At the previous Airshow China in 2008, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) made its debut as the state-owned company tasked with developing the country's first large commercial aircraft, the C919.

With a week to go now before China's aviation industry players congregate again in Zhuhai, Comac is set to take centre stage once again and is expected to unveil a cabin mock-up of the C919 at the show.

While Comac has yet to announce any orders for its narrowbody jet, suppliers say the programme is progressing full steam ahead.

C919, ©Flight
China has an ambitious timetable for the Comac C919 as it aims to beat potential new narrowbodies from Airbus and Boeing. Picture: Flightglobal 
Work has started on the joint definition phase, a process that Comac aims to wrap up in the first quarter of 2011, following a major design review planned for the end of the year.

"It's been so far so good, and there are no major showstoppers," says Rockwell Collins' vice-president and managing director for Asia Pacific, TC Chan. Rockwell Collins and its Chinese partners are supplying part of the avionics packages on the aircraft, including communications, navigation and surveillance equipment on the jet.

If the delays to Airbus's A350 and Boeing's 787 programmes are anything to go by, Comac has its work cut out for it, given that it is a completely new player in the aircraft manufacturing industry.

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

That makes the C919 as much of a political project, one aimed at showcasing China's engineering capabilities and its ability to challenge the established European and US players, as it is a commercial project. Initially, the Chinese had planned for the aircraft to enter service in 2020 but the programme was fast-tracked to 2016, with a first flight in 2014.

Industry sources said then that China wants its new jet to enter the market before Airbus and Boeing launch new products to replace their respective A320 and 737, which the C919 will compete directly against.

Major suppliers on the programme acknowledge that 2014 is a tight timeframe to work with, but they agree unanimously on one thing: there is no doubt that Comac takes its 2014 deadline extremely seriously.

"The joint definition phase is going very well, even though Comac has a challenging schedule. There is a lot of effort going on now between now and year-end, and they are absolutely holding to the schedule," says Roger Seager, GE Aviation's vice-president and general manager for commercial aircraft programmes.

Comac declines to comment on the C919.

GE Aviation and Chinese partner AVIC Systems are supplying part of the avionics on the C919, including the twinjet's core computing system, cockpit displays and flight recorders.

GE Aviation also has a stake in another major C919 component: the first CFM International Leap-X engine that will eventually power the narrowbody. CFM is a 50-50 joint venture between GE and Safran's Snecma.

Core tests of the engine, designated the Leap-X1C variant, are progressing well, says CFM. "We are extremely pleased with the results we achieved in our first core tests," says CFM's executive vice-president Chaker Chahrour. "The Leap-X1C core represents more than 15 years of advanced design work and extensive testing, from component and rig tests, through core and full engine tests. As a result, we know that the engine will be reliable out of the box."

Testing is being conducted with three core engines before the first full engine test in early 2013. The first phase, which focused on the combustor and high-pressure turbine, was completed in September 2009. The second phase, focusing on the engine's compressor, was wrapped up in the second quarter of this year.

"Overall, the hardware logged 150h of testing, with the core engine meeting or exceeding all expectations," says CFM.

The engine manufacturer is now collecting hardware and starting the build-up and instrumentation of the second core engine, which is on schedule to begin testing in mid-2011, the company adds.

"The third build, eCore Demonstrator 3, is planned for 2012 to enable CFM to make refinements prior to the first full Leap-X1C engine test in early 2013," says the company.

CFM expects to complete the engine's final configuration later in 2011, and says it is in discussions in Comac on the powerplant's requirements. These include thrust requirements, the target weight for the integrated propulsion system, the interface between the aircraft and the integrated propulsion system, installation, customer support requirements and planning among others.

 Leap-X, ©CFM International
CFM expects to complete the final Leap-X configuration in 2011, and is in discussions in Comac on the powerplant's requirements. Picture: CFM International
CFM, with its partner AVIC Commercial Aircraft Engine, is still evaluating the feasibility of establishing an assembly line and engine test facility in China. The two companies signed a memorandum of understanding late last year to establish a team to evaluate the plan and develop the legal structure for the proposed joint venture.

"We are still in the early stages of this process, so it would be inappropriate to comment further," says CFM.

With the deadline to finish the joint definition phase early next year, the programme's suppliers are pulling out all the stops to meet the date. Echoing the views of other suppliers, Rockwell Collins' Chan says: "Every vendor on the programme wishes there was more time, and we are all pouring our resources into it."

Besides having personnel in China to work on the C919, suppliers are also seconding staff from their headquarters abroad. In Rockwell Collins' case, engineers from Cedar Rapids are working on the programme, along with a team of 15 in Shanghai.

Once the joint definition phase is completed, the company plans to have more staff based in Shanghai to work on the aircraft, says Chan.

CFM has based a team in Shanghai, with dedicated programme management and engineering staff, to work directly with Comac.

"The team will remain in place throughout the aircraft design, testing, and early manufacturing to ensure a seamless transition into revenue service. Once the airplane is in production, CFM will maintain a presence with Comac to support production and delivery," says CFM.

