Paris Air Show

Paris 2011: C919 Is China’s Bid for the Big Time

 - June 19, 2011, 9:50 AM

China’s new single-aisle aircraft, the Comac C919, has amassed its first 100 orders and a heavyweight team of international suppliers as it heads for a scheduled first flight just three years from now and service entry in 2016. Only a scale model is on show here at Le Bourget this week, but the program represents nothing less than China’s first serious bid to hit the international air transport big time.

The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Hall 5, Stand B244) was established in May 2008 with former defense technology minister Zhang Qingwei as chairman. Its aim is to help meet the country’s need for large numbers of new aircraft to connect fast-growing cities in far-flung provinces. Last November, while formally launching the C919 at the Zhuhai airshow, the company put the requirement at 2,950 single-aisle 150-seaters, 802 widebodies and 687 regional jets over the next 20 years, based on annual revenue passenger mile growth of 7.7 percent.

Comac is responsible for passenger aircraft with 70 seats or more. The other group created at the same time, Aviation Industry Corporation of China (Avic), is responsible for military transports and the MA-60 commercial turboprop. But while Comac will make parts and assemble the C919 at a new Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing (SAMC) facility in the Pudong district of Shanghai, it is subsidiaries of Avic (Hall 2a, Stand D252) that will supply the bulk of the structure.

Xi’an Aircraft (XAC) will make the wings, Chengdu Aircraft the cockpit, Hongdu Aviation in Nanchang the fuselage and Shenyang Aircraft the tail, while Harbin Aircraft supplies composite parts. Alcoa has been working with Comac on new aluminum-lithium alloys and advanced structural concepts since 2009.

At the Zhuhai event, Comac showed a full-scale mockup of the forward 75 feet of fuselage, including cockpit and representative cabin. During the following month, the company held rollout ceremonies for a real aluminum-lithium forward fuselage barrel plus sections of the horizontal stabilizer, aft fuselage, pylon and wing. This year the target is to complete the detailed design of the aircraft.

Engine Suppliers

CFM International, the joint venture between GE Aviation and Safran, will supply the C919’s Leap-X1C engines as part of a complete integrated propulsion system. Nacelles and thrust reversers will come from Nexcelle, the joint venture formed by Safran subsidiary Aircelle and GE Aviation’s Middle River Aircraft Systems unit. CFM and Avic Commercial Aircraft Engine (ACAE) will build a final assembly line and engine test facility. Aircelle and XAC are establishing a joint venture to make thrust reverser and door subassemblies and assemble thrust reversers, air inlets and fan cowls.

Another Safran subsidiary, Labinal, is forming a joint venture with SAMC that will focus on electrical wiring interconnection systems. Italy’s Avio is positioning itself as a supplier of combustors, having signed a memorandum of understanding with ACAE and another with Xi’an Aero Engine covering the establishment of a center of excellence for combustor design and manufacture.

Landing Gear and Wheels

Liebherr-Aerosapce Lindenburg and Avic Landing Gear Advanced Manufacturing will build the landing gear in Changsha, which will also be the site for wheel and brake production by a joint venture involving Honeywell Aerospace, Hunan Boyun New Materials and Changsha Xinhang Wheel & Brake. Michelin will supply Air X radial tires.

Liebherr-Aerospace Toulouse will produce the integrated air management system using components supplied by Nanjing Engineering Institute of Aircraft System. Parker Aerospace is responsible for the fuel, inerting and hydraulic systems through a joint venture with Avic Systems, and for the FCS actuators–business expected to be worth more than $4 billion to the U.S. company. Moog will cooperate with Avic’s Qing’an Group on the high-lift system, including flap and slat actuators, pilot interfaces and electronic controls.

Including the wheels and brakes, Honeywell has contracts worth an estimated $11.3 billion covering the fly-by-wire flight control system, 131-9[C9C] auxiliary power unit and Laseref VI inertial reference system. The FCS letter of intent was signed with Avic Electronics Group, and Honeywell plans to establish a joint venture with Avic’s Flight Automatic Control Research Institute. The APU partner is Avic Harbin Dongan Engine. Crane Aerospace & Electronics will provide the brake control system.

