China Confirms Y-20 Heavy Airlifter Program

 - January 4, 2013, 10:40 AM
This distant photo of China’s new airlifter, top, brings confirmation that the program has advanced to the hardware stage. AIN featured a CAD/CAM drawing, bottom, of the design in 2008. (Top photo: Chinese Internet)

China’s Ministry of National Defense has formally acknowledged development of the Y-20 military airlifter, four days after images of a prototype appeared on a Chinese Internet forum devoted to military matters. The aircraft was shown undergoing taxi tests at an airfield in Northwestern China, supposedly affiliated with the developer, Xian Aircraft Industry Group of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China (Avic), according to Chinese reports. Also at the site was a J-20 fighter jet prototype.

Two Y-20 prototypes have been produced to date, one for flight-testing and the other for static tests. The Y-20 is a four-engine turbofan designed as a strategic airlifter and is controversially similar in configuration to the Boeing C-17. In February 2008, Greg Chung, an American citizen of Chinese origin who had worked for Boeing in southern California as a stress analyst, was charged with passing aerospace trade secrets, including those involving the C-17 program, to China. That same month, AIN published a CAD/CAM drawing of the Y-20 design, taken from a video promoting Avic, that Western analysts had previously overlooked. In 2010 Chung was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

The Y-20 is said to have flown for the first time last November, but other Chinese Internet sources have stated that the maiden flight will not occur until sometime this month. The prototypes are reportedly powered by Russian-made D30KP2s, which China has received thanks to its purchase of Ilyushin Il-76 airlifters. In late November, AIN reported that China is buying another 10 Il-76s from Russia. Our comment then, that China had abandoned its indigenous airlifter project, was evidently incorrect.

It is not yet known whether China will be able to equip production models of the Y-20 with its own turbofans. However, at the recent Zhuhai Airshow, officials from Avic reported significant progress in the development of indigenous turbofans. Production versions of the Y-20 could therefore dispense with the Russian powerplants.

The payload of the Y-20 is reported to be 60 tonnes, short of the 77-tonne capacity of the C-17. Its maximum takeoff weight is between 200 and 220 tonnes. The Y-20 is thought to be capable of carrying China’s main battle tank, the Type 99. Its range is reported to be 4,000 km, enough to cover the whole of China. If taking off from Shanghai, it could reach Guam.

An article on one Chinese-language website noted that a fleet of 100 Y-20s would put China at the top of the power-projection league in the Asia-Pacific region. But China would need to produce 300 Y-20s to match U.S. strategic airlift capability, the website noted.