China’s new Z-20 medium utility helicopter has come closer to full operational capability by completing high-altitude tests at Xiahe airfield in Gansu Province. Photos of two Z-20s—serials 635, 636 bearing the insignia of the People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF)—emerged on the Chinese internet, indicating that the helicopters were handed over to the service from their manufacturer the Harbin Aircraft Industry Group (HAIG), for final tests and evaluations. The tests were conducted at up to 4,000 m (13,200 feet).
The Z-20 requirement dates back to the 1980s, when China was seeking a medium utility helicopter for operations in the mountainous west region. The PLAAF eventually acquired 24 Sikorsky S-70C-2s with the enhanced General Electric T700-701A engines. It was reported that the S-70’s performance in the highlands was unmatched, even with the later acquisition by China of Mil Mi-17V5 helicopters from Russia.
Development of the so-called “10-tonne helicopter project” started in 2006 when a small-scale model of the Z-20 was shown at that year’s Zhuhai Airshow. But it was not until December 23, 2013 that the Z-20 made its first flight. It made its first public appearance at the 2016 Zhuhai Airshow.
At first look, the Z-20 bears a strong resemblance to the Sikorsky UH-60/S-70 Black Hawk series. It is commonly referred to as the Chinese Black Hawk. However, Z-20 designer Deng Jinghui told Chinese media that the Z-20 is a fly-by-wire design. Key visual differences are five main rotor blades on the Z-20, and more angular tail–to-fuselage joint frame. Military observer Huo Yanbin thinks that these features will give the Z-20 more lift and greater cabin capacity and endurance than the Black Hawk.
The most recent photos also show a new fairing installed aft of the engine exhausts and another on the tail spine, which are likely housings for satellite communications or the BeiDou (Big Dipper) satellite navigation system.
A crucial part of a successful development of the Z-20 would be the integration of its engines. It is widely believed that the primary powerplant for the Z-20 is the domestic WZ-10 turboshaft engine, providing 1,600 kW (about 2,145 shp). In comparison, the latest UH-60 GE T700-701D engines produce 1,500 kW (about 2,011 shp).
Beyond highland operations, Huo thinks the Z-20 will be a key air mobility and projection platform for the PLA, and will also provide the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) with a much-needed multi-role naval helicopter. Huo says that compared to the Harbin Z-8/18 series, the smaller size of the Z-20 and its newer systems will enable the Z-20 to be interoperable across all PLAN ships, yet large enough to install a full suite of anti-submarine capabilities. These are not found in the navy’s current Harbin Z-9 and Kamov Ka-28 helicopters.