China’s Airplane And Engine Development

Rapid economic growth combined with airport expansion will trigger the need for China to purchase thousands of new jet aircraft and engines. Boeing projects China will require more than 5,200 new planes during the next 20 years. Bombardier estimates China will need 2,400 business jets during the same period. Including commercial planes and business jets, there will be a need for approximately 7,600 jets and 16,000 jet engines. This new fleet will cost well in excess of half a trillion dollars.

China wants a piece of this market and is working on developing its own technology to build airplanes and engines. State-backed Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) has been working on developing two aircraft, the ARJ21 and the C919.


The ARJ21 is a 75- to 105-seat “advanced regional jet” and is based on the MD-90 with design modifications by Ukraine’s Antonov. It is suspected the ARJ is built using tooling originally provided by McDonnell Douglas for the license and production of the MD-90 in China.

The airframe and some components will be built by AVIC I Commercial Aircraft Company (known as ACAC), a government-controlled consortium of Chinese aviation companies that make military and commercial aircraft. AVIC has more than 400,000 employees. The airplane will use major components from the United States and European suppliers such as GE Aviation (engines), Honeywell (fly-by-wire technology) and Rockwell Collins (avionics equipment).

The ARJ21 was initially planned to start commercial service in 2008, but has experienced numerous delays. Latest estimates are to receive certification from both the U.S. FAA and China’s Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) in the first half of 2013 and delivery to Chengdu Airlines, the launch customer, in 2014.

Currently there are 250 orders for ARJ21 from Chinese airlines and leasing companies.


COMAC is also working on a 168- to 190-seat narrow-body aircraft, the C919, with the intent to compete against Boeing and Airbus. The first flight is expected in 2014 using test aircraft. Deliveries to customers should begin in 2016. COMAC expects to ramp up production to produce 150 planes per year by 2020.

Initially, the C919 will rely on foreign technology for key components such as engines and avionics. The engines are being developed by CFM International and will include CFM LEAP (Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion) technology to produce low fuel consumption.

Development of a Chinese-made engine is also underway. Wu Guanghui, the chief designer of the C919, said the company’s domestically made engine for the plane, codenamed “Yangtze 1000,” will be installed later.

“In the future, C919s can carry either of the two engines,” Wu said. “However, the plane will definitely have a Chinese heart.”

There were 380 orders for the C919 at the time the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition closed in November 2012. For the long term, twin-aisle aircraft are also being studied. COMAC hopes to produce up to 2,000 planes.


Based on estimated demand for airplanes for the Chinese market, engines could be worth more than US$100 billion during the next 20 years. The size of this market has captured China’s attention.

“There is widespread consensus that engines have become a bottleneck, constraining the development of China’s aviation industry,” according to AVIC’s 2011 annual report.

The central government is evaluating a 100 billion RMB (US$16 billion) plan to research and develop jet engines.

According to Reuters, some Chinese aviation industry specialists forecast that the government will eventually spend up to 300 billion RMB (US$48 billion) on jet-engine development throughout the next two decades.

“China’s aircraft engines have obviously been underinvested,” said Wang Tianyi, a defense sector analyst with Shanghai’s Orient Securities. “100 billion Yuan is not a huge amount of money in the engine world.”

In addition, some industry experts have doubts about China’s abilities to produce competitive aircraft engines.

“Historically, all major players in aerospace have possessed both airframe and engine design capabilities,” said Carlo Kopp, the founder of Air Power Australia. “Until China can design and produce competitive engines, the performance and capabilities of Chinese aircraft designs will be seriously limited by what technology they are permitted to import.”

For China’s aviation engineers, the traditional short cuts of extracting intellectual property from foreign joint-venture partners or simply copying technology from abroad have so far delivered minimal results. Western engine manufacturers guard their industrial secrets to limit the transfer of knowledge and opportunities for intellectual property theft.


In addition to China’s domestic market, the ARJ21 and the C919 are aimed at developing products that can compete in the international marketplace. The challenges for China’s aviation industry are daunting: China must complete certification of the two new planes, followed by ramping up production and building a market by convincing buyers that these are safe, reliable products.

Despite the intensified research efforts and potential for technology transfers, some experts say foreign engines will continue to rule the skies in China.

“This won’t change for 10 to 15 years,” said Andrei Chang, editor in chief of Kanwa Asian Defence magazine.

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