A complicated history of Russian general aviation
On a mild and sunny day in October, the quiet weekend atmosphere of Schekino gliderport was disturbed by three jet gliders. Unlike gliders with plenty of modern motor solutions nowadays, the Russian example has a unique feature. The empty weight of a glider is less than 115 kg, making it significantly lighter than its counterparts. This technical solution has close ties with condition of general aviation in Russia and gliding in particular, making it an even more interesting subject with quite a unique and complex history.
After Igor Sikorsky, the renowned aircraft designer who held and influenced the stage of aviation for years, immigrated to the United States, the next generation of aircraft engineers started their experiments with gliders in Crimea. Sergey Korolev built wood gliders 30 years before the seminal flight of Yuriy Gagarin around the Earth. After World War II, the slogan, “From modeling to glider, from glider to aircraft” became dominant for a couple decades. As a result, in the late USSR even young, 18-year-old enthusiasts had an opportunity to fly a MiG-17 or Aero L-39.
On the other hand, a failure of the strict medical examination broke the dream to fly for a lot of young men. Hang gliders provided a solution, partially due to the so-called movement of DIY aviators (samodelschiki) which arose in 1980s and enabled self-taught engineers to acquire technical skills. An ultralight trike had a relatively simple way to put an engine into a hang glider. And, perhaps more importantly, it created an atmosphere of freedom from the state and ground infrastructure. Self-made helicopters and experimental STOL aircraft, as well as gyros and trikes, were developed during that time. Actually, the famous Aeropract enterprise of Yuriy Yakovlev has the same origins. “Russia is a country of ultralight trikes,” said the president of AOPA last year. Evidently this tendency is still here.
The 1990s didn’t change that system in a significant way. The legislative grounding remained the same as it operated in the late USSR. Two public federations with different focuses on light and ultralight aviation played a major role in educational issues, airworthiness approval, registration, sporting events, and aviation works. These federations were organized in 1987-1988 under conditions of military, state-owned aviation. In other words, they had an opportunity to create the operational framework by their own needs and desires. During that decade, a self-organizing approach worked quite well.
A step towards implementation of ICAO standards was made after reform of airspace in 2010. That time is still remembered as an explosion of general aviation in Russia. However a slight roll into the legislative framework of civil aviation started in early 2000s, when the first aviation schools were established. Nowadays there are just eleven private aviation learning centers in the Russian Federation, while nine of them are located within 150 kilometers of Moscow. Moreover, it is simply impossible to get the pilot license for gliders, ultralight trikes, seaplanes, multi-engine, and tailwheel aircraft.
Another example is that almost all imported Cessnas and Pipers have a registration procedure as well as airworthiness validation under a single prototype condition, due to bureaucratic problems of acceptance for the foreign type certificate. According to official statistics, 67% of all aircraft are single prototypes in 2018. Given all of the above, the price of ownership is getting higher year by year due to the increase of bureaucratic burden.
As a result, lots of people deregister their aircraft and simply ignore official requirements on airworthiness validation procedures and avoid flight plan submissions. Conventional naming for such type of behaviour is “guerrilla” aviation (partizanschina). This does not go unnoticed by the police or other legal bodies and public prosecution has also increased in recent years.
In that way, lots of experienced aviators in Russia highlight a reversal trajectory of their own history. They started from a garage and nowadays they paradoxically moved back to where it all started. It has become a common practice to build, maintain and fly aircraft by yourself. The pressure of bureaucratic burden influences negatively on the ability and desire of people to fly. On the other hand, some of them try to find an exit from that dead-end situation.
Two Russian engineers with outstanding skills in aviation focused on the idea to put a turbojet engine on a less-than-115-kg glider almost a year ago. After a series of consultations, the AS-4-115 glider was chosen for further improvement. This model from the Russian Aviastrotel company was developed in early 1980 during the world class glider competition. Recently, they have changed materials to carbon fiber and reduced the empty weight to 104 kg. Two RC Turbine engines add 9 kg. A series of flight tests have been completed and that model has some orders already.
So the turbojet glider actually moves the dream back for 35,000 euros. The jet glider perfectly matches a complicated history of Russian general aviation in its search for freedom from state control. Sailplanes have always played an important role in aviation history of Russia. Perhaps a demonstration flight of three jet gliders in Schekino will have a historical meaning. We actually hope so.