Caixin
May 31, 2017 05:50 AM
BUSINESS & TECH

Passenger Jet Milestone Leaves China With Uncertain Flight Path Ahead

(Beijing) — On the afternoon of May 5, nearly 150 flights at Shanghai Pudong International Airport were delayed to make way for an historic landing.

The vehicle they were making way for was the C919, China’s first self-developed passenger jet, designed by the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China, Ltd. (COMAC).

The C919 is the first large civil aircraft designed and constructed by China, and aims to take on dominant foreign industry-leaders such as Boeing’s 737 and Airbus’ 320 – which are among the most-used commercial craft around the world – for a slice of the global aviation market.

The narrow-body twinjet airliner has a capacity of 158 to 168 seats, and a standard flight range of up to 5,555 kilometers, according to COMAC.

A jetliner is a jewel in the crown of a modern industrial nation, and the successful maiden flight showed that China’s aviation industry has succeeded in overcoming numerous technical barriers and is building sophisticated technology in line with international standards, laying a foundation to develop various types of jetliners in the future.

Despite China’s continued reliance on imports for key parts of the C919 – including the engine, landing gear, and systems for communication, navigation, and data-recording – it has managed to craft the overall design and integration on its own.

In essence, because of the degree of technical expertise China has attained in developing this aircraft, it is now in a select group of nations that are capable of developing large airliners.

“There are thousands of ports and slots on the aircraft’s body – hardware for connecting numerous flight-control systems such as hydraulics and avionics,” said Wu Guanghui, chief designer of the C919.

“Our job is not to simply put all these parts together. Connecting all these important systems hinges on sound overall design, which is the key intellectual property of COMAC.”

Self-Developed Control Law

The C919 adopted a fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system, which allows pilots to use computers to manipulate flight. This offers numerous design advantages, including reduced weight and higher safety levels.

The FBW system is governed by sophisticated computational algorithms – known as control laws – which assign flight modes to the aircraft to cope with different situations in the air. Control law has been a key technology for foreign aircraft manufacturers, and its export has been limited by technology-transfer regulations.

Mastering this technology was a crucial hurdle for the COMAC team.

“If the FBW flight-control system is the brain, control law is the mind governing it,” said Wang Lei, director of control law design at COMAC.

A person at COMAC with knowledge of the project told Caixin that the company had been in talks with foreign suppliers to purchase a suitable control law system, but finally decided to attempt to produce it domestically due to an exorbitant 1 billion yuan ($145 million) price-tag quoted by suppliers as well as the significance of the technology.

Each aircraft needs unique control law to power FBW systems, because each plane’s layout, structure and shape are different, said Xu Jun, an aviation and space specialist at the China research center for Honeywell International, a U.S.-based technology and manufacturing company.

Honeywell’s China branch produced an integrated FBW system for the C919, optimized based on technologies used on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. A team at COMAC was tasked with designing the algorithms.

This is China’s domestic civil aviation industry’s first foray into independent control law design. Such an endeavor requires complex technical considerations in aeronautics, including aerodynamics, flight-control reaction, and structural flexibility, Wang Lei, director of control law design at COMAC, told Caixin.

Designers must verify viability of control law through wind tunnels and other complex aerodynamic testing, collecting data to improve performance.

“We have had to build things from scratch, and in the beginning, we didn’t have many references or experts for advice,” Wang said.

The team, consisting of 30 members with an average age under 30, solved this technical obstacle in fewer than five years.

System Integration Testing

System integration testing allows aircraft makers to verify the smooth coexistence of multiple subsystems within a larger system – in a bid to discover problems before early flights.

COMAC created a so-called “three-bird integrated test system,” which integrates its “iron bird” test for flight control and hydraulic systems, “copper bird” for power system, and “electric bird” for avionic systems.

In June, a C919 prototype passed the entire three-bird test, indicating that its complex array of components performed perfectly.

Long Way to Commercialization

Though its maiden flight went smoothly, the C919 faces a long road ahead before it will compete in the foreign aviation market.

Wu Xingshi, member of the C919 expert consultancy team, said the craft will undergo a number of additional flight tests leading to airworthiness certification, a passport to enter the international civil market.

COMAC said it will not outline mass production plans until it receives an airworthiness certificate from the General Administration of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).

A more difficult task is getting such certificates from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), which are widely accepted standards to enter the international market.

COMAC’s smaller regional jet, the ARJ21, which began commercial service in June without U.S. certification, received overseas orders from only a couple of Asian and African countries with closer ties to China.

The Republic of Congo was the first foreign country to award a certificate to the ARJ2, in December, according to China Aviation Daily.

COMAC said it plans to produce 20 C919s per year in the early stages after the go-ahead from CAAC, and will increase production ability to 50 units soon after. By the end of 2020, it will have the capacity to manufacture 150 C919s and 50 ARJ21s each year.

CAAC will encourage domestic airlines to use the C919, it said in a statement on its website. So far this has resulted in 570 orders from 23 customers, mainly Chinese domestic airlines, including Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Sichuan Airlines, Hebei Airlines and Joy Air, each ordering 20 aircraft.

City Airways, a Thai airline founded in 2011, booked seven C919. Leasing firm GE Capital Aviation Services also represented another foreign buyer, whose parent General Electric co-built the plane's engine with France's Safran, according to Reuters.

“We understand people are eager to bear witness to the real commercialization of a home-grown Chinese aircraft,” said Fu Guohua, deputy chief designer of the C919, when asked whether the aircraft can break the civil aviation duopoloy dominated by Boeing and Airbus.

However, Fu pointed out that it’s difficult to set an exact timeframe for the aircraft’s commercialization due to uncertainties ahead. “From the experience, we need at least two to three years to enter the market.”

There are 2,933 aircraft currently in the service of domestic airlines, among which 2,493 are single-aisle passenger jets.

Commercial aviation has enormous market potential over the coming 20 years, as average incomes here are producing a robust middle-class. According to Boeing, China will need 6,810 aircraft in its domestic market over the next 20 years, creating a market valued above $1 trillion.

“Breaking into the market with a perfect flight-safety record, finding our foothold and forging ahead with superior customer service – these will not be easy and will need time,” Wu said.

Contact reporter Pan Che (chepan@caixin.com)


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