Sukhoi Design Bureau Aviation Scientific-Industrial Complex
Sukhoi Design Bureau Aviation Scientific-Industrial Complex
Incorporated: 1939 as Sukhoi Design Bureau
SICs: 3721 Aircraft
Sukhoi Design Bureau Aviation Scientific-Industrial Complex has earned a reputation for quality and originality, although against great odds. Its founder, Pavel Sukhoi, was no favorite of Stalin and the firm itself was disbanded for a time before a glorious rebirth in the 1950s. Since then, many of its products have been widely used by the former Soviet Union and its allies. World class designs such as the Su-27 interceptor and the Su-26 acrobatic plane dominate the record books, and present a rare bright spot in Russia’s international trade potential.
Starting with Tupolev in Tsarist Russia
Pavel Osipovich Sukhoi was born in 1895 in a small village in Byelorussia. He eventually made it to the illustrious Imperial Moscow Higher Technical Institute. Due to the ongoing war with Germany, he entered the army in 1916, but returned home in 1920 due to failing health. Once again at the Institute, he wrote a thesis on fighter design under his mentor, Andrei Tupolev, who had already established a name for himself at the center of Russian aviation circles.
Upon graduation in 1925, Sukhoi joined the Central Aero-Hydronamics Institute (TsAGI), a forerunner of the Tupolev Design Bureau. Sukhoi subsequently played a significant role in some of the firm’s designs—torpedo boats as well as aircraft. His career progressed rapidly; in 1938 he was named design department deputy chief. His work on the record-setting ANT-25, which flew across the North Pole to the United States, earned him worldwide attention and decorations from the Soviet government.
World War I convinced the world’s leaders that air would be the key to the next conflict. All the major powers raced to develop the next generation of military aircraft to dominate the skies. Sukhoi led the Tupolev bureau’s entrant in a contest to develop a light bomber for the Soviet military. This entrant, designated the Su-2, was chosen over designs from the Polikarpov, Nyeman, and Grigorovich firms in 1938. The next year, a new design bureau, led by Sukhoi, was created at an aircraft factory in Kharkov.
Stalling Under Stalin
Sukhoi disliked the factory’s intellectually isolated location and it was moved to Moscow (Podmoskovye airfield) by 1940. Sukhoi named an invaluable associate, Evgenii Alekseyevich Ivanov, chief engineer after the move to Moscow. He was instrumental in arranging the evacuation to Perm to avoid the advancing Nazi forces in October 1941. While Sukhoi liked to concern himself with prototypes, Ivanov had a flair for organizing production on a large scale. “I’m a designer—not a production controller, not an organizer, and not a fixer,” said Sukhoi, quoted in the underground account Tupolevskaya sharaga (reprinted as Stalin’s Aviation Gulag). Ivanov was all of these, and the two reportedly shared a wonderfully complementary relationship.
Like his comrade, Andrei Tupolev, Sukhoi fell under the suspicion of Stalin. However, he did not suffer incarceration, like Tupolev. Although Sukhoi was decorated for his work on certain designs, he was omitted from honors typically given to other general designers. While his peers were made generals in the military during World War II, Sukhoi retained the rank of ensign that he had earned in World War I.
In 1942, Stalin asked Sukhoi to oversee development of the Pe-2 aircraft after its designer, Vladimir Petlyakov, died. Sukhoi, immersed in the development of the Su-6 ground attack aircraft, hesitated to accept, and Vladimir Myasischev took his place instead. Although test models of the Su-6 proved capable and the design earned Sukhoi an award, Stalin did not want to reduce total aircraft output by converting production to the new design. The engines used by the plane never reached production either. Throughout this time, Sukhoi lacked a devoted production facility.
After the war’s end, the Sukhoi OKB returned to Moscow and developed their first jet aircraft, the Su-9. It brought to the Soviet Union such innovations as an ejection seat, hydraulic controls, booster rockets for takeoff, and a braking parachute—all features that would remain standard on jet fighters for the next 20 years. However, Stalin felt the Su-9 looked too similar to the Messerschmitt 262, the Luftwaffe’s supreme fighter, and preference was given to the jets of Artem Mikoyan’s design bureau, such as the MiG-9, MiG-15, and MiG-17. Furthermore, the Sukhoi OKB was effectively liquidated in December 1949. Sukhoi again found himself at the Tupolev OKB, this time as deputy chief designer. Ivanov joined him, assuming leadership of Tupolev’s flight testing.
Catching Up in the Cold War
After the death of Stalin in 1953, the Sukhoi OKB was revived (this time near Khodynskoye field in central Moscow) and Sukhoi rejoined the game with gusto. He submitted proposals for four supersonic aircraft, two with delta wings and two with swept wings. The novelty of the proposal—both the wing shapes were relatively untried—prompted some derision from other designers, such as Aleksandr Yakovlev, who had long had a habit of criticizing his competitors even since Tupolev first jockeyed with him for support under Stalin. One of the new swept-wing planes called the S-l was the first to bring Mach 2 (twice the speed of sound) sonic booms to the Soviet Union in 1955. It spawned the Su-7 family of fighter-bombers. Likewise, the delta-winged T-3 spawned the Su-9, Su-11, and Su-15 interceptors.
The T-4 was unique, however. Although only one was ever built, it remained a highlight of the firm’s history. This time it was Tupolev rather than Yakovlev who gave Sukhoi flak. “Sukhoi will never be able to manage such a vehicle,” he said, according to OKB Sukhoi: A History of the Design Bureau and Its Aircraft. “I assert this because he is my disciple.” Sukhoi parried that that was the very reason he would be able to pull it off.