Avionics Suppliers

Apart from its involvement in the engine, GE Aviation is partnering with Avic Systems to develop the avionics core processing, display, on-board maintenance and flight recording systems via the new GE-Avic Civil Avionics Systems joint venture. Eaton and Shanghai Aviation Electric will make the cockpit panel assemblies and dimming control system, a program estimated to be worth more than $425 million over a production run of 2,500 aircraft. Another $1.8 billion could come from the production and aftermarket support of fuel and hydraulic conveyance systems through a joint venture with SAMC.

Rockwell Collins will contribute communication and navigation systems with China Electronics Technology Avionics (CETCA), the aircraft simulator (with Xi’an Simulation Science and Technology) and the cabin core and optional in-flight entertainment systems (with Shanghai Aero Measurement-Controlling Research Institute) using a distributed passenger address system from Cobham. It will also supply an integrated surveillance system (with China Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute) combining weather radar, TCAS, mode-S and TAWS.

United Technologies subsidiary Hamilton Sundstrand stands to earn upward of $1.5 billion from the program. As well as the electric power generation and distribution system, to be supplied through a joint venture with Avic Electromechanical Systems (Avic EM), it will provide the ram-air turbine emergency power system. In addition, Hamilton Sundstrand’s Kidde Aerospace & Defense unit is developing the C919’s integrated fire and overheat protection system, while its France-based Ratier-Figeac unit will supply pilot controls, including the side sticks and thrust control quadrant. The electric power joint venture is to be based in Xi’an, and development of the facility was due to begin this month.

Interior Furnishings

In the cabin, linings, luggage bins, galleys and lavatories will be produced in Zhenjiang by a new subsidiary of Austria’s FACC, which itself was acquired by Avic Aircraft in 2009. CETCA is working with Thales on a range of IFE systems, and with Panasonic Avionics on an external communications system that will support cell phone and Internet access for passengers. Zodiac Aerospace subsidiary Monogram Systems will provide the water and waste systems.

Just last month, Michelin was selected to develop and supply its Air X radial tires for the C919. This is the French company’s first involvement in a Chinese aircraft program and builds on an alliance it established with Comac back in November 2009.

On the human resources side, Pratt & Whitney recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Comac to provide leadership training for senior executives and mid-level managers, as well as project management training and training in skills needed to achieve competitive excellence. The programs are targeted at those executives and other employees with high potential and are scheduled to begin in mid-year. They will be conducted by Pratt & Whitney’s customer training center in collaboration with UTC sibling Hamilton Sundstrand.

“We signed this training cooperation MOU with UTC because it offers opportunities for employees at all levels of Comac to learn critical leadership and technical skills from a trusted and well respected OEM,” said Yan Hua, Comac’s assistant president and general manager, human resources. “Comac plans to leverage the training to develop its world-class workforce.”

Pratt & Whitney’s vice president, human resources, Patrick Preux explained that, “In addition to the training offered at our customer training centers in East Hartford, Connecticut, and Beijing, China, UTC is working with its university partners to conduct a significant portion of the executive-level training created with Comac.” He added, “We look forward to working together with Comac to tailor the programs to meet their business needs.”

Despite all the joint ventures and internal modernization, Comac remains a distinctively Chinese endeavor. “Chinese characteristics” heads the list of basic principles for developing the C919: “We should set our footing on the practical situations in China, leverage on the whole nation’s strengths and wisdom, and bring into full play the political superiority of the socialist system which is capable of concentrating all of its resources in achieving great things.”

The designation itself combines C for China with a 9 that signifies enduring or long-lasting plus 19 to represent the maximum passenger load of 190. The largely symbolic launch orders, half of them firm and half options, came from the country’s three biggest airlines–Air China, China Eastern and China Southern–plus Hainan Airlines, Chinese lessor CDB Leasing and GECAS.

But Comac’s target is to sell more than 2,000 copies of the C919, and China’s aerospace ambitions go far beyond that. Medium-term goals include developing a Chinese engine to power the C919 from 2020. Meanwhile, the company is exploring the twin-aisle C929, with up to 290 seats, and has already carried out preliminary tests in DNW’s high-speed wind tunnel in Amsterdam. And all those new joint ventures are meant to become global rather than simply domestic suppliers.