Another C919 supplier, Liebherr-Aerospace, has teams in Shanghai as well as in Toulouse and Lindenberg. "In addition to the already installed management team of our customer services office in Shanghai, we are setting up an engineering team, led by experienced specialists coming from our facilities in Europe," says Liebherr.

While ensuring that the joint definition phase progresses without a hitch, suppliers are also working with their individual Chinese partners to formalise the joint ventures for the work on the C919.

Unlike Comac's other in-development aircraft, the ARJ21 regional jet, which is assembled with off-the-shelf components from Western manufacturers, the C919 requires foreign suppliers to work with Chinese companies in joint ventures on each section. This is to allow domestic manufacturers to build their experience and knowledge as suppliers to a major aircraft programme.

The requirement, which is unlike any other that manufacturers have to grapple with, has also made the C919 a more complicated programme from the onset.

Suppliers involved with the C919 expect to formally establish their individual joint ventures with their Chinese partners next year, after the joint definition phase is complete. In the meantime, they are working out the details of what those joint ventures will mean.

"There are definitely challenges. It's challenging defining our relationship now for the next 40 years, the lifetime of the C919 programme," says Ho Pui, Parker Aerospace's vice-president for Asia Pacific.

Parker, working with AVIC Systems, is providing the aircraft's hydraulics, flight control actuation and fuel tank systems.

Rockwell Collins' Chan says that unlike the ARJ21, the C919 requires a lot more co-ordination work with external parties. "For the ARJ21, it was all within Rockwell Collins. It was all within our control. But now we have to integrate with our partners," says Chan.

The lack of experience among homegrown Chinese companies can be a hurdle, say suppliers, but they believe the joint venture arrangements on the C919 could ultimately bring more benefits than difficulties.

"If you partner with the government and state-owned enterprises, and the government wants you to be successful, it takes away a lot of the headwind," says Seager.

Parker's Pui adds: "The joint venture is not just an opportunity within the programme, but it will also provide us an opportunity to grow our resources within China."

While Comac aims for the C919 to enter service in 2016, suppliers involved with the programme say their work on the aircraft will be a springboard to future growth in China.


Leap-X core demo, ©CFM International
The second phase of Leap-X testing focused on the compressor. Picture: CFM International 

GE Aviation, for example, says it considers its joint venture with AVIC Systems on the aircraft as a first step to more opportunities. "The C919 is the first phase of our partnership. We could move on to Boeing and Airbus with what we have to offer in avionics," says Seager.

Liebherr-Aerospace says its joint venture with AVIC's landing gear manufacturing subssidiary on the C919 will be a "very significant step" in the company's future development in China. "We expect that it will pave the way for a deeper co-operation in China, which will also potentially cover additional aircraft programmes," says Liebherr.

While the C919 has had its fair share of detractors since plans for it were unveiled, the programme's suppliers believe it is only a matter of time before Comac gains the credibility it needs to be successful.

"The C919 will find its place. Domestically, it will be very strong. Internationally, they will find markets for it. It probably wouldn't grab a big share of the market internationally but it will grab a fair share," says Rockwell Collins' Chan. And when that happens, the programme's suppliers hope their involvement in China's first large commercial aircraft will reap even greater rewards in the long run.

"Comac will get there. They will stumble along the way but in 10 to 15 years they will be successful," says GE's Seager.

"And believe me, they will succeed. When they do, they will remember who their friends are on this journey."

CFM International Providing the Leap-X1C engine that will power the aircraft. Has signed agreement with AVIC's Commercial Aircraft Engine to study the feasibility of an assembly line and engine test facility in China.

GE Aviation Supplying the core processing system, cockpit display systems, on-board maintenance systems and flight recorders with partner AVIC Systems.

Rockwell Collins Supplying the communication, navigation and surveillance systems on the C919, as well as the in-flight entertainment system and cabin core system. It is doing the work with Chinese partners China Electronics Technology Avionics (part of state-owned China Electronics Technology group), AVIC's China Leihua Electronic Technology Research Institute and AVIC's Shanghai Aero Measurement-Controlling Research Institute.

Honeywell Providing fly-by-wire flight control system, inertial reference and air data systems, auxiliary power unit, wheels and brakes. It is partnering China's Flight Automatic Control Research Institute, Hunan Boyun New Materials and Changsha Xinhang Wheel and Brake.

Parker Aerospace Supplying the aircraft's hydraulics system, flight control actuation and fuel tank systems in partnership with AVIC Systems.

Liebherr-Aerospace Providing the landing gear and air management systems through partnerships with AVIC's landing gear manufacturing subsidiary in Changsha and Nanjing Engineering Institute of Aircraft Systems.

Eaton Supplying the fuel and hydraulic conveyance systems, cockpit panel assemblies and dimming control system. In partnerships with Comac subsidiary Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Company and Shanghai Aviation Electric.

Source: Flight International