Prospective Chinese business jet owners have an excellent choice of Western-made products here at the ABACE show in Shanghai, but might they one day be able to buy a business aircraft built in their own country?
Reports have been brewing in recent months that at least one Western manufacturer is in talks with China’s Comac aerospace group with a view to some sort of joint aircraft development. But, as of press time, nothing had been confirmed.
Meanwhile, Embraer is supposedly firming up plans to build its existing Legacy executive jet models at the Harbin factory in northern China, where until last year it was building some of its regional airliners. The facility is a joint venture with Comac subsidiary Avic.
The most obvious starting point for a truly indigenous Chinese business jet would be to develop VIP versions of the latest Chinese airliners, Comac’s C919 and ARJ-21. The C919 is close in size to the Airbus Corporate Jetliner and Boeing Business Jet families of aircraft, while the ARJ-21 is roughly in the size category of a Bombardier Global 5000. Both are currently planned for high-density airline service, but carrying far fewer passengers in VIP mode their range profiles would grow considerably–especially if additional fuel tanks were an option.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) issued type inspection authorization for the ARJ21-700 in February, allowing it to begin the final process of flight-test certification. Hoping to gain type approval by the end of this year, Comac has seen the 85-seat ARJ21 suffer through four years’ worth of delays thanks to a series of unspecified design changes and flight test “discoveries.” Four flight-test airplanes participate in the program.
Comac’s part ownership in ARJ21 launch customer Chengdu Airlines has lent the manufacturer a certain amount of latitude to extend the program’s development. In 2009, government-owned Comac reached an agreement with Sichuan Airlines and Chengdu Investment Company 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 retain, respectively, 40.97 percent and 11.03 percent of the reorganized entity. It is unconfirmed how many total firm orders Comac holds for the ARJ21.
Since Chengdu’s formation, the ARJ21’s highest-profile Western supplier–engine maker GE–finished ground testing of the airplane’s 16,000-pound-thrust CF34-10A turbofans at its Peebles, Ohio test facility and received U.S. Federal Aviation Administration Part 33 certification in July 2010. The U.S. company, which also supplies the thrust reversers and nacelles, has manufactured a total of 10 engines for the flight-test program, along with eight production engines built at the GE plant in Durham, North Carolina.
The delays to the ARJ21 could affect the timing of development of the newer C919 for Comac, whose engineering resources have become stretched due to the continuing need for their engagement on the regional jet, which has been under development for longer. Nevertheless, after passing the state-level preliminary design review on December 9, the 168-seat C919 entered its detailed design and engineering development phase.
Formal production of the first part began last December 19 in Chengdu. This year Comac plans to roll out detailed design work, release all production drawings and start “overall trial manufacture” ahead of first flight, scheduled for 2014, and entry into service, planned for 2016.
The C919’s list of Western suppliers include Moog Aircraft Group, which signed a letter of intent last month to supply the airplane’s high-lift system, including all flap and slat actuation, pilot interfaces, electronic controls, power drive units, wing-tip brakes, gearboxes and miscellaneous components.
Another Western supplier, Germany’s Liebherr Aerospace, signed so-called master agreements last month to supply the C919’s air management system and landing gear with China’s AVIC Landing gear Advanced Manufacturing Corporation (LAMC). In June 2011, Liebherr signed a letter of intent to form a joint venture with LAMC to develop and assemble the main and front landing year along with the associated extension and retraction system and nosewheel steering system.
Comac padded its orderbook for the C919 during last month’s Singapore Airshow with a launch customer agreement for 20 of the aircraft with one of Asia’s fast growing lessors, BOC Aviation, which is part of the Bank of China. The C919 has now drawn orders for 235 units, according to Comac, mainly from Chinese-owned airlines and lessors.