Joint ventures the talk of U.K. air show

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

International collaboration was the talk of the Farnborough International Airshow this year, as Western manufacturers looked toward development of the aircraft and engines of the future. The Soviet Antonov AN-124 freighter towered over the aircraft on the runway at the biennial gathering of the world aerospace industry last week, demonstrating the Soviet Union's technical ability to develop large aircraft and engines entirely within the resources of its own aerospace industry.

But the shadow on the runway was not matched by a Soviet commercial presence, nor by the flexibility and realism needed to operate in the competitive world marketplace.

Increasingly, even the United States aerospace giants -- Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, Lockheed, Pratt & Whitney, and General Electric -- are seeking European or Asian partners to spread the cost and improve the marketability of their next generation of airframes and engines.

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This practice is already well established in Europe.

The successful Airbus Industrie consortium of French, British, and West German civil aircraft producers now takes 30 percent of the noncommunist world market with its A-300 and A-310 aircraft. The Tornado multirole combat aircraft has been developed and deployed by the Panavia consortium of British, West German, and Italian aerospace companies. (Last year Tornado secured a major export order from Saudi Arabia.)

Several international collaborations now under way or under discussion came to light at Farnborough:

McDonnell Douglas and Airbus Industrie are talking about development of a competitor to the Boeing 747. But they'll have to sort out some competition between themselves before they take on the US giant.

Airbus plans to build two new long-range designs, the A-330 and the A-340, while McDonnell Douglas wants to develop a successor to its DC-10 -- the MD-11 -- which would compete directly with the A-340. The Airbus project will require up-front costs of some $2 billion, and McDonnell Douglas could benefit from Airbus technology in wing design in developing the MD-11.

The Americans would like to join the consortium to support the A-330 in return for Airbus's abandoning the A-340. But the aggressive French-led consortium intends no such thing and has suggested that McDonnell Douglas join the consortium for both aircraft and drop its MD-11.

Mighty Boeing itself is looking for collaboration in its latest civil airliner project, the 7J7, aimed at the 150-seater aircraft market. Boeing plans only 51 percent participation in the aircraft, with a Japanese partner taking 25 percent and other potential associates picking up the balance.

Shorts of Belfast (Northern Ireland) and de Havilland Aircraft Company (a division of Boeing of Canada) announced an agreement to collaborate on future developments for the short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft market.

The three major Western airplane engine manufacturers have been forced into collaboration as engine development costs escalate.

Development costs of the RB-211 engine for wide-bodied jets forced Rolls-Royce into bankruptcy and British government ownership in the early 1970s. Now General Electric (US) and Rolls-Royce (United Kingdom) have an agreement that gives each a share in the other's workload on the big wide-fan engines. Pratt & Whitney (US) and Rolls-Royce each have a 30 percent stake in a consortium to develop the V-2500 engine for the next generation of 150-seater airliners.

Rolls-Royce -- about to emerge from state ownership next year -- announced a range of new engines at Farnborough to give it full market coverage and declared its intention to develop them through collaborative projects.

In military aircraft, the next generation of European fighter will involve Britain, West Germany, Italy, and Spain in a common specification Eurofighter. Participation by the French is also a possibility, although they may choose to go it alone as they have in the past with their own specifications and technology.

Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce signed a collaborative agreement to develop a supersonic engine for the next generation of vertical-takeoff fighters. These will succeed the British Harrier and the AV8B aircraft developed jointly by British Aerospace and McDonnell Douglas for the US Marine Corps.

Three US-British consortia have sprung up to offer alternatives to the troubled British Nimrod airborne early-warning system. Boeing is the clear front-runner, with its AWACS system already in service, and has assembled a consortium including three British electronics manufacturers to improve its political acceptability in Britain. Lockheed's consortium offers its P-3 Orion Maritime Patrol Aircraft.

The arrival of the Antonov showed that the Russians had finally produced a big fan engine equivalent to those designed in the West in the early 1970s. Why the Soviet airplane engine industry took so long to produce such an engine remains a mystery.

Given changing attitudes in the Soviet leadership, some aircraft analysts are asking: How long will it be before the famous Antonov, Ilyushin, and Tupolev aircraft-design institutes make overtures toward European manufacturers and begin to use words like ``consortium,'' ``joint venture,'' and ``collaborative project''?

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