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August 31, 2017

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The driving force behind China’s C919 jet

OLIVIER Dubroeucq reads Chinese classical literature to better understand Chinese culture, settle himself and find inner calm. And most of the time, he is occupied by “big causes” such as powering a jumbo jet to take off.

The Frenchman has a lot to be excited about — not least the global debut of the LEAP-1C engine, which recently powered the maiden flight of China’s first homemade large passenger aircraft, the C919.

“I’m very excited and very proud! Proud of Safran being a partner of COMAC. Proud of my teammates and proud of myself. I feel very honored to grow with Chinese aviation industry and take off together,” says Dubroeucq, executive vice president of the COMAC & AVIC program of Safran.

COMAC is the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, maker of the C919. Safran is a leading aero engine and equipment manufacturer, which makes the LEAP-1C engines and nacelle for the aircraft, through CFM International, a 50/50 joint company between Safran Aircraft Engines and GE.

“You can see a new giant of the global aviation industry. China is moving forward with major steps such as the successful maiden flight of the C919,” says Dubroeucq.

The maiden flight on May 5 was a crucial test of both the C919 aircraft as a whole and its propulsion system.

Dubroeucq and his team were invited to witness the event at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport.

“China demonstrated its independent pursuit of mastering key technologies in large passenger aircraft. It has also created valuable opportunities in global aviation,” says Dubroeucq.

More than 200 enterprises in 22 provinces and cities in China took part in research and development of the C919. And 16 leading international aviation companies were selected as airborne system suppliers, with 16 joint ventures set up.

The “LEAP engine family” integrates cutting-edge technologies of Safran subsidiaries and global giant GE. It includes the LEAP-1A adopted by the Airbus A320neo, the LEAP-1B on the Boeing 737MAX, and the LEAP-1C used by COMAC.

The three have similarities in performance and components, but the main difference lies in electrical and mechanical interfaces and the engine’s appearance, which is adapted to the aircraft design.

“The LEAP-1C has excellent environmental performance, with significant reductions in energy consumption, gas emissions and noise, making the C919 competitive with its peer models,” he says.

Spring 2017 will be remembered as the time China finally realized the development of a homegrown large passenger aircraft, reflecting its determination to master the key technologies matching the status of a developing power.

For Dubroeucq, it was a great honor to start to work with China in 2014, directly participating in the development of the C919 as integrated propulsion system program director.

“I like doing intricate and difficult things. The more difficult, the more my potential is stimulated,” he says.

“If providing engines for a type of newly developed aircraft was one such thing, another one is learning Chinese.”

He takes out of a copy of The Great Learning, a Confucian classic on governance, and chants word by word. The Chinese classics “enlighten and calm” him during tight business schedules and trips.

“The Chinese characters are so complicated and difficult, similar to an aero-engine. The more you achieve, the happier and prouder you feel,” he says.

The C919 project has taken nine years, but it has helped trigger acceleration of the global aviation industry.

The LEAP-1C engine and nacelle, for example, are an innovative design that is lighter and easier to maintain than current propulsion systems.

“The innovation also lies in the adoption of the integrated propulsion system which includes the engine, nacelle and all relative modules,” says Dubroeucq.

The C919’s maiden flight also marked the launch of an O-type ducted thrust reverser designed by Safran Nacelles. The reverser can reduce the aircraft’s weight, improve the efficiency of thrust reverser and facilitate the maintenance.

Dubroeucq says the Safran team is now eyeing a more challenging and larger aircraft that will be jointly developed by China and Russia.

“Competitive design and technologies are just the beginning. The major challenge stays to win market trust from safe, reliable, and efficient operation,” he says.

He says that if the C919 is to compete with Airbus and Boeing, it must be on the same level of technology. “That’s exactly what COMAC did by choosing the LEAP Engine. They are on the right track.”

To his understanding, the C919 is facing major challenges: the time for its market launch, its operational performance and reliability, as well as brand image building oriented to customers.

“Time will give trust and reliability. Safran gained a global reputation in one century, and we would like to share our experience with China,” he says.

China is the world’s second largest aviation market and growing fast, and Safran is willing to strengthen cooperation with China’s aviation industry through joint ventures and production subcontracting with the major Chinese aviation industry partners.

“We are not working in short term in China. The market is here and we are right here. All we have done is to pave the way to share the future,” he says.


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