China’s newest military helicopter made its first flight on December 23 at a location in “northeastern China,” a site presumed to be the Harbin facility. The aircraft, believed to be designated Z-20, is in the “10-tonne” class, and is thought to be a collaborative effort among Harbin, Changhe and the 602 Institute. It closely resembles the Sikorsky S-70 Black Hawk that has been in Chinese army service for nearly three decades. The first public glimpse of the Z-20 came in August 2013, when the heavily wrapped fuselage was photographed being transported by road.
China acquired 24 Sikorsky S-70C-2s in the mid-1980s, and they were pressed into service with the army for missions in the mountainous regions of China, such as Tibet, where their high-altitude performance greatly impressed the People’s Liberation Army. With further supplies and spares support from the U.S. cut off after 1989, the army began acquiring sizeable numbers of Mi-17/171s from Russia, while Changhe began to reverse-engineer parts to keep the S-70 fleet flying. This work, and access to live examples, allowed the Z-20 design team to draw heavily on the Sikorsky helicopter. Some sources allege that Pakistan allowed Chinese engineers access to the heavily modified Black Hawk destroyed during the bin Laden raid.
Although strikingly similar to the S-70, the Z-20 exhibits some differences, the most notable of which is a five-blade main rotor instead of the Black Hawk’s four-blade unit. Compared with the Black Hawk’s, the Z-20’s cabin is longer and wider, while the main rotor head appears to be positioned farther aft, making the forward fuselage seem longer than that of the S-70. The undercarriage and tail also show differences.
In terms of powerplant and dynamics, it is likely that the Z-20 draws on the same technology as employed in the Z-10 attack helicopter. Both have their roots in the China Medium Helicopter (CMH) program of the late 1990s, for which Western help was received. The prototype Z-20 may be powered by the indigenous WZ-6C turboshaft, with the more powerful (1800 kW) WZ-10 slated for production machines.
Development of a utility helicopter that can be used for assault, fire support, electronic warfare and special-operations missions is seen as important to the development of PLA Army Aviation. However, it is understood that the development of the Z-20 was delayed while the design team focused on the higher priority Z-10. As well as augmenting and expanding the army’s helicopter fleet, the Z-20 could also find a use at sea, particularly aboard the aircraft carrier Liaoning.