ANALYSIS: Clarity of vision for Comac C919

Shanghai
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To the south of Shanghai's Pudong International Airport is a 1,620 hectare (4,000 acre) site reserved for Comac's new final assembly centre.

An elaborate model sits in a temporary office on the site, detailing the layout of the future aircraft factory. It has 11 hangars for the assembly of both single-aisle and double-aisle aircraft, eight office buildings, and even a railway line for the easy transportation of parts and subassemblies.

Since the 2010 ground breaking ceremony, 600 workers from five different construction firms have worked feverishly to get the site ready in time to help the C919 meet its 2014 first flight target. At least four hangars are in various stages of completion.

The world is closely watching the C919 programme, and the Chinese know what is at stake in terms of prestige. Still, they recognise their limitations, such as a lack of experience, aviation talent and infrastructure.

While many have criticised the programme, dismissing the C919 as a competitor to the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737, let alone their re-engined successors, the Chinese look beyond that. They are in for the long haul and they have never been more focused.

"This is not a 100m dash," a Comac official put it succinctly during Flight International's recent visit to the final assembly centre. This is the first time Comac has shown the site to a foreign journalist.

"We know what people are saying, but it's unrealistic to compare us to Airbus and Boeing. Look at the history they have, we are only a four-year-old company."

Comac was established in May 2008 with key businesses drawn from state-owned conglomerate Aviation Corporation of China (AVIC). This followed a 2007 government decision to develop China's first large commercial aircraft.

The company has grown from 3,800 employees in 2008 to 7,100 today, of whom 728 are foreigners.

The C919 was initially scheduled to enter service in 2020, but the programme was fast-tracked to 2016, with a first flight in 2014 - presumably to launch the Chinese narrowbody before the A320neo and 737 Max enter the market.

The 150-seater C919 programme is in the detailed design phase. Detailed design work and manufacturing drawings are due before the end of the year. Trial manufacturing is also scheduled to commence.

Despite Comac's determination, however, industry watchers say its troubled Comac ARJ21 regional jet programme - years late and still undelivered following design and certification issues - suggests the C919 schedule will slip as well.

Major suppliers of the C919 acknowledge that 2014 is a "tight timeframe", but reiterate that every party, especially Comac, takes the deadline seriously and is working tirelessly towards meeting it.

Comac is "within months" of the master schedule it has put out, says GE Aviation, which is providing the core processing system, cockpit display systems, onboard maintenance systems and flight recorders for the twin-engined aircraft.

ARJ21 EXPERIENCE OFFERS LESSONS

Comac suppliers say the company's experience on the ARJ21 regional jet will help the C919 programme run more smoothly and efficiently.

After a first flight in 2008, the 90-seat ARJ21-700 is still undergoing tests and certification.

Comac is using four test aircraft - 101, 102, 103 and 104 - for different tests, in an attempt to speed up testing and certification. These aircraft have flown over 2,800 hours in total, says Comac.

Sources had previously said that faults had been identified in the ARJ21's wings, wiring and computer systems, and that Comac is still trying to convince regulators that the aircraft meets standards.

The aircraft has yet to be certified by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). The US Federal Aviation Administration is conducting a shadow certification to evaluate the CAAC's ability to technically assess the aircraft. Comac can apply for the FAR 25 certification once the CAAC passes this shadow certification.

When asked why the programme had been delayed repeatedly, a Comac official said: "Boeing and Airbus only have to focus on research and technology of the new planes and even the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A380 were delayed. We have to develop the plane and at the same time, train the people and build the facilities."

He cited an example of how when the ARJ21 underwent anti-ice tests, six months had to be spent on building equipment for the tests.

On when he expects the ARJ21 to receive certification, he says the timeline is "still fluid" and that Comac will have a better gauge once the aircraft completes stall tests.

"This is one of the highest risk tests and is very critical. Things should speed up once this is done," he adds.

Suppliers in the programme say they are actively involved in the tests and have onsite engineering teams in Xian, the only airport in the country that has flight test capabilities.

GE Aviation has at least eight General Electric CF34-10A engines at ARJ21's final assembly line at Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing's facility. Aircraft 105 and 106 are also being assembled there, sources say.

Another reason for the delay of the ARJ21 programme - aside from the obvious fact that this is China's first major air transport aircraft - is that the Chinese chose to work with the regulators relatively late in its development.

"China chose to go a different route - a calculated process to make sure they understand everything they are doing with the aircraft and inviting the regulators in later, versus doing everything in parallel, which is what all the other airframers do," says GE Aviation's president of Greater China, Chris Beaufait.

The good news is that suppliers have been told things will be done differently on the C919 - one of which is to have work done earlier together with the regulators.

"It's a different team and a different approach," says CFM International executive vice-president Chaker Chahrour.

GE Aviation and its Chinese partners are now "at an active time", preparing for a series of critical reviews. Once specifications are frozen, it will work through the design phase into the implementation and testing phase.

