Russian helicopters lift off despite tough market conditions

While Russia’s automakers struggle to keep assembly lines running, its helicopters are high in demand. Production is growing 60% a year. But it’s hit slight a patch of turbulence with the global crisis.

There’s plenty to boast about for representatives of almost 150 companies attending the HeliRussia exhibition. They come from a dozen countries, to showcase everything from light choppers for air taxis to heavy-bodied rescue machines.

The Russian Helicopters holding, which unites the national sector, says orders are coming in by the minute. In 2008 the company built 169 machines, 59% more than the year before, and this year, production is to grow another 74%.

But Andrey Shibitov, CEO of Russian Helicopters, says the credit crunch is slowing growth.

“Right now we have around 4% of the global market. By the end of this year we’re aiming at around 6%. But with the financial crisis, it’s hard to borrow at high rates. However we are expecting government support, 30 billion roubles for 2 years.”

Russia used to export almost 90% of its choppers, but over the past 3 years, that’s descended to 60%. More orders are coming from the oil and gas sector, where helicopters are needed to service refineries.

Eurocopter, the world’s leading chopper maker, says 70% of its orders in Russia are for private use. The financial crisis has affected demand, the company says, but the bad credit market is not a problem, according to Eurocopter Vostok CEO, Jerome Noulens.

“We have implemented a system of leasing of helicopters. I was quite surprised and pleased to see how fast we could solve this issue. So finding credit for Russia was not a major issue for us.”

Rosoboronexport, the federal military hardware exporter, says it’s pleased with the current market. Clients have become modest with order volumes, but Sergey Kornev says the number of orders is rising.

“The life-span of choppers purchased in Soviet times is coming to an end, so our clients are purchasing new ones. You should see our world map of ongoing and planned orders, it’s covered in pins from East to West.”

When a KA-52 Alligator was landing ahead of the HeliRussia exhibition, traffic on a nearby highway was paralyzed as drivers gaped in awe. It’s flying beasts like these which have made Russian-made helicopters world-famous, and the industry one of the most successful in Russian machine building, able to withstand the turbulence of this crisis.