Similar in appearance to the American XB-70 Valkyrie, the T-4 was created to give the Soviet Union high-speed, high-altitude bombing or reconnaissance capabilities. It was made of titanium and designed to reach speeds of Mach 3. It incorporated several features which put it well ahead of its time when it first flew in 1972. The most striking was the nose, which dropped to allow the pilot forward vision during takeoffs and landings. In cruising flight, there was no forward vision at all and the crew relied entirely on instruments (a periscope was installed in the prototype, however). The fly-by-wire control system and canards also seemed advanced. On top of all that, the plane was huge and was powered by four massive one-of-a-kind Kolesov jet engines.
Pavel Sukhoi died in 1975. After some delay, Evgenii Ivanov was designated his successor in 1977. Since the 1960s, he had handled the necessary reporting to the Communist Party, freeing Sukhoi from this administrative burden. He had also taken on more management duties as Sukhoi’s health worsened.
In 1969, Sukhoi competed with Ilyushin Yakovlev for a Ministry of Aircraft Industry contract for a new ground attack aircraft. Sukhoi’s entry, the winner, became the Su-25 and a mainstay in the Soviet military. Around the same time, Mikhail Petrovich Simonov joined the company. He had previously headed his own design bureau specializing in gliders. Simonov earned a Lenin Prize for his work on the Su-24 fighter-bomber in the 1970s. This aircraft employed a variable-sweep wing (swing-wing) inspired by the successful American F-111.
The fighter aircraft of the Vietnam War period generally had been conceived as capable of two roles: ground attack and interception. Experience proved the interception role required a specialized machine, however. The United States developed the F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle, two very fast, high-altitude aircraft that excelled at air combat. It was against this backdrop that Sukhoi began work on what would become the Su-27, one of its most successful products.
The competition for this project began in 1971 and included the Mikoyan and Yakovlev design bureaus. Sukhoi’s entry was chosen and reportedly subjected to more wind tunnel tests than any other Soviet aircraft except the Tu-144 supersonic transport.
Unfortunately, the T-10 ultimately failed to meet its design objectives, chiefly due to avionics (electronic equipment) that were much heavier than anticipated and Lyulka engines that burned more fuel than had been promised. Simonov, who had become general director in 1983, anguished with his staff for a solution. Production was canceled in order to refine the aircraft’s aerodynamics.
The new version, known as the T-10S, was a winner. The type began mass production in the late 1980s and numerous variants, including carrier-based ones, were developed. It stocked the air forces of satellite countries, as well as India, before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Syria and China later began flying the Su-27, the latter country acquiring production rights worth $2 billion.
In 1988, Viktor Pugachev piloted a stripped-down version to break several climbing records set by F-15 pilots. During further testing, the famous “Pugachev cobra” maneuver, in which the aircraft pitches nose-up but continues level flight, was developed. The only plane in the world capable of such “dynamic braking,” it proved a natural choice for the Russian Knights demonstration team.
The torch passed from the Su-27 to a derivative, the Su-35, as the most advanced Russian fighter. The plane, under production in the mid-1990s, incorporated state-of-the-art advances such as thrust-vectoring nozzles on the engines and advanced composites in the airframe.
After the Cold War
Besides heading the Sukhoi Design Bureau, Simonov has also served as Russia’s Deputy Minister of Aircraft Industry. He was called on in this capacity to develop a new acrobatic plane, as Russian stunt pilots had suffered a plague of accidents due to in-flight breakups in aircraft such as the Yak-50. Sukhoi’s resulting design, the Su-26, was made to handle the stresses of virtually any maneuver. A huge piston engine and extensive use of composite materials gave the plane superior lightness and power as well as strength. Thanks to the new aircraft, Soviet acrobatic pilots began to dominate the world championships by the late 1980s. It also proved a striking success for Soviet trade. The Pompano Air Center began distributing it in America, making the first U.S. purchase of a production aircraft from the Soviet Union. The $200,000 aircraft also proved popular in newly affluent southeast Asia, and a Singapore investor bought 31 percent of the subsidiary manufacturing these planes, Sukhoi PTS.
Simonov and his staff began working on a supersonic business jet (SSBJ) in 1988 in order to meet a perceived need among international business travelers. Gulf stream Aerospace Corporation, a well-established American producer of business jets, signed on to the project the next year. However, in spite of extensive design work on numerous possible configurations, the S-21 was grounded after Gulfstream abandoned the project in 1992.
Sukhoi also began work on a larger supersonic transport known as the S-51. The company planned to complete a prototype by 2005. Plans to develop the Su-37, a follow-up to the successful Su-27 fighter, were canceled in 1992 amid a lack of interest among domestic customers and foreign investors. Other projects in the works at the end of the century included an advanced military trainer (S-54), a utility aircraft to be powered by General Electric engines (S-80), a light plane (S-84), and a crop duster (Su-38). At this time, Sukhoi was devoting half of its attention to commercial projects.
Wing-in-ground-effect (WIG) vehicles formed a final group of advanced studies. WIG seaplanes, besides being able to take off and land in water, were designed to specifically exploit the reduced drag and increased lift found when flying just above the surface of the water.
Russia’s armament sales increased to about $3.5 billion per year in the late-1990s. Sukhoi aircraft made up a significant portion. India ordered 40 Su-30 fighters worth $1.8 billion, and Indonesia also bought a dozen. Poland planned to manufacture Su-39 aircraft, a derivative of the Su-25, to contribute towards repayment of $2 billion of Russian debt.
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—Frederick C. Ingram