Zhuhai Airshow: China’s aircraft industry is gaining speed

The 10th Chinese airshow at Zhuhai opened today. It was a day with fewer announcements than expected from the usual suspects (Airbus, Boeing…) but the Chinese industry did not disappoint. China is now showing more and more of its coming might as a player on the aeronautics arena.

The most prominent displays at this show were on the military side, where China has two stealth aircraft projects flying (the large Chengdu canard J-20 and the smaller Shenyang J-31) while their canard Chengdu J-10 was flying the display circuits overhead (Figure 1).

J-31 Kopie

Figure 1. Chinas latest fighter developments; the J-31 and J-20 stealth fighters and the canard J-10. Source: China internet.

All aircraft are of latest structural and aerodynamic design if not in engines and systems. This is a big difference to previous shows where the Russian Sukhoi and MIG aircraft and their local copies did the flying display until 2008. Since then everything has changed and now China and USA are the only countries in the world with two different stealth designs flying. USA has one in operation (F-22) and one close to (F-35) whereas China still has many years to go until they have their new aircraft operational. But it is significant that the old aeronautical behemoths Europe and Russia have none respective one (PAK-50) stealth fighter in flight test.

Transposed to the civil airliner area, China is not that far in the development yet, but we will see China get there. China is still doing their first learning on civil aircraft certification with the Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (COMAC) MD-80 copy, the ARJ-21, and are assembling the first prototype of their mainline single aisle competitor, C919 (Figure 2).


Figure 2. COMAC 919 single aisle airliner which will fly next year and be certified 2018. Source: COMAC.

But one can see the momentum building. According to Reuters, the COMAC C919 got an additional order of 30 aircraft at the opening day of the show from the leasing arm of China’s Merchants Bank and the ARJ21 should have got a Comsys Aviation order for 20 ARJ21-700. The C919 order takes the tally to 430 for this aircraft, which will now fly next year and enter service late 2018, according to COMAC. Michel Merluzeau, director of the consulting firm G2 Solutions, predicts the C919 EIS will slip to 2020, however.

The orders are still from local airline industry players but the aircraft, which is AVIC’s first mainline civil aircraft, will be operated in significant numbers once certified.

The C919 will be 1.3 m longer then the A320 at 38.9m. Cross section is almost identical and it will accept LD3-45 containers. It will seat 156 passengers in “mixed” seating and 168 in all economy, very close to the A320’s 150 seats in two class and and a bit less than the crammed 180  all economy with a 28/29 in pitch for the A320. Size is very comparable to A320 or 737 MAX 8, perhaps in between the two.

Looking at the C919 technologies, it will fly equal efficiency engines to the A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX, the CFM LEAP-1C (these engines are now flying on GE’s test Boeing 747 and are virtually identical to the A320 version) and it will use western systems and avionics. One can expect efficiency on the level of the A320neo and 737 MAX. Initially it will be hard for COMAC to achieve the same operational reliability and support as the established players. Airbus chief strategy officer Kiran Rao does not see the competition coming at EIS, but rather after 2-4 years after start of operation in China.

But this is China’s first serious try. In other high tech industries like computers and smart phones, the Chinese were nowhere 20 years ago, produced to western designs 15 years ago, gave knife-edge competition five years ago and it has now forced household names like Nokia, Motorola and Blackberry virtually out of business and is making life difficult for Samsung, Sony and Apple, starting in Asia. The Chinese are incredibly competitive once they get the hang of things so the threat is to be taken seriously.

Russia has a better technological status but does not have the industrial focus that the Chinese have. The Chinese and the Russians are joining up to create a mid-range widebody however. It will be truly interesting to see where the Chinese are come 2025.

