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Taking Wing
The successful launch of the first homemade jumbo jet boosts China's entire civil aviation industry chain
By Wang Hairong | NO. 20 MAY 18, 2017

The C919 takes off from the Shanghai Pudong International Airport for a 79-minute maiden flight on May 5 (XINHUA)

"This is a historic moment. Finally in the sky, there is a large aircraft that belongs to China, produced according to the world's advanced standards."

That was how the Commercial Aircraft Corp. of China (COMAC) announced to the world that the country's first indigenously made jumbo jet had completed its maiden flight on the afternoon of May 5, adding a milestone to China's aviation history.

The C919, the pioneering plane that took off from the Shanghai Pudong International Airport and flew for 79 minutes, is a single-aisle passenger aircraft with 158 seats. Its standard flight range is 4,075 km and maximum flight range 5,555 km.

COMAC had more details: "A plane with the rear fuselage painted in blue and green to symbolize the sky and earth and with youthful wings gracefully stretched out, landed steadily on the fourth runway (of the Shanghai Pudong International Airport)," it said in its a press release.

Ripple effect 

"I am very excited. The maiden flight is a reward for our years of hard work," Zhang Jiong, a senior engineer with COMAC's Beijing research center, told Beijing Review. Zhang, who joined COMAC in 2011 after getting his doctoral degree, said staff members had waited for nine years to see this moment.

Congratulations poured in. The joint message sent by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council read, "The success of the maiden flight marks a major breakthrough in China's large aircraft project and an important milestone in the development of China's civil aviation industry."

Kang Yuanli, leader of an aircraft power research team in COMAC's Beijing research center, told Beijing Review that the maiden flight was a breakthrough for several reasons.

"We are not only developing and producing one plane. More importantly, through the process, we have constructed a strategic platform for civil aircraft development and research," she said, adding that the project has also promoted the upgrading of other industries, including manufacturing and electronics.

In the process of developing the C919, a civil aircraft industrial chain involving nearly 200,000 persons in 200-plus companies in 22 provinces and municipalities has been formed. The project has also fostered joint ventures between 16 international aviation companies and their Chinese counterparts, spurring the production of avionics, flight control, power, fuel, landing gear and other airborne systems.

COMAC, headquartered in Shanghai, was established in 2008 to coordinate the construction of jumbo jets as well as regional jets.

Meeting market needs 

Air transportation, once serving the rich and privileged, is now accessible to the general public. In recent years, the number of airline passengers has soared.

Statistics from the Civil Aviation Administration of China show that in 2016, the annual passenger throughput of airports in China exceeded 1.16 billion, an increase of 11.1 percent over the previous year. By the end of 2016, there were 218 airports on the Chinese mainland.

The data also show that most passengers travel on domestic flights. However, the passenger throughput for international routes in 2016 surpassed 100 million for the first time in China's history, up 19.3 percent over the previous year.

According to Development of China's Transport, a white paper released in December 2016, China has 2,650 registered civil aviation aircraft.

Boeing and Airbus are the two dominant suppliers of jumbos to China. In recent years, Chinese aviation companies have bought these airliners in large numbers. For instance, in 2015, during President Xi Jinping's visit to Seattle, the United States, Chinese aviation companies signed agreements to purchase 300 Boeings.

The Aviation Industry Corp. of China has predicted that from 2015 to 2034, demand for airplanes will grow at high speed. It estimated that during this period, civil aviation companies in China will purchase 5,522 civil aircraft, including 4,580 jumbos. By the end of 2034, civil aviation fleets in China are expected to have 6,360 passenger planes in total, including 5,378 jumbo jets.

So the C919 is going to enter a huge and lucrative market, where it will compete with jumbo jets such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320. COMAC has already received orders for 570 C919 planes from 23 customers, including China Eastern Airlines.

Nonetheless, there is still a long way to go before the C919 is put into service. It will undergo years of grueling tests before it can be awarded airworthiness and other certifications. The process may take five to eight years, Kang said.

  Maintenance staff on May 4 get the C919 ready for its maiden flight (XINHUA) 

Cutting-edge technology 

Since research to develop the C919 started in 2008, breakthroughs have been achieved in more than 100 core technologies. According to COMAC, the C919 has been designed to face 5 percent less drag, the opposing aerodynamic force that an aircraft has to face while in the air, than similar planes in service. It will also be 10 decibels quieter than the external noise standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Moreover, its designed carbon dioxide emission is 12 to 15 percent lower than ICAO standards and nitrogen oxide emission more than 50 percent lower. Last but not least, its direct operation cost is 10 percent less.

To increase the plane's service life and further reduce weight, new materials such as aluminum-lithium alloy, composite and other advanced materials have been used. Composite materials comprise complementary metals, ceramic and polymer to produce better performance, said Kang.

The highly integrated modular avionics system means less weight, lower energy consumption, increased safety and easier maintenance, Zhang added.

COMAC has made the best use of domestic and international resources to make the C919, he explained. Some systems such as avionics and flight control were produced in joint ventures with 16 multinational companies, including U.S. General Electric and Honeywell.

A jumbo jet has millions of components. Putting them together and optimizing their function is a challenging task. The C919's nose alone consists of more than 5,000 parts, which were produced by the AVIC Chengdu Aircraft Industrial Group. The aircraft's system integration was carried out by Chinese engineers.

 Workers at the AVIC Chengdu Aircraft Industrial workshop assemble the C919's windshield on April 28 (XINHUA) 

Crew members wave to the welcoming crowd after the C919, China's first indigenous passenger plane, completed its maiden flight and landed at the Shanghai Pudong International Airport on May 5 (XINHUA)
Unsung heroes 

The process of developing homemade jumbo jets has been facilitated by a team whose talent and dedication is being acknowledged now. From about 3,000 people in 2008, COMAC's staff has grown to over 10,000.

Some of their stories are inspirational. Wang Wei is a metaler who joined COMAC at its inception. The 50-year-old said his interest in airplanes came from his father, who worked for Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Factory, presently known as the Shanghai Aviation Industrial Co. Wang's father was part of the team that made the Y-10, China's first indigenously developed jet in the 1970s. It was first flown in 1980 but the program was halted later.

Wang worked in the same factory and after the Y-10 program came to a stop, he became a taxi driver. However, he was sure that one day China would need metalers again to build airplanes and he continued to practice his metaling skills in his spare time. When the news came that the C919 would be built, Wang applied at COMAC and got the job, though by that time he was over 40. In 2011, he took part in a national professional skill contest and won a prize. His story was brought to the public by China Central Television.

Li Dongsheng, Deputy Director of COMAC's Beijing research center, leads the team on researching composite materials used for the wings. Before joining COMAC in 2009, Li worked in research and development for Airbus. After learning China was to build its own jumbo jet, he returned to China and joined COMAC.

Kang started her career as a civil aviation electric engineer in Honeywell's subsidiary in Canada in 2002. She joined COMAC in 2013.

Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar 

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