over with totally different design assumptions. Sukhoi’s Russian Regional Jet is the first stab at this, possibly followed by an all-new 130/170-seat trunkliner. Vladimir Putin’s KGB-successor government looks like it has the statist clout to do what’s needed: provide government financing, erect arbitrary trade barriers, and issue market forecasts that would make even the Chinese Government blush. Boeing and Snecma are involved, but the guys from Seattle are probably just interested in the project as diplomacy, to help make the tax barriers to their own planes go away.

So will the RRJ happen? In an ideal world, the RRJ would constitute a “rational implosion,” a chance to get rid of the old programs and companies and re-organize around an all-new venture. Yet all the claims made for the RRJ sound an awful lot like the ones made for those earlier ex-Soviet planes—scores of orders from Russian carriers, a “clear” finance plan, claimed advantages from lower labor costs, etc.

And, if the RRJ people need to coerce Russian carriers into buying the RRJ (because they don’t have the financing that Western manufacturers have), they would violate WTO, which Russia hopes to sign. Meanwhile, the old programs are being kept alive on life support. This effectively starves the new programs for funding.

So, the museum visit didn’t increase my optimism for Russia’s civil aviation future. And regarding museums, if you want The Whole Story, there’s the Smithsonian Air & Space. It’s definitive and magisterial. But it’s also polished and corporate. For the heart and soul of aviation, consider something more local, like the museum in Budapest. A passion for aerospace is where you find it.

In this supplement you’ll find updates of the Rafale, C-5, 717, Citation, Caravan, Premier One, Bell 230/430, and OH-1. We’re shelving the Metro report, but feel free to keep the last one. November, a wintry month I’m not prepared to think about just yet, will include EH 101, NH 90, Lynx, F-2, and A/T-50 updates. Enjoy your autumn.

Yours, ‘Til I Finish The Last Of That Hungarian Brandy,

Richard Aboulafia
(703) 385-1992 ext. 103 (office)


© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.
  ~  Last updated on January 08, 2006