Struggling to get airborne

China’s newest jet is experiencing delays


The real thing is still a way off: a model of a Comac C919 passenger plane

The Farnborough airshow of 1952 hoped to showcase Britain’s leadership in global aviation, writes James Hamilton-Paterson in Empire of the Clouds: When Britain’s Aircraft Ruled the World.

Instead it turned into a tragedy.

Pilot John Derry was supposed to zoom above the crowds in the new De Havilland 110, impressing all with the fighter’s supersonic speed and manoeuvrability. But as he readied for an upward roll, there was an explosion. The aircraft broke up in mid-air, Derry died instantly and the plane’s engines whistled into the grandstand like missiles : 27 were killed and 63 seriously injured.

Despite the tragedy, the British stiff-upper-lip meant that Neville Duke was ordered to take off in his Hawker Hunter as if nothing had happened. Moments later he flew past what remained of the crowd. Winston Churchill even sent him a note the next day, which read: “My dear Duke, it was characteristic of you and 615 Squadron to go up yesterday after the shocking accident. Accept my salute.”

Also on show that day was the De Havilland Comet, the first jet airliner. Hamilton-Paterson’s book explains how Britain had the opportunity to dominate the market for commercial jets in the 1950s, and why through mishap and mismanagement it failed. Sixty years on, it ought to be required reading for aviation officials in the latest contender to become a major player in global aerospace: China.

Rather than the Comet, it is Comac leading the Chinese challenge. The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) is the aerospace giant coordinating the manufacture and marketing of China’s largest passenger jet, the C919. When we first wrote about the project four years ago the new aircraft was being defined as a cost-effective challenger to Boeing and Airbus in the 170-seat class (see WiC31). The initial test flight was scheduled for 2014, while delivery to Chengdu Airlines, the first customer, was expected about two years later. But the programme is now well behind schedule, with media fanfare restricted to more minor announcements, like one last month celebrating the opening of Comac’s first overseas subsidiary in the United States.

Some took this as a positive sign that the ARJ21, a smaller aircraft also under development by Comac, is soon to be certified by American aviation authorities and that a sales blitz is imminent.

An alternative view is that Comac is trying to solidify its relationships with suppliers in North America having recognised that it needs more help if its larger jet is to get off the ground.

Despite admitting to delays in the C919’s launch schedule earlier this year, Comac officials have sounded confident about their progress, saying that sub-assembly manufacturing is “in full swing” and the engineering design phase is intensifying.

The next step is system’s integration and the assembly of a test aircraft by the end of next year. Then there will be trial flights and final certifications by aviation regulators. Deliveries to airline customers are unlikely to start for another two years after that. So it sounds like the C919 won’t be available for commercial launch until 2018 at the earliest, 10 years after the project was first announced.

Such delays were inevitable, according to an opinion piece penned for Aviation Week earlier this year by Stanley Chao, who runs a consultancy advising firms on how to enter China. His view is that Comac’s timelines have been too ambitious, especially for a company with so little experience of managing such a complicated supply chain.

“There is nothing wrong with outsourcing,” Chao suggested. “But Boeing has been at it for close to a hundred years during which time the company has made and learned from its mistakes. Comac, on the other hand, was founded in 2008 with new employees, new management and new facilities. They want to do in eight years what took Boeing a century.”

The assessment was too direct for the Global Times, which shot back that he had “maliciously disparaged” the aircraft’s prospects.

“As we all know, the truth is that Boeing and Airbus enjoy a monopoly in the industry and do not wish to see another competitor, especially when that competitor is from China,” it fumed. “The Chao op-ed piece is part of the oppressive scheme indicated above.”

Before it can be delivered to customers the C919 will also have to complete an onerous certification process – and Comac’s history with the ARJ21 doesn’t bode well here either. Despite a first test flight in 2008, the aircraft is still waiting for final airworthiness approvals five years later. Comac is trying to paint this as a painful but productive experience that will make it easier to get the C919 cleared.

But what about Comac’s wider mission to learn how to build the key elements of an aircraft itself? In the medium term it means difficult choices: should it shorten its timelines for launching the C919 by outsourcing more of the production to third parties or opt to go slower and learn more about doing the work itself?

Others query why Comac expects to absorb so much aerospace expertise in such a short timeframe, despite the argument that the Chinese have demonstrated their technological mettle by developing their own cars, telecom equipment and high-speed railways in super-quick time.

Aviation Week’s op-ed countered that Chinese firms in these industries benefited by learning first-hand from partners like Volkswagen, Cisco and Bombardier but that Comac hasn’t been enjoying the same level of cooperation from Boeing or Airbus.

Chaker Chahrour, executive vice president at engine-maker CFM International (a joint venture between GE and Snecma), seemed to imply something similar in ruling out deeper collaboration with its own Chinese partner AVIC Commercial Aircraft Engines (ACAE).

“Never say never, but we steadfastly refuse to do a technology [joint venture] with ACAE,” he told a roundtable in July, and went on to claim that the aircraft’s order book isn’t large enough to justify a Chinese assembly line.

And even if Comac does sign up enough customers, CFM is reserving the right to control the production process and shield its intellectual property from local view.

“We don’t plan on giving a drawing to a Chinese company,” Chahrour warned.

Adam Cowburn, head of Asia-Pacific at ICF SH&E, a commercial aviation consultancy, told WiC this week that some progress is being made on the localisation effort. “Chinese aerospace manufacturers are already proving competent in areas like aerostructures (e.g. wing boxes or vertical fins). But the localised competency on more complex systems like landing gear, engines and avionics will take longer to develop,” he explained.

Of course, Comac isn’t alone in experiencing delays. Boeing was late in delivering the 787, while Airbus had similar challenges with the A380 and is behind schedule with the A350 too. But international customers will also need convincing that Comac can deliver on some of the C919’s earlier selling points, like lower sticker prices. As the C919 is relying heavily on Western suppliers it’s hard to see why it should be getting savings on systems and parts sold in greater quantities to Airbus and Boeing. True, the aircraft will be put together in China but assembly accounts for a small percentage of total production costs. Airbus already has its own assembly line in Tianjin too.

Comac has also been holding out the prospect of cost savings from fuel efficiency. But Boeing and Airbus are going to use the same series of CFM engine for their latest models, the 737Max and the A320neo, so it’s hard to see how the C919 is going to get a performance advantage.

The other problem with the delayed entry into service is that the new models from Boeing and Airbus will start operations before the C919 gets airborne. That means that Comac is chasing a moving target.

“The statement about the C919 fuel efficiency advantage was made relative to the current generation of narrow-body aircraft from Boeing and Airbus. In the next few years these aircraft will be eclipsed by new variants with replacement engines offering fuel efficiency gains similar to that of the C919,” Cowburn told WiC.

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