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April 1, 2014

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Pride, persistence prevail in China aircraft program

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THE ARJ21 regional jet and the C919 single-aisle aircraft now in the late stages of development are jewels in the crown of China’s more than three-decade quest to join the ranks of nations capable of making commercial planes.

It has been a dream beset by setbacks and frustrations, but it has not been a dream abandoned.

Some debate still lingers about the merits of developing a domestic commercial aircraft industry versus just purchasing planes from major manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus. Some analysts have claimed that it would be more economical for China to purchase aircraft rather than invest billions of yuan to develop its own program.

But the country’s leaders are keen to show that China is capable of making its own commercial aircraft, especially after the high-profile success of the nation’s space exploration program. To some degree, it’s a matter of national pride and a desire to reinforce China’s emergence as a major player on every corner of the world stage.

The mystery and tragedy of Malaysia Airlines MH370 is currently focusing public attention on commercial aviation. Two accidents in February related to China’s domestically developed MA60 propeller aircraft have kept the safety issue foremost in people’s minds.

On February 4, the nose wheel on a Joyair MA60 carrying 37 passengers collapsed as the plane taxied at an airport in the central Henan Province. Two weeks later, Okay Airways same aircraft circled for more than two hours before landing after instruments indicated the landing gear had not descended over the northeastern province of Liaoning.

Though no one was injured in either incident, all China’s twin propeller aircraft were grounded for several weeks for inspections.

The nation’s domestically developed aircraft industry still provokes questions, but there is no doubt that it remains a national priority.

“To develop China’s own passenger aircraft demonstrates the national will,” former Premier Wen Jiabao said when the country’s long-distance commercial aircraft project was first approved in February 2007.

That approval came after the State Council, China’s Cabinet, had conducted a long and thorough feasibility study of the project. The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China was established in Shanghai in March 2008 to take charge of development of the C919 single-aisle passenger aircraft project.

Premier Li Keqiang has reaffirmed that China must follow its own path in developing an aircraft-making industry. He called it “the pearl in the crown” of all industries.

But the story of China’s aircraft industry really starts much earlier. In the 1970s, China embarked on its first attempt to develop its own commercial aircraft.

You can still see the aborted remains of that effort. Entering the ARJ21 assembly line at the Shanghai Aircraft Design and Research Institute, workers and engineers walk by a four-engine aircraft that was supposed to fly 20 years ago but never got off the ground commercially.

Designed in the 1970s, the Y10 was China’s first commercial jet, with 125 seats. It was flown for more than 170 hours in test flights between 1980 and 1984, but, in the end, the project was scrubbed because of economic and political factors.

Only two Y10 aircraft were ever made. The one idling in the middle of the institute has become an exhibition as well as a memorial to the problems faced in the start-up of a new industry.

The Y10 was followed by a succession of projects, including the ATFA jet jointly developed with McDonnell Douglas, the UHB jet developed with Boeing, the AE100 developed with Airbus and the domestically developed NRJ aircraft.

Though all of them eventually failed for lack of money and the breakup of partnerships, they did build a body of accumulated experience that eventually found its way to the ARJ21 and the C919 projects and the revival of China’s plane-making dream.

So far, the ARJ21 has received 252 orders from domestic and foreign airlines. The first of the regional jets, which has a seating capacity of 90, is expected to be delivered to Chengdu Airlines to fly a route in northwestern China early next year.

The C919 single-aisle jet has received 400 orders. The 150-seater, with four first-class seats in its initial configuration, will go into assembly this year. It is the largest commercial airliner designed and built in China since the Y10.

Boeing predicts that the C919 will establish a “tripod” of major aircraft manufacturers ­— with the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China joining Boeing and Airbus in the future.

China will need more than 5,580 planes for its airline industry in the next 20 years, including the C919 and jets purchased from Boeing and Airbus, Boeing has estimated. Some 70 percent of the required fleet will be single-aisle aircraft like the B737, A320 and the C919. The nation also plans to develop the bigger C929 aircraft.

It’s a long road to a dream come true. China still lags in development of its own aircraft engines, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said. The engines used to power the first group of C919 jets will be made by CFM International, a joint venture between US-based General Electric and a division of France’s Safran.

China aims to build its first assembly line for aircraft engines in the future. But it will take 10 years to develop a viable domestic engine for jumbo jets, according to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology.


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