Paris Air Show

Service Entry For C919 Remains Uncertain After First Flight

 - June 15, 2017, 3:00 AM
Comac's C919 narrowbody airliner made its long-awaited first flight in Shanghai on May 5. [Photo: Comac]

The long-awaited first flight of the C919 narrowbody airliner on May 5 restored some of the credibility lost in recent years by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac). The state-controlled airframer had promised to achieve a first flight in 2014, with service entry supposed to follow in 2016, and have never given an adequate explanation for a series of setbacks for the program since it’s launch back in 2008.

A press release issued more than two weeks after the first flight did not give any projected data for initial Chinese type certification to be achieved, but did state that a second prototype will join the flight test program before the end of 2017. In April, Comac held initial consultation with the European Aviation Safety Agency about a path to certification, but it has yet to initiate any contact with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

The C919, which will be offered to airlines in versions seating between 150 and 168 passengers, is one of three development programs being pursued by China’s leading aerospace group. Comac also has overall responsibility for Xi’an’s Y-20 military transport and the new AG-600 amphibian. It’s first flight from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport ended an 18-month wait since the C919 was rolled out in November 2015.

Although the C919 is largely a Chinese indigenous design, a host of Western suppliers have contributed major components, including CFM International Leap-1C engines, Liebherr landing gear and Honeywell flight control and navigation systems.

Despite two slipped first delivery dates, Comac has managed to secure firm orders and options for 570 C919s from 23 companies. China Eastern Airlines will serve as the type’s launch customer, and lessor GE Capital Aviation Services and Thailand’s City Airways remain the only export customers so far.

The C919 can seat 168 passengers in a single-class, economy configuration, 158 across two classes or 174 in a high-density configuration. The standard range covers 2,200 nautical miles, while an extended range version will allow for 3,000 nautical miles. The aircraft’s list price amounts to some $50 million, about half the price Airbus quotes for the A320.

Honeywell contributes the purpose-built HGT750(C) auxiliary power unit, as well as the flight control electronics system, the navigation system, wheels and brakes. The flight control system has been developed through a joint venture with Avic’s Xi’an Flight Automatic Control Research Institute (AVIC FACRI) known as HonFei, and the wheels and brakes are a partnership with Hunan Boyun New Materials. Avic is part of the Comac group.

U.S.-based Honeywell also has been working with Comac since 2008, when work on the C919 started. “We have been providing skill training like program management, documentation, things that help them grow as a aircraft manufacturer company and vice versa we have learnt quite a bit from Comac as well,” Steven Lien, Honeywell Aerospace’s president for the Asia Pacific region told AIN.

“There haven’t been any fundamental challenges integrating our systems any different from Boeing or Airbus. Any new aircraft development at this scale has it challenges that are unique,” he commented when asked how the Western OEM has found it to partner with a Chinese company. “One of the areas that we are working together is [developing] the tools and processes in accordance to Western standards.” Lien said the problems on braking systems faced during earlier high speed taxi tests are all part of developmental process.

“There is no doubt with the economy of scale the Chinese will be able to provide something with value, at a level to be certified and at a competitive cost,” Lien concluded. “The Chinese are quickly learning these three things are they will get there into the global market space.”

Also in May, Comac in partnership with Boeing began the construction of the 737 completion and delivery center in China’s Zhujiajian Aviation Park, at Zhoushan, Zhejiang province. The 40-hectare facility will install inflight entertainment and seats to the 737 airframes before delivery to Chinese 737 customers. The completion center, will also provide painting, repairs and maintenance services to Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.

When completed in 2018, Boeing expects the facility to deliver 8 to 10 aircraft monthly, or around 100 annually. Boeing highlighted that it is still too early to say which or how many Boeing/Comac staff will be employed upon completion.

Next Up: A Widebody

Moving ahead, Comac is partnering with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) to develop a widebodied airliner that would seat around 280 passengers in a standard three-class configuration and have a range of 6,500 nmi—putting it in roughly the same class as the Airbus A330-900. Comac refers to this program as the C929, but the Russians prefer the more brand-neutral working title Long Rang Wide Body Commercial Aircraft (LRWBCA).

On May 22, the partners formally established a joint venture called China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Co., Ltd (Craic) at a ceremony in Shanghai. The entity established what UAC calls an “equivalence principle,” under which each side takes a 50 percent share in the program. The agreement calls for final assembly in Shanghai.

Craic’s board of directors consists of four members from each side; UAC appointed its vice president, Vladislav Masilov, as the company’s first chairman, while Comac nominated its assistant president and general manager of its widebody arm, Guo Bozhi, as Craic’s first general manager. 

The airplane--an agreement to establish a partnership for which Comac and UAC signed in June of last year during Russian president Vladimir Putin’s official visit to China--would cost between $13 billion and $20 billion to develop. The companies first revealed preliminary operating specifications during last November’s Airshow China in Zhuhai, along with plans to build a final assembly facility in Shanghai. Schedules call for first flight in 2023 and entry into service in 2026.

UAC and Comac intend to use the Boeing “gate” process for managing the program. Gate 3—at which point the aircraft would reach complete definition—would happen some time in 2018 or 2019. Comac and its Avic subsidiary will carry responsibility for final assembly and the majority of parts manufacturing, using existing factories around Shanghai and other Chinese cities, including those now being used for the ARJ21 and C919 airliners. The Russian partner would perform mainly design and development work, according to UAC president Yuri Slyusar. UAC’s newly built 463,000-sq-ft engineering center at Zhukovsky, near Moscow, will house Chinese and Russian engineers working on the program.

Initially, the 75,000-pound-thrust-class engines for the new widebody would likely come from Rolls-Royce and/or GE Aviation, “which already have suitable models with the required thrust of 35 metric tons,” according to Slyusar. Later propulsion options could include a larger version of the Aviadvigatel PD-14 now undergoing testing by the Russian design house in Perm called the PD-35. The Chinese side has also expressed a desire to develop a turbofan of its own to power the airplane and last year consolidated several state-owned companies to establish the new Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC). 

“As the main body in implementing the program, the joint venture will use resources from two parent companies to carry out joint development,” said UAC spokesperson.

In terms of manufacturing, it has evidently been agreed that Comac will mainly be responsible for the fuselage and UAC mainly be responsible for the wings and tail, with final assembly completed in Shanghai. The new widebody also will likely involve numerous foreign suppliers, including Honeywell, which says it has been focused on developing new satellite communications capability for the model in alliance with Inmarsat.

According to UAC, the C929/LRWBCA development plan will have five main stages: program demonstration, feasibility study, product definition, production, and product support and improvement. Currently, the program is still at the preliminary feasibility study phase.

According to He Zhiqing, Comac’s C919 project coordinator, the Chinese group will reassign designers and engineers to what it calls the C929 within the coming months. The partners have indicated that development of the C929 will take seven years before a first flight is achieved and another three more before the first commercial delivery to an airline.

Meanwhile, Comac’s 90-seat ARJ-21 regional jet remains confined to China’s domestic airline market, having so far failed to progress efforts to attain EASA or FAA certification. However, it did recently carry its 10,000th passenger with Chengdu Airlines after beginning commercial service in late June 2016.