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Sino-Russian CR929 Takes Shape

 - February 12, 2022, 8:00 PM
Composites will be a major feature of the Sino-Russian CR929, including for engine fan blades.

With parts manufacturing launched last summer, the Sino-Russian CR929 widebody twin has begun the long journey toward certification. Managed by the China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation (CRAIC), the project calls for final assembly to take place in Shanghai. But much has changed since the company’s founding in May 2017 as a 50/50 joint venture between China’s Comac and Russia’s UAC. The Covid 19 pandemic, a chill in relations between the East and West, and design complexities all have conspired to force a delay to the original schedule.

The partners have rescheduled the first flight from 2023 to 2025, but even the most recent target appears unrealistic without Western will and power. Neither China nor Russia has developed a suitable engine in the required class of thrust, at 77,000 pounds. The AECC CJ-2000 project to produce such an engine using Ukrainian technologies fell through after the government in Kiev vetoed an earlier agreed sale of the Motor-Sich engine maker to a Chinese investor.

For its part, Russia has scored some success in shaping and testing the PD-35 turbofan, the result of an effort led by United Engine Corporation member Aviadvigatel. The company’s CEO and general designer, Alexander Inozemtsev, hopes to complete development of the PD-35 in 2025 and commence its serial production in 2028, some five years later than CRAIC had planned to introduce the airplane.

Should the White House ban General Electric from supplying the GEnx-1B76 and Downing Street the same with Rolls-Royce and the Trent 1000, further delays to the aircraft program appear inevitable. Of course, that would render a severe blow to a project in which the two partner nations have committed to investing some $20 billion to cover R&D, production preparation, and aftersales support. The developers project a 20-year demand for the CR929’s class of aircraft from Chinese airlines of 1,200 units and from Russian carriers of between 50 and 120. CRAIC hopes to generate at least 800 sales over a 20-year period, provided shipments commence in 2026 or 2027 and commercial operations in 2028 or 2029.

Russian prime minister Mikhail Mishustin said his government will provide an extra 44.6 billion roubles ($583 million) for PD-35 development in 2022. The decision came in December following the successful start of testing on an experimental engine core. After initial trials that lasted about six months, until October, the PD-35 core demonstrator moved to the Central Institute of Aviation Motors for the next phase. Engineers put it in a testing rig that supplies heated airflow, similar to that generated by the fan and low-pressure compressor.  

In parallel, the industry began producing experimental examples of key parts made of advanced composite materials, including fan blades, using “prepreg” and 3D threading technologies.

Aviadvigatel hopes to finalize the shape of the blades for the PD-35 later this year. CRAIC plans to use composites for parts on the CR929 wing, according to Anatoly Gaidansky, first deputy head of Irkut Corporation, which bears responsibility for civil aviation in the United Aircraft (UAC) corporate structure. In November, he said that Russia’s Aerocomposite company began manufacturing examples of composite parts for the CR929 airframe. That milestone followed the release last September of China’s Plan for Civil Aviation Development for 2021-2025, which states the assembly work on the first CR929 prototype had commenced. 

This summer, the Russian government expects to decide on plans for PD-35 further development. The baseline version comes with a 3.1-meter fan, weighs 8 tonnes, and develops thrust of about 77,000 pounds. It would form the basis for an engine family in a thrust range of between 53,000 and 110,000 pounds. Minister for industry and trade Denis Manturov says the decision will depend on what projects of new indigenous freighters and military airlifters would go forward. In particular, the defense ministry has yet to decide on certain matters relating to the Perspective Aviation Complex of Military Transport Aviation, a  would-be successor to the Antonov An-124 Ruslan cargo carrier. “We have been running an R&D program on the PD-35 since 2018,” Manturov said. Plans call for initial trials of the engines’ gas generator to end in 2022 and a freeze of its final configuration in 2023. Depending on the performance it delivers, the Russian government will decide the way forward for the engine family.

Manturov hopes the baseline PD-35 will become the engine of choice for future CR929 operators, while hinting that decisions on the engine family might affect the Sino-Russian program in several ways. The airplane’s base model, the CR929-600, weighs 540,000 pounds and transports 280 passengers 6,480 nautical miles, figures for which designers optimized the PD-35. The latter also fits a would-be twin-engine version of the Ilyushin Il-96 quad still in low-rate production under Russian government orders. At the same time, CRAIC has voiced plans for a shrunken CR929-500 to seat 230 passengers and a stretched CR929-700 seating 320, but their ultimate existence depends on the upcoming engine decision.

An ambitious and far-reaching program, the CR929 is important for Moscow and Beijing as both seek technological independence from the West. In 2014, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping attended the signing ceremony between UAC and Comac that sealed a framework agreement to cooperate on the future widebody transport. The two leaders might tolerate delays to the project, but not failure, raising expectations in their respective countries that the CR929 will make its mark in aviation history.