45 Comments on “Zhuhai Airshow: China’s aircraft industry is gaining speed

  1. Actually, the Us has a heck of a lot more than 2 types of flying (and operational) stealth aircraft and have been doing it since the ’60s…

    a version of the Ryan 147 Firefly target drone was adapted for stealthy surveillance during the VietNam war
    SR-71 was one of the first aircraft to make practical use of radar signature reduction concepts
    the Q-21 drone was the SR-71’s stealthy payload
    the B-1B’s primary positive attribute over the B-1A was a 100 fold reduction in RCS
    the F-117, the first operational highly stealthy light attack aircraft
    the B-2 is still the only truly stealthy bomber
    the F-16 has had stealth enhancing features since the C model
    the F/A-18E/F have extensive modifications from the C/D primarily aimed at improving stealth
    the YF-23 prototype was supposedly much stealthier than the F-22, also faster and much cooler looking 🙂
    the XF-32 Prototype was approximately as stealthy as the F-35
    Dozens of “black” programs such as Tacit Blue
    the RQ-170 “Beast of Kandahar” (and now “Beastie of Tehran”)
    Predator-C aka Avenger, X-36, X-45, X-47, X-48 probably dozens of other prototype stealth drones.

    • The point is not how many stealth aircraft projects have US done, it is the speed of learning and getting the hang of things by the Chinese which is the clou. The top priority of a Chinese family is the kids education to a level I have never seen anywhere else (I have worked with them for the last 20 years). And their speed and attitude in learning stuff is amazing. Look at the J-31, a purer copy of the F-35 general layout is hard to find. Does this bother a Chinese designer? Not a bit, copy what you can and go from there is their philosophy, faster and more effective then invented here.

      Sure they have a lot of catching up to do but the one who is underestimating them is making a big mistake.

      • The J-31 is at several points better than the original.
        Due to the use of two engines the J-31 has one big weapons bay in the center just like the F-22. There frontal surface is also smaller because China never intended to build a B-version with an huge vertical lift fan behind the cockpit.

        The J-31 looks more than a little Raptor.

  2. Most of the engineers, technicians, and managers who have worked on these programs have either retired or are retiring as we speak. And they take the know-how with them.

    Countries like China and India are able to galvanize their youth’s interest in A&D (and STEM) through new aircraft programs. With enough motivation and sheer number of engineers/technicians they will eventually catch up if not surpass us; just like the article alludes.

    Here, in the US, the best and the brightest go into the internet economy where earnings potential is higher than A&D and where the work culture is more suitable to the 20 somethings’ values.

  3. “But it is significant that the old aeronautical behemoths Europe and Russia have none respective one (PAK-50) stealth fighter in flight test.”

    Indeed, Europe has been pumping billions in previous generation designs for the last 25 years (Gripen, Rafale, Eurofighter). So many governments, opposition parties, interest, democracy, changing priorities, we weren’t able to turn the ship.. Civil & Heli’s we are taking over though 😉

    • The problem with so called “stealth fighters” is the part about what really is stealth. E.g. the A-35 has just a good stealth performance for frontal aspect at X-band. The problem now is many nations switch their search radar to L-band (e.g. SMART-L). Suchoi T-50 is said to have an L-band radar.

      Another option is to jam X-band radar to make fighter jets stealth for X-band radar.

      The T-50 is seems to be a “me too” product just like Buran or Tu-144. Produced to keep up with the west. The big difference between the T-50 and the A-35 is the performance of the aircraft. F-22 lacks an infrared search and track (IRST) system like PIRATE (Typhoon) or 101KS-V (T-50). I am not sure about the capabilities of EOTS (F-35) for air to air combat. According to the position it seems to be optimized for air to ground combat.

      The F-35 is for sure a better fighter aircraft than the F-117 but that makes this bomb truck not a fighter jet.

      The Chinese “stealth” fighter jets are also “me too” products to compete with the US. In my opinion such jets are to much optimized for X-band radar stealth. What’s the use of such optimized stealth then your enemy can see you by IRST or L-band radar (SMART-L) from 100 km away? Therefore I am not worried about European fighter jets.

