On 5 May China's new single-aisle airliner, the COMAC C919, took to the skies for the first time. TIM ROBINSON asks: is this the end of the Airbus-Boeing duopoly?


Livestreaming the C919 maiden flight from the flightdeck represented a bold aviation first (CCTV). 

To outsiders, the world of Chinese aerospace may seem opaque at times. Language differences, unfamiliar companies and natural secrecy about military projects, means that to some Western observers aeronautical goings-on behind the 'bamboo curtain' can at times present a mystery wrapped in a riddle. Even western suppliers to Chinese aerospace programmes have commented about how they were kept in the dark by Chinese partners over the state of progress on key projects.

Yet, in the first flight of COMAC's C919 airliner on 5 May, China stunned the world by bringing unprecedented transparency to a first flight, by live-streaming video from the flight deck. True, this is not a military project (one has yet to see a J-20 cockpit cam video) but it still represents a historic aviation first and a measure of confidence in the aircraft.

The single-aisle, 190-seat COMAC C919, in development since 2008, is China's latest civil aviation flagship project and, as such, might be argued brings the country firmly in the same league as Europe, Russia and the US in terms of aerospace. While its previous civil airliner, AVIC's ARJ21 might be comparable to an 1980s airliner, the C919, equipped with the latest Western engines and avionics, comes perhaps very close, but not quite, to Airbus or Boeings latest offerings. Call it perhaps, 'nearly a Neo'. So far it has racked up 570 commitments, the vast majority from Chinese airlines and lessors and will enter service in 2020. 

An aerospace paradox

Structure from China, systems and engines from the US and Europe. (Chinese Internet)

Yet, ironically, this symbol of national aerospace pride and achievement is also representative of today's globalised economy - where the manufacturer integrates a number of different international suppliers. For example, US engine giant GE and France's Safran provide the CFM LEAP-1C engines, Honeywell the flight control systems, Liebherr the landing gear, UTC the lighting and so on. Like Airbus and Boeing, who use the same suppliers, the key part is the high value design, the integration and final assembly. With everyone having access to (more or less) the same Lego pieces, the secret is in assembling these in the most efficient, fastest and most cost-effective manner.

This international content also makes for an interesting thought experiment should relations between the US and China deteriorate. Though Chinese airlines have no doubt been encouraged to patriotically order the C919, should a serious trade war or tariffs break out, the global content means that it would be hard, if not impossible, for Beijing, for example, to order all Chinese-flown 737s to be replaced by C919s. Dependency on US suppliers means that the C919, despite its image as a 'made In China' product, would be vulnerable to tariffs or sanctions - at least in the short to medium term.


What's missing

No jet engines, no jet airliner. The C919 currently relies on this US-French CFM International turbofan. (CFM) 

Yet while the C919 is itself an achievement of China's aerospace industry, it also highlights some of its key weaknesses - particularly in powerplants. Powered by the CFM LEAP 1C, the C919, like other Chinese aircraft, relies on foreign-built or modified engines from Europe, the US and Russia. The Xian JH-7' fighter-bombers powerplant, for example, is a licence-built version of the 1960s-era Rolls-Royce Spey, which also powered UK F-4 Phantoms.

Meanwhile, in Europe and the US, engine designers are moving on to thinking about ever more efficient higher-bypass ratio engines, hybrid-electric architectures, adaptive-cycle military jet engines, or even in the case of the UK's Reaction Engines - breakthrough jet/rocket hybrid engines. These will be more fuel efficient, ultra reliable and are already plugged into 'Big Data' systems that analyse, and now predict, faults before they even happen. Interestingly, it may be in the more exotic forms of propulsion, such as hypersonic scramjets rather that high-bypass turbofans where China is able to close the gap first - though this technology remains unproven. Practical hypersonics have been 'just around the corner' for the past 50 years or more.

Though China understands well this weakness and has recently formed a new giant aeroengine company, Aeroengine Corporation of China (AECC), to address this, it is important to remember that in engines, the heart of any new aircraft, are dependent on materials technology and R&D that goes back 40 years or more. Replicating existing engines may be one challenge, but designing new ones, with better performance, efficiency and reliability is a whole new challenge. That said, China is aiming to swap Western and Russian engines for locally-built powerplants. The C919, for example, is aimed to have an alternative Chinese powerplant, the AVIC Commercial Aircraft Engines (ACAE) CJ-1000A ready by 2025.

