Monday Jan 14 2008
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China's aircraft dream takes wing
Published: Jan 14, 2008 

The rollout of China's first self-designed and developed commercial jet, the ARJ21-700, marks a milestone in the country's civil aviation history, one that witnessed repeated ups and downs.

The Yun-10 project, which aimed to manufacture homegrown large commercial planes, was stopped midway due to "non-technical" reasons in 1980.

Beginning in 1985, China began to assemble the MD-82 for United States-based McDonnell Douglas and delivered 35 planes by October 1994. The two sides planned to further cooperate on the MD90-30, in which China would take a bigger part, but the project was halted when Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas.

China also planned to co-design the AE-100 with Airbus in 1995, but that project was also unsuccessful.

"In China's civil airliner manufacturing sector there was a dispute for a long time over whether we should rely on self-innovation or international cooperation," says Lin Zuoming, general manager of State-owned aviation manufacturer China Aviation Industry Corp I (AVIC I).

"We went to extremes - either shutting doors to international cooperation, or totally relying on international cooperation. The latter usually leads to failure once the cooperation stops," he says.

Learning from past lessons, AVIC I decided to take a different road from the very beginning in developing the ARJ21, which stands for "Advanced Regional Jet for the 21st Century".

"We decided that innovation, not international cooperation, would be the root of the ARJ21 project. But we used all favorable outside conditions, including international cooperation," he says.

It was also agreed that international cooperation should not in any way influence innovation. "This guarantees we can carry on the project ourselves once the cooperation halts," he says.

The new ARJ21 was designed by China's own aircraft designers, but uses advanced components from 19 foreign suppliers, including GE, which supplies engines, and Honeywell for flight control systems.

Wang Yawei, director of commercial aircraft division of AVIC I, says the products are used in the world's latest civil airliner models.

Using the foreign suppliers does not influence China's ownership of the plane's intellectual property rights (IPR), Wang says.

"In a time when it is an international practice for airliner manufacturers to incorporate different suppliers' products in the planes, owning a plane's IPR means that we can make independent decisions on its function and future development trends, and have mastered the synthesizing capability," he says.

In addition, foreign products have made the regional jetliner more competitive, "not in price, but for its performance and lifespan", Wang says.

The ARJ21-700 regional jet made its debut on December 21, 2007 at Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Factory, a milestone in China's civil aviation program.

The ARJ21-700 has 90 seats, with a range of up to 3,700 km, which can cover 80 percent of domestic routes in China.

According to Chen Yong, one of the jet designers based in Shanghai, the jetliner is reliable in taking off and landing at airports in demanding locations, such as Kunming Airport in South China's mountainous Yunnan Province.

"This is a goal set from the very beginning. The jet is born to fly on routes leading to China's remote west, where there is a huge demand for feeder lines but the airports are often built on plateaus or amid high temperatures," Chen says.

Designers have configured ARJ21's wings so it can fly at a similar speed to large planes. Kitchen and entertainment modules can be installed inside the cabin. Its rows of five seats provide comfort to passengers, they say.

Wang Yawei stresses that the jetliner is built to meet requirements for certificates of airworthiness not only from China's civil aviation authority, but also from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US. The certificates are expected to help the regional jet to explore markets outside of China.

AVIC I says that it has to date received 171 orders for the regional jets from domestic carriers, 100 of which were signed with Shenzhen Airlines last month. Lao Airlines signed a letter of intent with AVIC I for two ARJ21 jets.

AVIC I plans to produce 30 ARJ21 jets a year by 2011, and is scheduled to begin deliveries to customers in the third quarter of 2009.

Ground tests have started, and the plan is to use three ARJ21 jets in 14 months of tests to acquire air worthiness certificates, Wang says.

Following that, Wang says there will be a new model produced called the ARJ21-900, with an expected capacity of 105 seats, co-designed by AVIC I and Canada-based Bombardier. China will own the IPR of the new ARJ21 model, while Bombardier will send experts to participate and support the project, he says.

"We also plan to develop longer models and executive plane models for the ARJ21 series in the future," he says.

The regional jet program will be followed by programs to develop larger planes and advanced helicopters and research on key technologies such as engines and electronic systems, Qin Fuguang, an official with the Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense, says.

"Developing the civil aircraft industry is of strategic significance to China. It will not only satisfy the fast-growing domestic civil aviation market, but also guarantee the safety of the country's economy," he says.

At present, the civil aircraft market is largely monopolized by Boeing and Airbus.

The domestically-developed ARJ21, meaning "advanced regional jet for the 21st century", has given China a late but powerful presence in its own commercial aviation market. The first 90-seater plane is expected to roll out of the workshop on December 21, 2007.
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