  4. No-one has got rich recently by underestimating China. I have close connections with the country so I have no reason to disparage the country. Nevertheless I will make the contrarian view on China’s airplane manufacturing industry:

    Airplane manufacturing has a huge incumbency effect It is difficult for new entrants to displace entrenched manufacturers who have the relationships with lessors and airlines and the support structures in place. Different from computers and smartphones, for example
    Much of the cost of the plane is in components Which makes it difficult for newcomers to undercut the price of incumbents. Suppliers like Honeywell will give Airbus and Boeing their best prices. The exception perhaps is GE, which sells a ton of stuff to China, and is probably involved in the Comac project as a marketing expense.
    There is too much politics in this project The trend in aircraft manufacturing is towards risk sharing. Linking up with Japan, say, would have industrial logic. China wants to do everything itself for prestige reasons.
    Chinese success is not a given Despite pressure from the Chinese government, the local car industry for example is in relative decline. Consumers are buying foreign brands in ever bigger numbers. To the extent they are allowed to express an opinion, Chinese airlines don’t seem keen on Comac planes. Their main concern is profitability and they don’t seem to think Comac planes would help them on that.

    • We’ve seen China get into space. We’ve seen China become the global economic superpower. We’ve seen massive infrastructure improvements. And on and on. Most importantly, the Chinese are a very patient people. They waited 99 years to get Macau and Hong Kong back. What’s 25-40 years to become the next Airbus?

      • You’re right,of course. The Chinese government has a huge investment in this project, and not just in money terms. And I doubt anyone thirty years ago would have expected Brazil to be an aeronautical powerhouse…

      • Scott,

        Something I think is in error is comparing a space program to a competitive enterprise of any sort.

        While I do not begin to understand the tech challenges, what we have seen is two dictatorships achieve Space flight vs one democracy.

        That tells me that in the case of manned space the strength of a dictatorship (focus and money with no accountability) trumps free enterprise as there is no money in manned space (spin offs aside but even that is no longer true in my view, the spin offs that occurred are done and those that had a commercial prospect have gone off successfully)

        So while the Chinese success is an accomplishment, I do not believe its not one that translates into successfully making, selling and supporting commercial aircraft.

        Long term unless you have a freely operating company the bureaucracy and wrong goals drags it down and its not only not competitive product, it’s a gross money looser that is not viable.

        • Keep in mind that the democracy mentioned gained space access by leveraging technology and personnel from a third dictatorship 😉
          Actually both space race participants got their rocket pedagogues from the same sources.
          Hilarious, isn’t it?

      • You are correct that China has patience. However, as an industrial power, it’s not very efficient. Comac is state funded and its primary aim is to produce national prestige so it has an limitless cheque book. For example, in the competitive aviation industry, commercial airlines have to be highly efficient in managing their resources. Chinese state owned airlines however are not completive and it’s a known fact that bigger SOE (State-Owned Enterprise) airlines take over smaller SOE ones so government employees keep their jobs.

        • Will they spend more than Boeing spent on the 787 ( real money, not the timewarped project accounting thing ) ?

      • Scott Hamilton you are absolutely right on point… patience is a virtue. it is not important who gets first shot, but who gets a killer shot.

    • Despite pressure from the Chinese government, the local car industry for example is in relative decline.

      What’s your metric here?

      • Domestic car production in China: for example You may need to Google for the title to get pas the paywall.

        China has a lucrative aeronautics industry as suppliers – most in Tier 3. I question whether Comac will be world class integrator like Boeing and Airbus, however. It seems to me they are not going about the project in the right way, they are not driven by commercial imperatives and in any case it’s a hard nut to crack.

        Despite Government interference, Chinese airlines are operating commercially and on the borderline of profitability. They can’t cope with prestige projects; they need to be focused on the bottom line. I note most of the sales are to leasing operations owned by China’s banks. These banks are technically bankrupt due to a large exposure to non-performing loans to state enterprises. I guess all those C919s will just add to their pile of bad debt. But at least they can offer airlines competitive lease rates and hide the losses from this program.

          • OK, I think I’ve found that article.

            They reference Geely and BYD which either have reorganised under different labels, joined in a cooperative or reoriented. ( Slump in car sales was in 2010++ )
            With rise of a middle class I would expect status symbols to gain in popularity beyond average growth. Compare to BMW cars for the “Beautiful People” in the US at an earlier time.

            difficult to take a full picture. Overall car production in China obviously is on the rise. 19m in 2013.

