A nation rises

Media celebration as China’s locally-made jet finally takes to the skies


The C919 taking off last Friday

In discussing their aviation industry the Chinese sometimes talk in terms of ‘800 million shirts’. Puzzled? Well, as Beijing News points out, the calculation is that this many garments have to be exported to pay for each Airbus A380 purchased by a Chinese airline.

The newspaper describes those terms of trade as an “embarrassment” and the Chinese have been keen to build commercial airliners of their own, rather than rely on foreign suppliers.

So the media was delighted last Friday when the C919, a long-delayed but locally-made passenger jet, finally made its maiden flight, taking off from Shanghai.

“Today this is it! We have witnessed the successful takeoff!” the state broadcaster celebrated as the plane took to the skies.

The local press is under instruction to play up China’s latest technological achievement: the debut of a jet billed as a competitor for Airbus and Boeing. On the contrary, the foreign media took a more circumspect tone, pointing out it could take years before the plane is certified to fly in Europe and the US.

There was also much comment about how ‘Chinese’ the jet really is, given its reliance on foreign technologies and components. A diagram in the Financial Times showing where the main parts of the plane were manufactured indicated that the landing gear was German, for instance, and the engines made by a Franco-American joint venture (GE and Safran). Other American parts for the C919 included the aluminium components for the fuselage, the communications and navigation systems, and the flight data recorders.

To be fair, other aircraft have been subjected to similar analysis, including an assessment of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner by Business Insider. Specifically the central fuselage and horizontal stabiliser are Italian, the engine and landing gear British, the wing fuselage Japanese, the wing tips and edges South Korean and Australian, the cargo access doors Swedish, and the passenger entry doors French.

In fact, based on looking at the two diagrams, WiC hazards that there may be more American parts in the C919 than in the Dreamliner, which is some irony.

Of course, the Chinese press has been keener to play up the domestic achievement of the C919’s debut flight. Beijing News celebrated the industry chain that made its manufacture possible: 200 local enterprises, 36 universities and “hundreds of thousands involved in research and development”. China Youth Daily also rebutted the idea that the plane is more foreign than Chinese, claiming that the localisation rate of the finished product – there are 570 orders for the C919, mostly from Chinese airlines – is 60%. Also given as evidence of its ‘Made in China’ construction was that the C919’s nose is made by Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, the wings by Xi’an Aircraft Industry Group, and most of the fuselage by Nanchang Hongdu Aviation Industry Group.

Likewise the construction and cabling was completed by Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing, with China Youth Daily quick to praise the sophistication of the process. It said the accuracy required for putting together the carbon fibre parts was “three or four orders of magnitude higher than for making a rocket”, while the complexity of cabling 725 parts of the aircraft together was compared to the work of a surgeon on the human body. Any carelessness would have likely resulted in “organ failures”, the newspaper ventured dramatically.

What is certain is that the C919’s debut is a major step for its maker Comac, putting China’s commercial aviation sector into the select club capable of making larger aircraft (the C919 is single-aisle, seating up to 200 passengers). All the same, it will be a while before the aircraft is delivered to customers and some commentators have warned that it could already be commercially obsolete. Most agree that it will be a decade or more before Comac starts to challenge the dominance of the Boeing and Airbus duopoly.

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