When Comac rolled out the first C919 flight test aircraft on Monday, it was clearly aware of the long road ahead, faced with getting the jet airborne, certificated and delivered.

Speech after speech at the ceremony, graced by the country’s top politicians, airline bosses and aviation regulators, pointed to the challenges the manufacturer is up against. China’s vice premier Ma Kai described aircraft manufacturing as a “complicated technical process”, while Comac’s chairman Jin Zhuanglong called the C919 a “long-term complex project”.

The programme, launched in 2008, now has a public target to take a first flight in 2016. Suppliers say that internally, Comac is working to get the aircraft flying in the second quarter of 2016, before making first delivery at end-2018. Observers of the programme expect delays, and suppliers call these targets “aggressive”.

Programme chief designer Wu Guanghui, however is bullish. He tells Flightglobal that he is confident of meeting the C919 schedule, and satisfied with progress thus far.


As aircraft 101 prepares to start ground tests, analysts stress the need for the C919 to keep to schedule. This is because the aircraft will only enter the market after heavyweights Airbus and Boeing deliver their re-engined narrowbodies.

Some warn that Comac’s nascent abilities with systems integration and certification could prove to be stumbling blocks that lead to delays.

Aviage Systems, supplier of the core avionics package on the C919, and a joint venture between General Electric and state-owned aircraft conglomerate AVIC, is helping Comac with systems integration. The firm delivered a systems integration and verification bench to Comac at the beginning of the year, allowing the start of the “integration phase”, which typically takes 18-24 months to complete.

“From our perspective the results have been pretty positive…[the verification bench] allows all suppliers to work through problems and report them in a controlled manner with Comac,” says Aviage president and chief executive Alan Jones. “That’s very important because it allows the history of changes and problems to be documented and controlled, and that in turn will help with certification.”

He believes Comac learned from the ARJ21’s certification experience, and will apply this to the C919.

The ARJ21 regional jet received Chinese certification only last December, more than 12 years after the programme was launched. Though the aircaft is dated by western standards, it has yet to be delivered to launch customer Chengdu Airlines.


At the C919 roll-out, Civil Aviation Administration of China chief Li Jiaxiang says his agency has approved 60 certification plans and more than 1,000 test verification tasks, and that certification work for the C919 is progressing “in an orderly way”. He also stressed that the development and certification of the narrowbody will be carried out according to international airworthiness standards.

“A great nation must have its own large commercial aircraft,” he stressed.

Comac tells Flightglobal that with its experience on the ARJ21, it now has a deeper understanding of flight test modules and methods, which will make its work more efficient. Coorrdination with the CAAC is also moving along more smoothly, it adds.

The progress of the C919 already looks more promising than its predecessor. Chief engineer Jiang Liping, involved in both the C919 and ARJ21, says the final assembly of the narrowbody’s airframe came together much smoother compared to the regional jet. She attributes this to lessons learnt in process control, and the improved specifications the manufacturer was able to give suppliers.

One Chinese analyst points out that the ARJ21 had "a lot of design issues to begin with", and that it underwent many retests and redesigns after taking first flight in 2008. This should not happen to the C919, since it was "built on a different approach", he adds.

C919 designers have also played it safe, opting to apply composites on only 12% of the aircraft, most of which are movable parts. The initial target was for 30% of the aircraft to be made of composites, but plans for a composite wing and wingbox were abandoned to prevent complications and delays.


The head of Flightglobal’s Ascend consultancy service, Rob Morris, believes that Comac should potentially be able to fly, certificate and deliver the aircraft in a “far more efficient process”, having learnt from the ARJ21.

For the programme to break into the international market, however, it must establish a global customer support network that benchmarks against those of Airbus and Boeing. It must also deliver dispatch reliability for the C919 that matches or exceeds that of the A320neo and 737 Max, he says.

Teal Group’s Richard Aboulafia adds that while China’s potential is unquestionable, it needs to change its approach to aircraft design and development.

“They need to stop insisting that every part of the aircraft be built in-country. National vertical integration always ends in disaster,” he says. “The important point is that China has tremendous potential. They’re the world’s largest jetliner market right now, with great talent, and great resources.”

As the curtains parted and the freshly painted C919 was towed out before the crowd, the attendees’ excitement and pride was palpable. After all, the programme is no longer just a national project, but a Chinese dream which must take flight.

Source: Cirium Dashboard