Russia's potent-looking Mi-28N Night Hunter attack helicopter is aggressively seeking exports, but industry officials believe the type's success or failure will most likely rest on an unlikely new variant.

The new version—Mi-28UB—was flown on Aug. 9 at Rostvertol—a key manufacturing plant within the giant Russian Helicopters conglomerate. Mi-28UB is a training version of the attack helicopter that is intended to hone the skills of student pilots who ultimately will be operating the Mi-28N, now entering service in increasing numbers with the Russian armed forces.

For Russia, the new “UB” model is going to be essential. When the Mi-28N was being developed, commanders settled on a single-stick configuration, which gives pilots the sole control over the aircraft. This was done to save weight and to ensure that the two crewmembers—pilot and gunner or operator—could fully focus on their tasks.

But the development, a radical step-change compared to Russian attack helicopter operations in the past, has resulted in a challenging training regime for Mi-28 pilots, and this has slowed training for the type. In Western attack helicopters such as the Boeing AH-64 Apache or Eurocopter EC665 Tiger, dual controls in both cockpits mean the workload can be shared. Instructors can also fly in standard unmodified aircraft and train both pilots and gunners for their specific tasks in the same aircraft. Western crews also receive high levels of synthetic training, something which Russian aircrews have yet to benefit from on a wider scale, although Rostvertol officials say synthetic training is increasing in the Russian forces.

“When we first developed the Mi-28, we expected pilots to achieve their first stage of training on the Mi-24,” says Andrey Varfolomeyev, chief engineer at Rostvertol. “But not all potential export customers have the capability to do this.”

Furthermore, it was soon recognized that this could only be a short-term solution as customers would likely replace Mi-24s with the Mi-28. In Russia, it is likely that Mi-28UBs will be used for training purposes only, but export nations are likely to put the type on the front line, as the model retains the full combat capability of its single-stick cohort.

Senior Russian commanders have reportedly said they could purchase up to 60 Mi-28UBs, but Varfolomeyev believes the introduction of the Mi-28UB will make the aircraft significantly more attractive to export customers as the type more closely matches the training regimes they know on the Mi-24 Hind and on Western types. Rostvertol is also adding more capability to the Mi-28. Eventually the type will receive a mast-mounted fire-control radar, similar in capability to that of the Longbow radar on the Apache, although Varfolomeyev says no date has been set for the system to become operational.

The launch of the new model is happening during an especially busy time for the Rostov-on-Don-based plant. Although annual production numbers are closely guarded, company officials point out that the factory has not been this busy since the late 1980s-early 1990s—the dissolution of the Soviet Union. At that time, Mi-24 Hinds and Mi-26 heavy-lift helicopters were being crafted for export customers aligned with the Soviet Bloc.

Today, the company is producing new-build Mi-35s—modernized Mi-24s—and Mi-28s and next year will begin serial production of the Mi-26T2, an updated version of the heavy-lift helicopter. The company has invested millions in new production methods, and today Rostvertol is a center of excellence in Russia for main rotor-blade construction using fiber winding to produce composite blade spars for both attack helicopter models. The plant is also competing for work as Russian Helicopters attempts to make its various plants more efficient.

Several factories now produce many of their own components such as blades and gearboxes, but Rosvertol will soon be assigned centralized production of tail rotor blades for the Mil family of helicopters, including those for the Mi-8/17 built in Kazan and Ulan-Ude.

The next major challenge facing Rostvertol will be to begin to move production away from Rostov-on-Don to a new site at an old airbase at Bataysk, 20 km (12 mi.) from its current location. Flight-test operations will be the first to transition to the new site; final assembly and component production are slated to follow at a later date. Officials hope to have completed the move by 2020.

Rostvertol Director General Boris Slyusar said the rapid growth of Rostov-on-Don has boxed in the helicopter factory and its grass airfield, which are now ringed by residential and commercial development.

“When the factory opened in 1939 it was on the edge of the city,” said Slyusar, “But there are now concerns about our flight-test activities [in residential areas]” so a move at this time makes sense.