China’s ‘big jet’ takes the sky

The COMAC C919 passenger jet, China’s first indigenously-developed ‘big jet’, successfully completed its maiden test flight on 5 May 2017, marking the first major milestone in China’s effort to break into the commercial airliner market which has been dominated by Boeing and Airbus.

The first of a range of designs that have been proposed by COMAC, the C919 is a narrow-body, single-aisle, twin-engine airliner comparable in size and performance to the Airbus A320 family, Boeing 737 family, Bombardier CS300, and Irkut MC-21.

C919 1

With a fuselage length of 38.9 m and wingspan of 35.8 m, the C919 can be configured with 158 seats (two-class) or 168 seats (all-economy). The aircraft is powered by two CFM International LEAP 1C turbofan engines, giving a maximum operating speed of 900 km/h (560 m/h), a service ceiling of 12,100 m (FL397), and a maximum range of 4,075 to 5,555 km. Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) is currently developing a domestic turbofan engine designated CJ-1000A, which could serve as an alternative to the foreign-made engines on the C919.

C919 3

Although it will be some time before the C919 is able to compete directly with the more popular Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737 MAX families, the jet airliner has achieved some initial commercial success, with around 500 orders received so far. At the 2010 Zhuhai Air Show, COMAC revealed that it plans to develop six variants of the C919, including stretched body, shortened body, cargo, business jet, and ‘special’ variants. The company is also planning to develop a larger, two-aisle, wide-body variant which could rival the like of the Airbus A330 family.

The revelation of the ‘special’ variant indicates the intention to use the C919 as an aerial platform for military roles, following the example of the Boeing 707 being developed into the E-3 Sentry, E-8C JSTARS, and KC-135 Stratotanker; the Boeing 737 being developed into the E-7A Wedgetail and P-8 Poseidon; and the A330 into the Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT).

The PLA Air Force has been seeking to expand its special role aircraft fleet for some time, but its ambition has been limited by the availability of a suitable aerial platform. Most of the PLAAF’s special role aircraft have been based on the indigenous Xi’an Y-7 (An-24/26), Shaanxi Y-8/9 (An-12), and the Russian Il-76 transport aircraft. However, the bulky airframes of these designs, intended to accommodate as much cargoes as possible, means that they are not particularly fuel efficient. Passenger airliners, with their fuel-efficient engines and slim body airframe, coupled with military-grade communications, navigation and electronic countermeasures systems, provide an ideal aerial platform for missions that require long-endurance, such as AEW&C, electronic warfare, anti-submarine warfare, aerial refuelling, etc.

The PLAAF has already achieved some small-scale success in converting passenger airliners for military roles. For example, a number of Russian-made Tu-154M jets serving with the PLAAF were converted into electronic reconnaissance aircraft equipped with electronic intelligence (ELINT) suite and synthetic aperture radar (SAR). More recently, the PLAAF converted two Boeing 737-300 passenger planes into airborne command posts.

PLAAF Tu-154M/D electronic reconnaissance aircarft
Boeing 737 airborne command post
PLAAF Boeing 737-300 airborne command post

There will be a number of hurdles before the C919 can be used for military roles. The most obvious barrier is the availability of its foreign-made parts and engines. The supply of the CFM International LEAP 1C turbofans and other imported parts is likely to be subject to agreement for commercial uses only. Only when indigenous alternatives become available can the C919 be built as a military aerial platform. It is estimated that China is still years away before fully grasping the turbofan engine technology, and China’s indigenous combat and transport aircraft continue rely on Russian-built engines.

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