By Charles Moreira, Editor
On 19 June 2017, Enterprise Trade Views reported on initiatives by China, Russia and India to develop their own respective home-grown civil airliners which would address their own internal air travel needs and also compete with the United States based Boeing and the European Union-based Airbus which currently dominate the civilian airliner business worldwide.
Back then, a test plane of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China’s COMAC C919 narrow bodied, twin-engined airliner had made its maiden flight from the Shanghai Pudong Airport earlier on 5 May 2017 and was expected to enter commercial service in 2018.
However, now on the threshold of the year 2020, COMAC is now looking at a likely target for certification of the C919 in 2021 before it can begin commercial service, the state-owned China News Service of 7 August 2019 reported, citing a speech by C919 programme chief designer Wu Guanghui at a recent industry event.
According to Reuters, a COMAC spokesman had confirmed China News Service’s report but said that the target date was subject to regulatory approval and the aircraft’s safety remains a top priority.
In June 2018, COMAC had said that it aimed to obtain the certification by the end of 2020, though analysts believed that this target was too ambitious, considering that the two test planes had flown a relatively few hours since the first C919’s flight in 2017.
Li Jian, deputy head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) had said in May 2019 that more flaws in aircraft design, manufacturing, airworthiness compliance and operational suitability were being identified, as work continued for certification of the jet.
The fourth C919 prototype had completed its first test flight around the end of July 2019 and COMAC had planned to roll out two more test planes in the second half of 2019 to speed up the pace of flight testing.
According to its specifications, the C919 will likely carry between 158 and 168 passengers, with a range of just over 4,000km up to 5,555km and it’s intended to compete in the same league as the Airbus 320 and the Boeing 737 narrow bodied twin-jets.
As of August 2019, the C919 had received a total of 815 orders from 28 different customers, mostly based in China. Besides leasing companies, airlines which had ordered the plane include Hainan, Air China, China Eastern and China Southern, though many of these are believed to be Letters of Intent or Memoranda of Understanding, rather than firm orders.
Genesis of the CR929 wide body
However, six years before the C919’s maiden flight, COMAC was already looking into developing a wide bodied, twin-engined. long-haul airliner – the COMAC C929, since back in 2011, which would be in the same league as the Boeing Dreamliner, the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350
At the same time, Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) was looking to develop a replacement for the four-engined, long-haul. Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-96 which first flew in 1988, and one of which is used as the Russian President’s aircraft.
The trend in wide bodied civil airliners today is towards two-engined planes which are more cost-effective, hence more competitive, in terms of operational costs for airlines, than four-engined aircraft such as the Boeing 747, the Airbus A380 and the Airbus A340.
As we wrote back in 2017, the UAC’s MC-21 narrow bodied airliner which made its maiden flight on 28 May 2019, is in the same league and competes with the COMAC C919.
So, COMAC and UAC began cooperating on the design of a new wide bodied airliner and in May 2017, they formed a 50-50 joint venture known as the China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation Limited (CRAIC) to develop what they call the CRAIC 929, which they aim to make its first flight sometime between 2025 and 2028.
Russia will provide the know-how and technology, whilst China will provide the funds. The joint project is expected to cost the equivalent of US$20 billion.
UAC foresees that 8,000 new wide bodied aircraft will be required 2033, including a significant number by China.
CRAIC claims that its new airliner will be 10% to 15% cheaper to operate than its competitors, and it aims to capture around 10% of the available market for international wide body planes.
The base version of the aircraft – namely the CR929-600 will have a Maximum Take-off Weight of 242 tonnes, a range of around 12,000km, a passenger capacity of between 260 and 290 in a two or three-class configuration, or up to 440 passengers in a single-class configuration.
Several variants are also planned, with the next being the CR929-500 with a shorter fuselage and 250-seat capacity, and a CR929-700 with a longer fuselage and up to 320 seats. All variants will have the same 63.3 metre wingspan.
The project calls for a family of these aircraft, with the next variant planned to be a shorter C929-500, seating 250, and then a stretched CR929-700, seating 320. All types will have the same 63.3m wingspan.
CRAIC had unveiled a life-size model of the CR929 at Zhuhai Airshow in China between 6th and 11th November 2018.
According to UAC President Yury Slyusar, the project had made progress and was on schedule. It was at the preliminary design phase and was also in the supplier and equipment selection phase, which they expected to complete by the end of 2019.
Since the project was still in the supplier and equipment selection phase at that time, much of the cockpit of the model comprised of generic equipment, except for the aircraft’s control, where CRAIC had chosen a side-stick similar to those used by Airbus, rather than a control column traditionally preferred by Boeing.
At MAKS 2019
Less than a year later the fuselage of the CR929 or a part of it was showcased at the International Aviation and Space Show (MAKS) 2019 at the Zhukovsky International Airport, 40km south-east of Moscow from 27 August to 1 September 2019 and observers believe that the aircraft will have a metallic nose section for damage mitigation, though the rest of the fuselage and wings will be made of composites.
In early 2019, the aeronautical publication Flight Global expected that CRAIC was ‘very close’ to selecting a supplier for the engines for the plane, which could either be Rolls Royce or General Electric.
However, these choices are still uncertain as a joint China-Russia engine development was announced at MAKS 2019, and no it seems that besides Rolls Royce and General Electric, CRAIC could also opt for engines from the Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC), Russia’s United Engine Corporation (UEC) or a potential new engine developed by CRIAC itself for the CR929.
According to Flight Global, programme director Xie Canjun said that so far, they had already decided on the CR929’s length, width, internal layout, basic functionality, range and passenger capacity and that they planned to finalise the concept by the end of 2019 or early 2020, with definition frozen in the first half of 2022 and first flights targeted for 2025.