China’s New Airlifter Is Airborne

 - February 1, 2013, 12:00 PM
China’s Y-20 airlifter lands at Xian after its first flight on January 26. It is larger than Europe’s A400M but smaller than the Boeing C-17, although no cross-section dimensions have been revealed yet. (Photo: Chinese Internet)

The first large military airlifter developed by China made its maiden flight on January 26. The Y-20 prototype, seen previously upon rollout, was airborne for about one hour before returning to the Yanliang air base in Xian, amid the cheers of a flag-waving crowd. The test flight was called a key step toward building China’s strategic force. Judging from the prototype’s serial number–20001–at least 100 Y-20s could be produced.

Despite overwhelming praise in China for the “historic” occasion, problems loom as China endeavors to mass produce Y-20s by 2017. Four Russian-made D30KP2 engines power the prototype. But the production model is set to adopt a Chinese engine such as the CJ1000A or its military variant WS18. Meanwhile, Ukraine is reported to be considering a sale to China of a patent for the D18T engine, which powers the Antonov An-124 heavy airlifter. The D18T might be a little too powerful for the Y-20. However, there is speculation that that the Y-20 might serve as a test platform for an even larger airlifter yet to come, which has already been dubbed China’s “Y-124.”

The Y-20’s payload is also an issue. Official data gives this as a maximum 66 metric tons. But the D30KP2 engine-powered prototype is said to have a payload of less than 55 metric tons, equivalent to the current large airlifter in Chinese military service, the Russian-made Ilyushin Il-76 transport. This raises doubts about whether the Y-20 can carry China’s main battle tank, the Type 99, the variants of which weigh between 54 and 58 metric tons. The Type 99 is 3.5 meters (11 feet 6 inches) wide. The cross section of the Y-20 is not yet confirmed, although some reports quote four meters (13 feet). The new airlifter’s fuselage is 47 meters (154 feet) long and the tail stands at 15 meters (49 feet), The wingspan is 45 meters (148 feet).

The Chinese media is expressing great optimism about the Y-20 program. They praise the aircraft’s adoption of composite material in the airframe, fly-by-wire flight control system, advanced avionics and radar. Yet the Y-20’s design is still considered to be inferior to that of the C-17 airlifter of the U.S., such as in the application of externally blown flaps.

Some reports suggest that China will restructure its force of airborne troops to match the arrival of the Y-20. The Y-20 could also be modified as an air tanker. China is in great need of air refuelers to extend the range of new fighter jets such as the J-11B and Su-30MMK2.