  5. I remember all to well 2011 when western analysts were bruhaha’ing Chinese Stealth fighter efforts predicting it would take them at least 5 yrs to copy our superior technology. Shortly after the J-20 “mock-up” took off, looking like a copy of a .. nothing and a second unrelated type took off a year later, having the west rewrite their predictions.

    Same for attach helicopters, the Chinese “couldn’t make up their minds” because we saw pictures of different configurations. Later on it proved two different programs..

    They are building a series of aircraft carriers and the F-31 might take to the sea, again sooner then we expect/hope.

    • Looking at the J-20’s canard angle of incidence in low speed flight tells you that the wings are mounted too far aft and/or the lift contribution of the center fuselage/intake section was overestimated. I’d not be suprised if this plane flies like a dog.

      With FBW, you could even make a brick fly, so seeing the J-20 and the FC-31 in the air proves nothing. Performance envelope?

      • With FBW, you could even make a brick fly, so seeing the J-20 and the FC-31 in the air proves nothing. Performance envelope?

        You are extrapolating from F22 and F35 experience ?

    • I don’t think you know the correct meaning of Bruhaha – a bruhaha is a dustup, a skirmish, or people making a big deal out of nothing.

      you seem to be meaning the opposite, poo-pooing as in making light of.

  6. Yes, China is progressing very well in all aspects of industry (everything available in world countries now a day are made in China). Some of their products may not up to western standards, but they are gaining knowledge, experience and soon they will develop their standards. I am sure China has the caliber to improve due to their income, population and commitment to be recognized among the super power..

    • One think people seem to regularly not get with Chinese product quality is
      that they get value equivalent to what the manufacturer in China got paid for 😉
      Transport and profits doesn’t add value.

  7. A short addition.
    The C919 is in large parts a complete copy of the A320 in structural terms. All structural items, down to the number of stiffening ribs at bulkheads, the fuselage sections and the profile of the floor beams, is identical to the A320. Not similar, it is identical!

    It is mutually agreed that the Chinese will rule the world in 10 years and us Europeans will inhabitate some sort of free-range museum to please our chinese masters during their holidays (we serve beer and sauerkraut). However, the methods of how the Chinese conquer the world are not strikingly convincing.

    • Know the background behind how the “Made in Germany” tag came into being?
      Originally required to indicate cheap copy it turned into a mark of excellence.
      ( epiphany of the negative kind: “Countries of the EEC” as “origin” on a glas of honey 😉

      • It is simply not true that Germany copied english technology in a large scale. Yes the very first steam engines where investiganted, but more the principles behind it’s function than anything else. Germany very early developed their own designes and was more hold back of economic reasons (no unified marked until 1870) than of Technology shortcomings. Germay never – even very early in it’s industrialisation – tended to make 80-90% copies of products.

        “Made in Germany” was also not for copy purposes but to make a distingtion to the “supreme english Quality” – which of course vanished immediately.

        Asian menatlity is very different, also Japan/Korea started by comperatively 1 to 1 copies of wetern/russian products. BUT: Things take time in Japan and the “early-risk-mentality” is not very profound. But on the other hand products getting perfectionated or “finished” until they are really superiour and very reliable. That’s what we’ll probably see in China to some degree. On the other hand i don’t would expect a BWB from Chine for example.

          • Yes, the articel states it exatly as what i said: “Ein Auslöser für diese Entwicklung in Großbritannien waren unter anderem Waren aus Chemnitz auf der Weltausstellung London 1862; diese brachen erstmals die englische Dominanz im Maschinenbau.” wich means: “The reason for this development [the introduction of the phrase “Made in Germany”] was specifially that machines from Chemnitz at the 1862 London world Exhibition for the first time breaking the english dominance in machine (tool) industry.” It was obiously not copiing of english machines which leads to that, and even as early as 1880 locomotives and machine tools from saxony where superiour (but always expensive too) to their english counterparts.

