With a firm launch customer in hand and fourth test aircraft ready to take flight, China’s ARJ21 program appears to have found its stride just ahead of this year’s Singapore Airshow. As the show approached, the first three flying test beds, assembled by Comac subsidiary Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Co. (SAMC), had flown some 220 hours over the course of 69 flight days. Comac expects to gain Chinese certification of the 90-seat ARJ21-700 by the end of this year, around which time a new carrier called Chengdu Airlines will likely take the first production airplane, officially placing China back in the business of delivering indigenously designed and built commercial airplanes.
Government-owned Comac last year reached an agreement with Sichuan Airlines and Chengdu Investment Co. to restructure Chengdu-based Airbus A320 operator United Eagle Airlines, rename it Chengdu Airlines and place a firm order for 30 ARJ21s. The arrangement increases the airline’s capital base from 300 million yuan ($44 million) to 680 million yuan ($100 million) and gives Comac a 48-percent share, while Sichuan Airlines and Chengdu Investment Co. retain, respectively, 40.97 percent and 11.03 percent of the reorganized entity.
Meanwhile, the ARJ21’s highest-profile Western supplier–engine maker General Electric–has performed some 750 hours of ground testing of the airplane’s 16,000-pound-thrust CF34-10A turbofans at its Peebles, Ohio test facility. The U.S. company, whose Middle River Aircraft Systems division also supplies the thrust reversers and nacelles–has built 10 flight test engines and three development examples, and has shipped the complete propulsion systems for the fourth flight test aircraft, scheduled to fly just ahead of the opening of the Singapore show.
With ground testing essentially finished, GE has since turned its attention to serial production at its final assembly site in Durham, North Carolina, where the company has the capacity to build as many as 60 CF34-10As per year–enough to satisfy a projected demand for between 500 and 700 ARJ21s over the next 20 years.
GE might never get the chance to build that many CF34-10As if negotiations now under way with Shenyang Liming Aero Engine Group result in a co-production agreement, however. CF34 program manager Chuck Nugent told AIN said that talks have centered on granting Liming responsibility for “some of the assembly activities and final testing,” possibly within five years.
“I would think so, depending on how the plans come together and the demonstrated capability of the facility,” said Nugent, when pressed for a time frame. Asked whether the plans call for all production to eventually go to Liming, Nugent hedged somewhat. “Again, we haven’t decided on the final plans,” he said. “We’re working on what it takes to get them [prepared] to go do that.”
Whatever its eventual scope, such an arrangement would follow with GE’s stated philosophy to serve as much as a partner to the Chinese as a supplier of powerplants.
“We want to be a big partner in the growth of the aviation industry in China, and to do that we want to be perceived as a very helpful partner,” said Nugent. “Beyond just the engine program we made a commitment to spending time with the Chinese and the Comac team on items such as training and best-practice sharing and those kinds of elements–one, to help the program be successful and, two, to recognize the value that GE can bring beyond just bringing a propulsion system.”
That kind of commitment to a non-Western OEM invariably comes with challenges, however– mainly logistical and linguistic. Happily for the CF34 team, GE’s Global Research Center in Shanghai has served as something of a communication and technology conduit between Cincinnati and the ARJ21 industrial complex in China. “That’s helped create a strong pipeline of technical and program management expertise, and using some of that pipeline we’ve built a pretty strong on-site team,” said Nugent.
GE employs more than 20 Chinese engineers and mechanics dedicated to the ARJ21, he said. “That’s not atypical for a program like this, but the fact that we’ve developed a pretty capable Chinese national team has solved the communication challenges as well. They’re bilingual; they can communicate very well with our customer, and then we still provide all the technical and program management direction from here [in Cincinnati].”
Although he wouldn’t provide a specific figure, Nugent said GE has spent “several hundred million dollars” on the program, despite the fact that the CF34-10A design resembles, in many respects, the engine series GE developed for the Embraer E-Jets, the CF34-10E. Of course, the fact that the -10A mounts on the ARJ21’s fuselage while the -10E hangs from the E-Jets’ wings accounts for one big difference in terms of integration, but the engines themselves appear quite similar.
“As we would expect, from a turbomachinery perspective, [we’ve encountered] no surprises,” said Nugent. “The engines have performed extremely well,” meaning that during ground testing and the early stages of flight testing GE has met all fuel-burn, weight, noise and emissions standards quoted at the start of the program. “The flight test program, again from an engine perspective, is going well; we have not encountered any significant issues,” he added. “We still have quite a bit more testing to do, but all the initial indications say all the performance expectations are as good as or better than what we planned and committed to Comac.”