China’s Comac Inches Forward, C919 Timeline Still Uncertain

 - September 20, 2019, 11:25 AM
An early Comac C919 prototype sits in preparation for a flight test in Shanghai. (Photo: Comac)

While China’s Comac prepares to fly an additional two C919 prototypes this year, a shifting timeline is threatening its ability to advance its standing among the world's established aerospace companies.

According to a company statement, all of its prototypes will undergo more than 1,000 flight-test items over the next two years, which could potentially push its earlier target of 2020-2021 into 2022. Chinese media outlets say manufacturing will commence later this year while plans call for airworthiness certification and aircraft deliveries to China Eastern Airlines in two to three years. Comac said “scientific research and production work” continues to progress in an “orderly manner.”

Coded 105 and 106, the two jets have entered final assembly at the company’s Shanghai production facility. Once complete, the prototypes will join the flight-test program, bringing the total number of C919s to six. The first prototype, 101, completed its long-delayed first flight in May 2017 followed by a long-distance test flight six months later. Aircraft 102 conducted a successful two-hour first flight in December of that year and both prototypes flew again in June 2018 as part of a control-stability test and systems check. Prototype 103 completed its inaugural flight last December. Meanwhile, aircraft 104 performed a one-hour and 25-minute first flight in August before later transferring to Dongying Shengli Airport in east China's Shandong Province. All four prototypes are undergoing flight, static, and other ground verifications tests in Xi’an, Shaanxi province, Nanchang in Jiangxi province, and Shandong’s Dongying.

Comac took the opportunity to debut its C919 flight simulator along with a 1:15 ratio mockup of its ambitious Chinese-Russian CR929 widebody at the 18th Aviation Expo/China, held from September 18-20. The Chinese airframer confirmed that while it had drawn a conceptual design draft, program managers remained in the process of selecting and concluding agreements with system and equipment vendors. 

The general director of Russian CR929 partner United Aircraft Corporation, Yury Slyusar, met with Rolls-Royce and GE executives in late August at the MAKS 2019 airshow outside Moscow to talk over Western powerplant alternatives for the joint Russian-Chinese widebody project known as the Craic CR929. The CR929 chief designer from the Russian side of the program, Maxim Litvinov, told AIN at the show that a Western engine choice could come as soon as the second half of next year, when Craic expects to begin naming the various systems suppliers. A second engine alternative—to involve a Sino-Russian partnership—will take somewhat longer to define, he added.

Meanwhile, Comac has moved to accelerate production to complete an additional 30 ARJ21-700 regional jets by year-end following the opening of its second assembly line for the regional jet in Shanghai. According to Comac’s deputy director of marketing and sales, Yang Yang, capacity at its facility could increase to 50 to 60 aircraft a year, pending market demand. To date, Comac has delivered a total of 15 ARJ21-700s to launch customer Chengdu Airlines and newly established Genghis Khan Airlines. Last month, China’s big three carriers—Air China, China Southern Airlines, and China Eastern Airlines—placed individual orders of 35 aircraft each, with deliveries scheduled from 2020 to 2040.