            By the way i life in Chemnitz and are very familiar with the rise (and fall) of south-west Saxony in high-Level industrial goods, e.g. Machine Tools (UNION, Reinecker AG, locomotives (HARTMANN) and later car industrie (Horch, Audi, DkW, Wanderer).

    • It is worse: The C919 is a hodge-podge of elements taken from the A320, the 737 and the CSeries.
      Doing a straight copy is tricky enough, as the understanding of the underlying design assumptions and allowables is superficial at best.
      For ex I don’t need to know anything about loads and allowables when copying a wooden chair. In contrast, taking the seat pan of one chair, the backrest of another and the legs from a third with a change in material to plastics without a good understanding of the basic capabilities of the individual parts and materials is likely to end up in a mess.

      • Or the scary version: they always took the best of all three designs for a aprticular part of the structure after analyzing each option in thorough detail.

        • What a weird idea. What ride comfort would you get on a car if you’d put together the suspension from the ‘best parts’ found in other cars?
          In order to analyze you need to know what to look for and why.

  8. This is true. Infact J. E. Reinecker as founder of what later became europes biggest machine tool company (before WWII) visited the US in the 1860s and used the US production methodes (but not the design of the machines itself) as inspiration.

  9. How do you conclude that the FC-31 and J-20 are of latest structural and aerodynamic design without knowing any weight and performance figures, or anything about their flight control characteristics, or the loads envelope and design life?

  10. the mistake being made is that an aircraft is not a short cycle electronic device.

    If you have a new generation every 4 months, you can progress extremely fast.
    Its not a labor intensive item like ship building where cheap labor is where its at.

    The ARJ21 is a bust, the C919 did not learn from that, 13 years on the ARJ21 and its still not certified (and that certification holds up the C919 as the ARJ21 is the agreed on template)

    The C919 will not be competitive with a design 41 years long in the tooth.

    In the meantime the tech has gone far past that and they have to start over again as aluminum aircraft are not the next generation (Aibus got in while it was the current and future tech with refinements and indeed was competitive and it still took a long effort and laxer rules in Asia on twin engine over water flights to get their foot in the door and get a look elsewhere)

    What they should have done is an all composite job, next iteration the aluminum construction is wasted and you start over.

    In the meantime, 25 years form now China may be something else entirely, there is a lot of issues, including some of the worst pollution world has ever seen. One spark and the country could come un-glued.

    Lets see how they progress before we crown them king

  11. Hasn’t Holywood picked up on the Chinese? The usual script (we take revenge with superior equipment & values) could be implemented easily, riding on feelings of uncertainty & supported by DoD weapon systems use.

    • Chinese Baddies is so 50ties.
      .. and Hollywood is still infatuated with Russian Baddies
      on occasion interspersed with a Hun or two.
      ( maybe due to them being so very busy with remakes 😉

    • Hollywood can’t afford to do that with its potentially biggest market, Russia is a different story as it has never been an important market.

  12. While attention goes to the J-31 and J-20, the J-10B with domestically build WS10 engine, ISRT and EASA radar enters mass production. They already produced 300 A’s. The Chinese know serie production.

  13. Reason why Europe does not have stealth fighters is… they are an inherently offensive weapon, and Europe during Cold War was focused on defense against the Warshaw Pact. F-22 and F-35 were meant to fly deep into the Soviet Union, where there would be radar SAMs chasing them from every angle. Typhoon, Rafale and Gripen were meant to defend Western Europe against Soviet fighters and bombers, so they only needed limited RCS reduction from frontal angle, and aerodynamic, loadout, cost and size penalties of internal weapons bays were not seen as worth it. Different requirements = different designs.

    BTW, first low-RCS “stealth” fighter design was done by Germany during World War II. It never flew in combat, but US stole the design and adapted it for their B-2 bomber.

    • That is probably debatable.

      What has my attention is the continuously created newsbits showcasing that the US is more “bad ass” than the N*is.

      (and in a conflict that was won by the sacrifice of 18++million inhabitants from another nation 😉

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