U.S., Soviet aircraft makers may join to build supersonic business jet

June 15, 1991|By Dave Higdon | Dave Higdon,Knight-Ridder News Service

PARIS -- A U.S. company and the Soviet Union's top builder of fighter jets used the opening day of the 39th Paris Air Show to push for international cooperation -- particularly their joint effort to develop a new supersonic business jet.

Gulfstream Aerospace Corp. and the Soviet Union's Sukhoi Design Bureau are showing off a model of the Gulfstream-Sukhoi S-21G, proposed as the world's first supersonic business jet, at the Soviet National Pavilion during the air show here.

The two builders hope their supersonic jet, if they decide to manufacture it, will lure high-end buyers away from such competitors as Cessna's new Citation X and Learjet's new Model 60.

A model of the Gulfstream G-IV business jet is in the Soviet pavilion here, the first time a U.S. company's product has been zTC highlighted in the Soviet pavilion of an international show.

"This cooperation should show American companies to not be afraid to ask for anything," Mikhail Simonov, chief designer for Sukhoi, said Thursday.

Mr. Simonov and Gulfstream Chairman Allen Paulson began collaborating on the supersonic S-21G two years ago at the last Paris Air Show.

"I also thought Gulfstream could do better in a cooperation with Sukhoi than they could with a General Dynamics, which is predominantly a military manufacturer," Mr. Simonov said in an interview.

Sukhoi has vast experience in supersonic aircraft, primarily for military use, Mr. Simonov noted. But Sukhoi is anxious to expand its non-military ventures.

In the past two years, the S-21G design has evolved from a concept drawing of an aircraft with three engines to a twin-engine proof-of-concept model undergoing tests in Sukhoi's highly secret, supersonic wind tunnel outside Moscow.

The partnership operates under a memorandum of understanding. Sukhoi is designing the airframe and validating the concept. Gulfstream is working on avionics, engines, electronic gear and environmental systems. Gulfstream would market the airplane. Each company pays its own expenses. If the airplane sells, Sukhoi and Gulfstream will split the profits.

Even the work on engines to power the S-21G is a partnership. England's Rolls-Royce and the Soviet Union's Llulka Design Bureau areworking together on the project.

"Sukhoi has the expertise and equipment to do the design work, which we lack," said Mr. Paulson. "And they have been open about everything involved in the project."

Mr. Paulson speculated that the Soviets want the partnership for two reasons: Sales of the plane would generate hard currency, and the joint effort gives the Soviets an entry into U.S. high technology, such as electronic flight instruments and lightweight components.

Privately, Soviet officials who asked not to be named said the partnership with Gulfstream will help move the country's economy more firmly toward a free-market system.

Despite the Gulfstream-Sukhoi cooperation, there's still some skepticism over whether the S-21G will ever be built.

"It's difficult to imagine them solving problems like the sonic boom, manufacturing costs using exotic metals such as the aluminum-titanium alloys they are talking about, and the purchase costs of the airplane," one industry consultant said.

But Mr. Paulson stressed that even with its $45 million price tag, the S-21G can find a market.

It may be another year before the partners make a firm decision to go ahead with the plane. Despite their cooperation, Sukhoi and Gulfstream exhibit different cultural attitudes regarding how to proceed.

Sukhoi would start tomorrow if it were in the project alone. Mr. Paulson wants to wait until more details are firm -- another five or six months.

"Once the details are set, we'll perform a market study," he said. "If we find a market for at least 100 airplanes, then we go."

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