Another drawback is that China's military aero engines have, on the whole, depended on Russian jet engines. These, though robust and cheap come with short service lives and were designed with disposability in mind. Russian metallurgical science, the building blocks of precision manufacturing needed for aero engine design, has thus lagged the West and means that China is some 15-20 years behind in this field.

In advanced materials too, China starts from behind. The J-20 stealth fighter may look impressive, and indeed may incorporate elements of F-117 stealth technology that was passed on to China after the 1999 shootdown over Serbia, as well as stolen secrets. However, the F-117s LO materials date from the 1970s, with the US producing the B-2, F-22 and F-35 in the meantime. As an example, contrast the finish of Russia's stealth fighter, the PAK-FA with a super-smooth F-35 in close-up photos.

A similar case in point is Russia and integrated circuits. In the 1950s the US correctly predicted the advances of computer and IT technology - particularly in the defence sphere. The result is that, while Russian military hardware was and still is, formidable in its own right, it never has been able to catch up with the West's lead in some areas of defence electronics, such as optronics, lasers and network-centric warfare. Witness Ukraine, where the most advanced Russian tank used by seperatists, the T-72 M1 was equipped with French-built thermal imaging systems.

A wealth of designs emerging

The Chengdu J-20 looks the part - but how capable is it in reality? (Wikipedia)

Yet the C919 represents only the latest and most public aeronautical milestone for China. New UAVs, two stealth fighters, transports, and helicopters in recent years have been debuted in recent years - each one providing a glimpse of a country fast developing its own powerful and advanced aerospace industry. Some of these may seem like carbon copies of Western designs such as the Xian Y-20 airlifter - a dead-ringer for the Boeing C-17, or the Predator-alike Chengdu Pterodactyl I UAV. And, while the J-31 has been singled out as twin-engined copy of the F-35, a look around other fifth generation projects (eg Turkey or South Korea) shows that form for stealth fighters may just follow function. All in all these aircraft, whether they are helicopters, airliners or fighters, represent a massive effort in aeronautical development. This massive military aerospace modernisation, whether in avionics, engines or radars, combined with a large domestic civil market also lays the foundations for a advanced civil aerospace sector. It was, of course, the US's role as the 'arsenal of democracy' in WW2 with mass production techniques, advanced aircraft like the B-29 and probing the sound barrier, that sowed the seeds of its post-war civil aviation dominance.  

But it is important to bear in mind, that while exciting shapes may grab the attention of western observers, the somewhat opaque nature of China's aerospace sector means it may be difficult to assess the true capabilities of some of these aircraft.

A case in point is the 1960s Cold War, where Western defence analysts, shocked by ever faster Soviet fighters and a superfighter in development called the MiG-25, posited that at that rate of progress the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle would be obsolete before it entered service. Today in hindsight, the 'Foxbat' was a startlingly fast interceptor, with a powerful radar yet if it went beyond Mach 3 for any period of time, would wreck its engines. The Eagle, meanwhile, today is the Worlds No1 combat-proven air superiority fighter with a kill ratio of 104-0.

For Chinese aircraft like the J-20 is still unknown as to their true potential and this hangs on other factors, such as training of pilots, maintenance, weapons it carries and integration into AWACS networks. Though the C919 will not have this level of secrecy, other factors will determine its true success, such as dispatch rate reliability, fuel efficiency and how well it is supported in service.


Breaking into the airliner business

Can COMAC take on the 'Big Two' in airliners? (COMAC)

On the civil side too, a first flight of a new airliner is just the start of a long road ahead. Oddly, the barriers to market entry for civil airliner business, may be bigger than for spaceflight. Anyone (almost) can launch a rocket with a small satellite (witness Iran, North Korea and erm, the UK in 1971). Yet crafting a successful civil airliner business, even with direct or indirect state support is much, much harder and takes decades of experience. Just ask Russia, no stranger to world class aerodynamics, yet Sukhoi's Superjet has faced an uphill sales battle - even among Russian airlines.

