The recent selection of CFM International’s LEAP-X1C engine to power the 150- to 190-seat C919 airliner family being developed by Commercial Aircraft of Corp. of China (Comac) marks the start of one of the most significant aerospace collaborations between China and the West. It is also represents a major boost in credibility for the program and must remove any doubt by Airbus and Boeing that the Chinese do not intend to wait for them to decide about future narrowbody airliner developments beyond the A320 and 737 families.
Comac has opted to take the first available version of the new LEAP-X engine with the aim of certifying it by the end of 2014 and getting the C919 into commercial service in 2016. The -1C will incorporate the LEAP-X technology that CFM can make available in that time frame, with further technology to be developed in later versions of LEAP-X that are expected to be ready for certification around 2016-17.
CFM partners Safran of France and General Electric of the U.S. won Comac’s business in competition with Pratt & Whitney, with the deal having been announced just in December. Together they are to develop a version of the LEAP-X powerplant platform that will deliver 30,000 pounds of thrust from each of the C919’s two engines, giving a range of up to 2,500 nm.
LEAP-X might someday replace the ubiquitous CFM56 family of turbofans, of which some 1,800 are currently flying in China powering about half of the country’s commercial fleet. Airbus and Boeing are known to be considering LEAP-X as one engine option to power their envisioned replacements for the A320 and 737.
The C919’s powerplant will also feature nacelles and thrust reversers developed by Nexcelle–a joint venture between Safran’s Aircelle and GE’s Middle River Aircraft Systems, which was formed in September 2009. According to Safran group vice president Marc Ventre, the agreement with Comac covers larger or smaller versions of the C919 for a possible future family of aircraft. “Safran’s strategy is to develop technologies and mature them. This was seen in our TECH56 and LEAP56 programs that preceded LEAP-X,” he explained to AIN. “We decided it was time to announce a new engine called LEAP-X, which includes LEAP56 technologies, provides 16 percent lower CO2 emissions compared to the latest CFM56 and would be available for certification in 2016-17.” The first engine ground test of the -1C version is due to take place in early 2013 with flight-testing and certification to follow in 2014.
For its part, Comac is confident that the C919 program is commercially viable. It claims to have preliminary commitments from airlines, with the first firm orders expected from Chinese carriers sometime this year. According to Ventre, Safran’s assessment for marketing this type of aircraft found that world demand in the next 20 years is for 20,000 engines, with China accounting for 25 percent of the market. “So the Chinese market has great potential for us,” he concluded.
To some the C919 program appears to be receiving more attention from the Chinese aerospace hierarchy than the 78- to 90-seat ARJ21 regional jet, which is to be powered by GE’s CF34 engine, but Ventre insisted there is no contest between the two.
The C919 has the Chinese government’s full backing and the commercial aircraft does not appear to conflict with development of the regional 78- to 90-passenger twin-engine ARJ21-700 program, he said. “The Chinese government and aerospace industry have not switched its attention from the ARJ to the C919, the largest commercial airliner ever produced in China,” he told AIN. “They are committed to both aircraft, which they see as complementary. Comac has the full support of a government that sees aerospace as a national priority and [the program] is overseen by a deputy prime minister.”
The integration of the C919 engine with the airframe is to take place close to Comac locations in China.
It has not yet been decided whether this will happen in Safran subsidiary facilities.
Ventre does not anticipate that the C919 program will encounter the same kind of delays experienced in its joint development with Saturn of the SaM 146 engine for Russia’s new Superjet. He acknowledged that “financial difficulties” have meant delays in investment in engine supplies needed to meet certification targets for the SaM 146. However, he insisted that these problems have been resolved and that efforts are being made to catch up and complete engine certification in May or June of this year.
“There is absolutely no comparison [between the SaM 146 and LEAP-X1C] because, on the Russian side, the engine is being produced in partnership with a Russian manufacturer, and on the Chinese side, engines are being produced in the CFM joint venture, which has 30 years experience in the field,” said Ventre. “We are doing a job for the Chinese airframers but the engine is being designed and developed by CFM. For Russia, the engine is a joint venture with a partner that had no experience in design, development and certification under Western requirements.
In short, apart from some components manufactured in China we are producing an engine for China, not in China, while for Russia part of the engine is produced there.”
Furthermore, added Ventre, Safran and GE have no concerns about patent infringements, despite widely reported breaches of intellectual property rules in other Chinese industries. “Safran manufactures CFM56 components in several industrial facilities and in joint ventures with AVIC in six cities in China. These include turbine discs and we have not experienced a single case of copying,” he said.
Recent airline order deferrals and cancellations have had little effect on engine output levels, Ventre told AIN. CFM expects to produce around 1,210 to 1,220 engines this year, “because airframers are maintaining production rates.” This compares with 1,250 produced in 2009.
For Safran, China is the big market in the Asia-Pacific region with about 2,500 aircraft needed in the next 20 years, representing a quarter of world market needs and to accommodate the growth, Ventre said.
Silvercrest’s Day Could Still Come
Safran remains confident it will find applications for its proposed Silvercrest engine, once the business aviation market recovers. Possible programs for the new turbofan could yet include Dassault’s planned super-midsize (SMS) business jet, since the French airframer is contemplating a need for a more powerful engine than the Rolls-Royce RB282 powerplant it originally selected.
“Several commercial projects could still involve the 9,500- to 12,000-pound Silvercrest engine but most have been delayed because of the crisis in business jets. There will be recovery, but we don’t know when it will be,” Safran group vice president Marc Ventre told AIN.
Last June, Dassault said all design choices for the SMS aircraft had been reopened, including for the powerplant. Ventre said this provides a new opportunity for Silvercrest, which would “not need considerable changes to be back in the competition for the project.” Silvercrest could be certified within three years of being selected for a new aircraft, he said, adding that he believes this breakthrough could come this year.