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SP-91 History

Technoavia SP-91

Nobody said that Capitalism was easy. When the Soviet Union voted itself out of existence in December 1991, the effect was to accelerate and deregulate the measured transfer to a mixed economy initiated some years earlier by President Mikhail Gorbachev. In all branches of industry, those with enterprise and ideas were able to establish their own businesses, with not too many people around to question exactly whose ideas they were exploiting.

            Nowhere was this truer than in the aerospace manufacturing. The old, Communist system had state-owned design bureaux, mostly based in Moscow, producing new aircraft in their offices, while a specialist team attached to the design office hand-built the prototypes and test-flew them at Zhukovsky and other locations close to the capital. Once the aircraft was approved for service, all plans and blueprints would be handed to an entirely separate state factory – perhaps thousands of miles away in Siberia -- for manufacture.

            With military contracts tailing off, designers looked elsewhere for work, the trend becoming more marked when factories pocketed all the funds from aircraft sales and gave nothing in royalties to those who had made the design possible. Some design teams broke up, the prominent members setting up their own companies to sell aircraft directly. But whose aircraft was it?

            Having been framed by a previously all-powerful State, Russian law had little to say about individual intellectual rights – and thus came into being more than one set of identical aircraft, each with different names and manufacturers, being sold simultaneously in a slightly bewildered marketplace.

            In the late 1980s, a group of designers from the famed Sukhoi bureau decided to work on their own project for an aerobatic lightplane. Not unnaturally, the machine they produced strongly resembled the Su-26/Su-29/Su-31 family which had taken the aerobatic competition world by storm some years earlier.

            The prototype of this Interavia I-3 was shown at the 1993 Moscow Aerospace Salon, its designation indicating chief designer Sergey Esoyan. Meanwhile, production had begun at Tushino, in Moscow's north-western suburbs, to an order for 50, the constructor being Tushinsky Mashinostroitelnyi Zavod (TMZ). This healthy launch contract had but one drawback: The aircraft were destined for the breakaway province of Chechnya: The Russian government embargoed the deal and TMZ did not get paid for its work.

            Enter Vyetcheslav Kondratiev, another of the design team, who had formed the Technoavia company at nearby Tushino airfield and was building another Interavia design, the I-5 STOL seven-seater, as the SM-92 Finist, at Smolensk. 'Slava', as he is known, began marketing the embargoed aircraft to more acceptable customers under the designation SP-91.

            Four went to US owners in the mid-1990s, and a fifth was retained as a demonstrator before being transferred to the Skydance Aero Team in Germany. Strangely, in 2000, a sixth, designated SP-91L, appeared from an unknown source and is used by the Yak Team, also in Germany.

            Slava had planned further improvements of the SP-91 under the designation SP-95, although this never came into being. That did not prevent one of the US aircraft being registered as such with the FAA and another owner referring to his machine by the same designation in promotional literature. The first 'SP-95' had the top foot trimmed from its distinctively pointed fin (a fashion which has spread to others) although that was not to have been one of the changes embodied in the real SP-95s.

            Meanwhile, Esoyan was selling aircraft from the same TMZ production line as I-3s. There is, unfortunately, no one accepted method of transliterating from the Cyrillic alphabet, with the consequence that six of them were registered with the FAA as E-3s and only two as I-3s. While this was going on, the stock of uncompleted aircraft was transferred from TMZ to the Radonezh plant at Repikhovo, North-east of Moscow city, from where the total of flying I-3/SP-91s was increased to a reported total of 23 by 2004, the last of them for an owner in South Africa.

            Only 11 of the 23 have been positively identified – and two of these have the same manufacturer's serial number (MSN)! The two German-based aircraft retain their Russian registrations, as does an I-3 now based at Teuge, Belgium. The others must be presumed based in Russia and it would be interesting to hear from their owners.

            MSNs follow the usual Soviet style of batch numbers, in this instance with 10 in a batch. The first aircraft would have been 0101 (batch 1, number 1), progressing to 0110, following which the next machine off the line would have been 0201. No batch 1 aircraft have been identified in the production run presumably incorporating both I-3s and SP-91s, the highest known being 0306 (the 2004 South African I-3) which should be No. 26 from total production. Three others have curious MSNs which appear to derive from reading the wrong numbers from the manufacturer's plate.

            A further production line move came in 2004 when manufacture of a modified version, the I-3M, was launched at Lukhovitsy, south of Moscow. This is the main plant of Rossiyskaya Samoletostroitel'naya Korporatsiya 'MiG' – thankfully abbreviated to RSK 'MiG' – the source of all single-seat MiG-29 'Fulcrums', amongst other illustrious fighters. The Lukhovitsy Aviation Production-Testing Complex (Lukhovitsy Aviatsionnyi Proizvodstvennyi-Ispatelnnyi Kompleks) has compensated for the paucity of military orders since 1991 with manufacture of light aircraft such as the Ilyushin Il-103, Aeroprogress T-101 Grach, Interavia I-1, Sukhoi Su-29 and Su-31, so the I-3M was a logical extension of its portfolio.

            Further illustrating the opening remarks on Russian aircraft diversity, the I-1 (also known as I-1L because of its Lycoming engine) has also been marketed by RSK 'MiG's predecessor as the MAPO SL-39 with LOM M332 engine and in Bulgaria as the Aviotechnika SL-90 Leshii (three-cylinder M-3 engine), the last-mentioned company 49 per cent owned by Interavia and the Lukhovitsy plant. As for the I-5, in addition to becoming the SM-92 Finist, it has materialised in Slovakia as Aerotech SMG-92 Turbo-Finist (Walter M601 turboprop), also being separately offered by the Smolensk factory in this guise; in the Czech Republic as Zlin Z400 Rhino (Orenda Diesel engine); and is now being marketed from Switzerland in stretched, turboprop form as the Intracom DS-112. Further twists to this intricate tale emerged when the Smolensk plant and its Technoavia marketing partners switched horses and put the aerobatic (and very similar) Yak-55 back into production to replace the SP-91.

            Little wonder that confusion reigns regarding many Russian light aircraft designations. Is that snarling, aerobatic beast an I-3; or an SP-91; perhaps an E-3; or even an 'SP-95'? Only one thing is certain: it is NOT a Sukhoi.