India too, with no shortage of talented software engineers, an impressive space programme and with English widely spoken, has been unable to translate these into indigenous aerospace success. The saga of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) being a case study in how not to develop a light fighter.

Designing, developing, testing, manufacturing, marketing and supporting airliners is extremely hard, with pitfalls all along the way. Even companies with immense resources can stumble (Airbus and A380 cables, Boeing with 787 battery fires). Even with a technologically advanced product, competition from rivals is fierce and market shifts can leave products high and dry. The rapid growth of global megacities, for example, has not lead to A380 market success.

And while both IAG's Willie Walsh and Ryanair's Michael O'Leary have flirted with COMAC in the past over the C919, no Western airline has yet to sign for it. Should that happen, that indeed would be a game-changer. Another case in point is Airbus. It took roughly 31 years from the first flight of the A300 in 1972 to 2003 when the pan-European manufacturer overtook arch rival Boeing in sales.

However, with China's fast-growing airline sector, the C919 may not need huge international sales to prosper. Notes Professor Keith Hayward FRAeS: "The key feature here is solid state support plus large single domestic market". 


Not just a copy, but an innovator

The latest Chinese mystery aircraft to be spotted - a wing in ground effect UAV. (Chinese Internet) 

Critics of China's aerospace will point to the country's massive industrial spying, reverse engineering and scoff that in the C919, all COMAC has done has copied the Airbus A320 - a me-too design that is unlikely to worry those at Toulouse or Seattle. Yet among the explosion of aeronautical projects in China there are aircraft and systems that have no equivalent in the west and represent genuine innovation. It is also worthwhile remembering that some 70 years ago, some experts, due to racism and ignorance, wrote off the ability of Japan's aeronautical industry to produce modern aircraft - until the highly-manoeuvrable, long-range A6M5 'Zero' appeared in the skies.

For example, the J-20, a large stealth fighter many compare to the F-22, but actually might be closer to a LO F-111 - a long-range strike platform designed expressly for China's needs in Asia-Pacific. Meanwhile, its JF-17/FC-1 light fighter developed in cooperation with Pakistan has already scored sales success with Nigeria and Myanmar - and will receive an AESA radar in its Block III upgrade. The J-31/FC-31 stealth fighter meanwhile, may end up being a low-cost exportable F-35 to those countries on Washington's naughty list (Chinese-armed UAVs have already blazed an export trail here).

Meanwhile, the Divine Eagle UAV offers up the prospect of a conformal AESA radar antenna as an unmanned AWACs. The DF-21D, - an antiship ballistic missile, though doubts remains as its true potential, has caught the attention of the US Navy as a serious threat that must be taken into account. The latest UAV to be glimpsed on social media is what seems to be WIG maritime patrol design. And in airliners, it is perhaps significant that prior to the C919s first flight, COMAC flew a subscale model of what looks like a design featuring a V-tail and blended fuselage/wings.

It is also notable that the World's biggest manufacturer of consumer UAVs, DJI, is a Chinese company, while this summer another Chinese company, eHang, is set to trial autonomous aerial taxis in Dubai.

As Airbus broke into  the US-dominated airliner market in the 1970s with a twin-engine widebody and then introduced new technology like FBW, it is innovation like this, that will provide the best chance of China achieving its goal of becoming a serious aerospace player - and breaking into the civil airliner business.



COMACs subscale V-tailed future airliner - the real competitor to Airbus and Boeing? (COMAC)

The rise of China as this juggernaut of aerospace power represents a quandary to western aerospace players - compete or co-operate? Sometimes it will be both at the same time. Though the West still has the edge, particularly in aeroengines, avionics, advanced materials and connectivity/netcentric warfare, the gap is now closing fast. And, while covert espionage and overt industrial partnerships have certainly helped Chinese aircraft designers, the latest designs show they are now exploring their own innovation path. For European, US and other countries, intensified competition, in civil as well as military aerospace, will help sharpen and push the boundaries of aviation and aerospace. Arguably, China may well be the most exciting place to be for aeronautics today.


Tim Robinson
9 May 2017