With a firm launch customer in hand and fourth test aircraft ready to take flight, two years ago China’s ARJ21 program appeared to have found its stride just as the last Singapore Airshow approached in 2010. At the time, project leader Comac and subsidiary Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Co. (SAMC) expected to gain certification by the end of that year, around which time a new carrier called Chengdu Airlines agreed to take the first production airplane, officially placing China back in the business of delivering indigenously designed and built commercial airplanes.
Two years later, following a series of setbacks involving unspecified design changes and testing delays, the certification schedule has slipped to the point where Comac appears unlikely to earn certification before the middle of this year.
Of course, Comac’s part ownership in launch customer Chengdu Airlines has lent the manufacturer a certain amount of latitude to extend the program’s development. Government-owned Comac reached an agreement with Sichuan Airlines and Chengdu Investment Co. in 2009 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 Co., own, respectively, 40.97 percent and 11.03 percent of the reorganized entity.
Since Chengdu’s formation, the ARJ21’s highest profile Western supplier–engine maker General Electric–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, whose Middle River Aircraft Systems division also supplies the thrust reversers and nacelles, has built eight engines for the flight test program “plus a couple of spares,” along with eight production engines built at the GE plant in Durham, North Carolina, reported Tim Varga, program manager for Comac in GE’s Small Commercial Engines division.
“Certainly in the past there have been delays so what we’ve tried to do our best to align our schedule to theirs,” said Varga. “We don’t want to pace the program but we don’t want to get any farther ahead of the program than is beneficial for us or Comac. So it’s best for us to try to align our resources and our timing so that we’re able to support their certification efforts and our needs for the propulsion system concurrent with their flight test program and their reports to their agency.”
With ground testing finished, GE has reached several milestones over the past year or so, said Varga, including in-flight thrust demonstrations and nacelle certification tests. The engine also received its validated type certificate from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) last November. “We’ve had pretty good progress over the last year or so in terms of the propulsion related aspects of their certification,” he said. From GE’s perspective, integration of the engines onto the airframe “has matured” from a configuration standpoint, he added. “It’s just a matter of going through all the various additional tests that need to be done and preparing the certification reports.”
Varga said GE has submitted to Comac roughly 80 percent of its certification-related reports on the propulsion system.
Plans for GE to eventually enter a CF34-10A coproduction agreement with China’s Shenyang Liming Aero Engine Group remain in place, said Varga, but, again, certification delays have impeded the progress of those negotiations. Two years ago, then CF34 program manager Chuck Nugent told AIN that talks had centered on granting Liming responsibility for “some of the assembly activities and final testing,” possibly within five years. Beyond then, whether production would go to Liming completely remains a question for the fairly distant future.
Whatever its eventual scope, such an arrangement would follow with GE’s stated philosophy to serve as much as a partner to the Chinese as a supplier of powerplants. In fact, in September last year GE opened a new customer and employee training center in Shanghai at the Customer Technology Park, site of GE China’s headquarters. There, customers learn line maintenance and other procedures related to on-board service of the GE engines. So far, the company has held two classes.
Now employing some 20 of its own people in China to directly support the ARJ21 project, not including sales, marketing and product support personnel, GE also maintains an on-site team of Chinese nationals who, according to Varga, have served as an invaluable communication conduit between Shanghai and GE’s headquarters in Cincinnati. “They’ve done a fantastic job for us, being on-site, being able to communicate during the Chinese day with Comac directly and then back here with Cincinnati, so that’s been a huge success story for us.”