China’s efforts to develop a second airliner to boost the nation’s economic competitiveness and prestige is slowly coming to fruition in the form of the C919, the inaugural flight of which officials expect as soon as late March.
Developed by state-run Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac), the narrowbody has reached the early stages of pre-flight trials, including taxi and brake tests, according to a Comac official who spoke with AIN on the condition of anonymity.
“Every day, the experimental test pilots get progressively more involved in testing different things,” he told AIN. “It looks like it will fly late in the first quarter or early in the second quarter. After that you probably won’t see it fly for quite a while.”
According to the same official, the C919’s major avionics systems such as the navigation, flight management system and autopilot remain incomplete, however. Final design reviews also remain pending.
Launched in 2008, the C919 program has experienced a series of setbacks that pushed back its maiden flight and delivery date, originally scheduled for 2014 and 2016, respectively. Despite the delays, the narrowbody serves as a testament to China’s ambitions to advance its standing in the aerospace manufacturing value chain.
The smaller ARJ-21-700 regional jet, also developed by Comac, entered service in June 2016 after a lengthy development program that finally culminated in Chinese certification in late 2014. In July 2016, leasing groups Friedmann Pacific Asset Management and China Aircraft Leasing Limited signed a deal to buy up to 60 of the aircraft.
The ARJ-21 has collected a total of 413 orders and commitments from 19 customers since program launch in 2002. Comac delivered the second ARJ-21 to Chengdu Airlines on September 29, and on December 2 the aircraft obtained the first foreign airworthiness certificate, issued by the Republic of Congo.
“We learned from the ARJ,” said the Comac official. “There are certain things that we want to do this time around that we didn’t do last time.”
With the ARJ-21-700, avionics integration proved one of the biggest development impediments. On the C919, the cockpit “won’t be as integrated as the [ACJ] Neo” but will “be closer to a [Boeing] Max,” he said.
“It still will not be the same level of integration but again what the balance of that is obviously the cost,” he added. “A better established process” and English-language manuals have also helped in C919’s development.
As the C919 edges toward its first flight, Comac continues to work toward gaining a production certificate for the ARJ. While the official said that won’t happen until it builds between 10 and 15 airplanes, once obtained the certificate will allow the aircraft to undergo a series of upgrades, including a new avionics suite and better integration of its major systems. For aircraft already in service, Comac will offer a retrofit.