"The things that have come up - there's nothing outside the norm for a programme of this size and magnitude," says Chris Beaufait, president of Greater China, GE Aviation. "There have been no show stoppers per se, but every day there is something that comes up that we have to work through and solve."

CFM International executive vice-president Chaker Chahrour says the programme will go through its critical design review in November, where company leadership and experts will be aiming to give the green light for the release of hardware and drawings for manufacturing.

The Leap-1C engine, which CFM is developing for the C919, is also "progressing well". It is on track to have its first engine test in 2013, followed by the C919's first flight in 2014.

Rockwell Collins is also confident of meeting Comac's schedule. The firm is supplying the communication, navigation and surveillance systems for the C919.

"We're in very good discussions with Comac and are now waiting for some final definition on the system interface. We're in good shape from the engineering perspective to be on track," says Ron Ho, Rockwell Collins' managing director for China.

Honeywell, which is providing the fly-by-wire flight control system, auxiliary power unit, wheels and brakes and the inertial reference and air data systems, has been signing contracts and joint venture agreements with Chinese partners on top of developing the aircraft systems.

What is critical for the C919, suppliers say, is a smooth integration of input from the distinct parties.

"One area the entire supply base has to figure out with Comac is that the aircraft is an integrated product and it's critical to get all parts right. No matter what programme it is, that's a lot of work to get right," says GE's Beaufait.

To help the programme along, Honeywell is also providing Comac, AVIC and other C919 partners training on certification and programme management, among other issues. Its systems have passed the joint development stage and are undergoing various stages of detailed design configuration.

It is also helping Comac understand the US Federal Aviation Administration's certification process and what types of documents are necessary to keep the process moving forward.

While suppliers are "pretty certain" that the C919 can achieve its first flight target, what really matters is for the programme to go through certification fast.

"The first flight is a critical milestone but the real question is, after you get the aircraft flying, what's the plan on moving into certification?" says Beaufait. "Because until the aircraft is certified, you can't sell it, and it's no surprise that every supplier on the programme wants the C919 to be a commercial success."

Comac has 330 orders for the C919, mostly from Chinese airlines and leasing companies. Customers of the narrowbody have not made deposits for the aircraft, and will only finalise financial details and delivery schedules after the first flight.

The airframer also has plans to develop up to six variants of the C919, including military and freighter models. Pratt & Whitney is working with Comac on preliminary studies of new variants for the C919.

When asked whether Comac is worried that programme delays could hurt the C919's competitiveness and sales, the Comac official says the company's top priority is to ensure that the aircraft is a safe product.

"The China market is huge. There is no worry that there will be no demand, that no one will buy our aircraft. The most important thing is to make sure we build a safe aircraft," he says. He adds that Comac is pursuing Western certification for the ARJ21 not just so it can market the aircraft globally, but more importantly, to tell the world that the aircraft is safe - and not merely by China's standards.

Analysts, however, warn that delays can break a programme.

"With new aircraft programmes, airlines are cautious in placing orders and basing their business strategy on aircraft delivery," says Ravi Madavaram, aerospace and defense consultant at Frost & Sullivan. "The more delays, the fewer the orders as airlines face stiff competition and cannot risk delays in aircraft delivery."

The technology used on the C919 and its lack of composites suggest Comac will not be a competitive threat against Boeing and Airbus until 2025, says Madavaram.

He adds: "And this is if Boeing and Airbus stay at their current technology level, which for sure is not a realistic assumption."

Comac, however, is not standing still. It has established a research centre in Beijing where "foreign senior experts" research new technologies for future aircraft projects.

It also has plans for a widebody programme and has set aside land for a twin-aisle aircraft component and assembly facility at its upcoming final assembly centre in Shanghai.

"Once the C919 certification is complete and the aircraft goes into full production, we will focus on the twin-aisle aircraft. The aim is to have our own widebody by 2025," says the Comac official. Sources add that the final design for the widebody will be firmed up in the next five to 10 years.

Comac's final assembly line for narrowbodies will one day produce 30 C919s annually. The assembly centre will also be linked to Pudong airport's fifth runway, which will be built specifically for flight tests. The airport's fourth runway is also due to be opened at the end of 2012, in time for the C919's ground tests and first flight.

"Comac now has the added challenge of having to build entire infrastructure, processes, establish leadership and expertise which Boeing and Airbus did decades ago," says Beaufait. "It's a unique challenge, but I'm never one to bet against China."

For China, success in the aerospace industry is also a calculated move to put the country in the elite club of civil aircraft manufacturers, to showcase engineering prowess. It sees success as a sign that its economy is transforming towards high-end design and manufacturing.

It helps that Comac's employees have the same vision. Many have been with the company since its formation in 2008. Sources say designers on the C919 programme have been asked to work 12-hour shifts - and that few have complained about the long hours.

"This is the Chinese dream. We're all very focused," one employee tells Flight International.

Comac makes it a point to remind others of its vision. At the exit of its assembly centre is a giant billboard that reads: "To let China-made large aircraft fly in the blue skies."