Chinese jet gaining clout among world’s suppliers

 - March 30, 2007, 8:01 AM

It’s suddenly fashionable to look to China as an up-and-coming economic force, a trend that has drawn billions of dollars in foreign investment into an economy that only 25 years ago grudgingly began to move away from a Soviet-style, centrally planned system. In fits and starts, the autocratic leadership has gradually loosened commercial controls, but its unpredictability and protectionist trade policies meant a lot of risk to outside investors, many of whom over the years learned some costly lessons about the rather casual Chinese attitude toward contracts with outsiders.

Today, with its accession into the World Trade Organization and continuing efforts to strengthen its unevenly applied civil and commercial codes, China has seen unprecedented interest in business partnerships from outside its boundaries. So it came as little surprise when not long after Avic I Commercial Aircraft Company (ACAC) unveiled plans for the ARJ21 regional jet, a host of Western suppliers signed on, hoping to gain a foothold in the world’s fastest-growing economy, now second only to the U.S. in per-capita GDP as measured in purchasing power parity.

The ARJ21 program partners–a consortium led by government-controlled AVIC I and in which 15 separate shareholders hold an interest–have now recruited no fewer than 10 major U.S. and European aerospace components suppliers to contribute to the effort, expected to yield a completed prototype ready to fly by mid-2006. During Singapore’s Asian Aerospace exhibition in late February, ACAC vice president for procurement and supply Tao Zhihui told AIN that engineers continue to meet all program development milestones on time, and that by year-end the company will have released 90 percent of the design’s structural drawings to the various partners.

Major suppliers to the ARJ21 effort include GE Aircraft Engines, which ACAC has recruited to adapt yet another variant of its CF34 line–the 18,000-pound-thrust CF34-10A– for its rear fuselage-mounted powerplant requirement. Another U.S. company, Rockwell Collins, has agreed to supply its Pro Line 21 avionics suite, while Phoenix-based Honeywell will contribute the primary flight controls. Other suppliers include Parker Hannifin (hydraulic and fuel systems), Hamilton Sundstrand (APU and electrical power system), Kidde (fire-suppression system), Liebherr Aerospace (landing gear and environmental control system), Sagem (cockpit flight control system), Eaton (cockpit panel assemblies and lighting controls) and Goodrich (tires and brakes).

Despite its ambitions to market the airplane elsewhere in Asia, ACAC has yet to recruit a supplier from the region outside China.

Douglas Heritage

Looking conspicuously similar to a Douglas DC-9 and sporting the same 3+2 interior seating arrangement, an extended range, baseline-capacity ARJ21 would carry between 78 and 85 passengers as far as 2,000 nm at a cruise speed of Mach 0.78. A proposed stretched version, to follow in a timeframe defined by future market interest, would carry between 98 and 105 passengers as far as 1,800 nm, said Tao.
The certification program calls for roughly a year-and-a-half of flight testing with three flying prototypes and a pair of static ground-test articles.

The ARJ21 will owe much of its design heritage and appearance to a partnership formed in 1992 between McDonnell Douglas and the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC) to co-produce MD-90s in China for the domestic market. A contract revision signed in November 1994 reduced the number of Chinese-built airplanes in half, to 20, and called for the direct purchase of another 20 U.S.-built aircraft. By 1998, however, three years after the U.S. Department of Commerce found that the Chinese illegally diverted some sophisticated machine tools to military aircraft factories, only three shipsets of parts had ever arrived at the final assembly site in Shanghai. Although the Chinese shipped all the tooling back to Shanghai, it never completed an MD-90.

The four Chinese factories involved in the MD-90 program included the Shanghai Aviation Industrial Corp., Xian Aircraft Co., Chengdu Aircraft Co. and Shenyang Aircraft Co.–the very same entities now involved in the ARJ21. As in the case of the MD-90, the Shanghai facility has taken responsibility for the horizontal stabilizer and final assembly. Xian Aircraft, maker of wing sections for the Airbus A320, Boeing 737 and ATR 42/72, would build the airplane’s wings and fuselage sections. Chengdu Aircraft, located some 400 miles southwest of Xian, would build the nose section, while Shenyang Aircraft supplies the empennage.

Scheduled to enter its detailed development phase next month, the ARJ21 would use a supercritical wing designed by Ukraine’s Antonov. To speed a decision on the final wing configuration, ACAC has commissioned four separate wind-tunnel testing regimes, said Tao, under way simultaneously at Antonov, TsAGI in Russia and at state facilities in Holland and China.

The ACAC official said the government projects a need for as many as 500 airplanes over the course of a 20-year production run, scheduled to start with CAAC certification at the end of 2007. The partners plan a production rate of three per month within “one or two years” of then, said Tao. Shanghai, which now employs some 7,000 workers, will use its MD-90 tooling to assemble the ARJ21.

So far three Chinese customers have signed contracts to take delivery of 35 airplanes. State-controlled Shandong Airlines, based in the eastern city of Jinan, has signed for 10 of the airplanes to replace seven Bombardier CRJ200s and two CRJ700s. Yet another Chinese CRJ operator, Shanghai Airlines, has ordered five ARJ21s, while the program’s largest customer–Shenzhen Financial Leasing Co.–has spoken for 20.