ARJ21 first flight marks China’s return to jet set

 - December 30, 2008, 5:28 AM

After eight years of design and development, the flight-test program for the ARJ21-700, China’s first homemade regional jet, got under way with its maiden flight on November 28.

The manufacturer, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), deemed the hour-long first flight, which reached altitudes of 9,000 feet, successful. It plans to deploy four aircraft during the 14-month flight-test program to support certification and entry into commercial service next year.

The aircraft, which will sell for about $30 million, will seat 70 to 90 passengers and offer a range of up to 2,000 nm, which covers 80 percent of domestic routes. The airplane is powered by two fuselage-mounted CF34-10As. Addressing the China International Aviation & Aerospace Forum 2008 in China in November, Miao Wei, vice minister of industry and information technology, said Comac plans to produce 30 ARJ21s a year by 2011 and start work on a 105-seat, business jet and freighter variants this year.

The 105-seat ARJ21-900 will be co-designed by China Aviation Industry Corp. (AVIC), parent of Comac, and Bombardier Aerospace.

China will own the intellectual property rights of the ARJ21-900, while Bombardier will send experts to participate in and support the project. Comac has received orders for more than 200 ARJ21s, including 25 from GE Commercial Aviation Services (Gecas), and sees a potential market for about 1,000 regional jets over the next 20 years.

Fueled by economic growth, air travel has increased significantly in China, and 50 new airports are scheduled for construction over the next five years to meet burgeoning demand. As a result, feeder and point-to-point traffic could grow 12 percent annually over the next 20 years, according to analysts.

China considers the Gecas order a major breakthrough in the international market for a jet that has been designed primarily to meet China’s diverse operating environments, specifically the hot-and-high conditions prevalent on many routes in the west of the country.

“This…marks the first time a commercial jet developed and produced in China will enter the U.S. market,” said Comac chairman Zhang Qingwei, in reference to the Gecas order.

Zhang said Comac expects to receive FAA certification for the ARJ21 next year; deliveries to Gecas customers will begin in 2013.

Gecas expects to lease the 25 jets to a Chinese and possibly a European client, according to vice president Roger Seager.

Although developed by Chinese designers, the ARJ21 uses advanced components from 19 foreign suppliers, including Alcoa and Honeywell. Several Alcoa high-performance alloys and products have gone into the airplane, including advanced heat-treated sheet and plate alloys on the airframe and the interior. China also plans to develop a 130- to 200-seat commercial aircraft, the world’s most popular size category, to break the Boeing and Airbus duopoly, a senior Chinese designer said. The aircraft will be designed and assembled in Shanghai, but like Boeing and Airbus will source parts and components globally, said Wu Guanghui, chief designer of the program and deputy general manager of Comac.

“We will choose international suppliers through bidding, but priority will go to foreign suppliers that design and manufacture products with Chinese companies,” he said. Comac plans to establish overseas subsidiaries in Europe, the U.S., Hong Kong and Russia to market the airplane internationally, said general manager Jin Zhuanglong. Chairman Zhang said the company would consider cooperation with Airbus, Boeing or Russian companies.

China’s large commercial aircraft  would enter service by the end of the 13th Five-Year Plan period (2015-20), minister Miao said. Comac plans to complete the concept design and research on key technologies by 2010 and start production by 2014, Miao said.

This marks the first public discussion of a timetable for the new trunkliner project since the Chinese established Comac in May. The company is in charge of the large airplane’s assembly, marketing and support and has initial Chinese government funding of $2 billion.

Even though domestic passenger volume has been dropping recently amid the global economic slowdown, Miao said he expects China will remain a strong market: “In the next 10 years, China will need at least 1,000 new airplanes,” he said.

Some sub-projects have begun, and the large airplane’s design and suppliers will be decided soon, he said.