Chinese helo makers build alliances with Western OEMs

 - May 3, 2010, 6:13 AM

China is expected to modify its low-altitude airspace restrictions over the
next few years, a move that could trigger demand for more than 1,000 new civil helicopters there over the next two decades. Part of its strategy for meeting that demand appears to be leveraging current and future relations with established Western helicopter manufacturers to build its own helicopter industry.

In March, China flew a new home-grown heavy-lift helicopter for the first time. The AC313 tips the scales at 27,600 pounds, can carry up to 27 troops, has a maximum ferry range of 560 miles and was built at the state-owned Avicopter unit of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the same company making Sikorsky S-76C++ airframes.

The AC313 appears to be an outgrowth of the 14,000-pound Chinese Zhi-8 medium helicopter. That helicopter is based on the 1970s-vintage Aerospatiale SA321 Super Frelon. China Daily, the state-run newspaper, hailed the new helicopter as a “breakthrough in domestic aviation technology.” The AC313 is believed to have a maximum gross weight that could eventually grow to 30,000 pounds and an external load capability of at least 10,000 pounds. Certification is expected next year.

Avicopter also is developing the EC175 jointly with Eurocopter. In addition to its ventures with Eurocopter and Sikorsky, another Chinese aviation company, Jiangxi Changhe Aviation Industries Corporation (JV), is manufacturing components for the AgustaWestland AW109 and performing final assembly on those helicopters destined for the Chinese market. AW109s assembled in China are designated CA109. JV also developed and manufactures the indigenous Z-8 and Z-11 helicopters.

Several years ago, MD Helicopters CEO Lynn Tilton said she was exploring the possibility of moving MD902 fuselage construction to China, and at this year’s Heli-Expo said she was looking at possibly selling a minority stake in the company to a Chinese entity. Avicopter also is known to be collaborating with Russian Helicopter’s Mil unit on the development of an even larger 40,000-pound heavy lift helicopter. Avicopter currently manufactures the 8,500-pound H425.

In addition to producing helicopters, AVIC also is working on a jetliner, the Comac C919, that it hopes will challenge the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 by 2016.