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Building a future: The AVIC I ARJ21-700 programme

The first ARJ21 fuselage at Shanghai Aircraft's factory, where final assembly of the regional jet is taking place

Final assembly work on the first batch of AVIC I Commercial Aircraft (ACAC) ARJ21-700 regional jets is under way at Shanghai Aircraft's assembly plant and the first aircraft is due to be rolled out by year-end.

AVIC I assistant president Zheng Qiang says the first flight will be in March next year and in the third quarter of 2009 the ARJ21-700 is expected to receive Chinese certi­fication and be delivered to launch customer Shandong Airlines.

Zheng was replaced as president of ACAC in June by Luo Rong Huai, who was previously president and chairman of Chengdu Aircraft, the AVIC I aircraft factory that is producing the ARJ21's nose section.

ARI21 production line in Shanghai
The first ARJ21 fuselage at Shanghai Aircraft's factory, where final assembly of the regional jet is taking place

The significance of the ARJ21 programme lies in it being the first Chinese indigenous aircraft programme that aims to meet Western certification requirements. It has an unprecedented number of Western suppliers and makes use of aircraft manufacturing technologies new to China.

The programme will later seek to expand its sales base beyond China, so it could be argued the ARJ21, for now at least, is spearheading China's ambition to be a global player in the commercial aerospace industry.

Five of the first batch are test aircraft - three for flight testing, one for static testing and one for fatigue testing. ACAC is also looking at producing a sixth aircraft that will be used for route proving flights.

Flight tests will be conducted at China's main testing location for civil and military aircraft, the National Flight Test Centre outside Xian, with the static airframe installed in Xian close to the static test institute. Zeng says six pilots and five engineers are undertaking a six-week training course at the National Test Pilot School in the USA in preparation for the flight-test programme.

China already manufactures commercial aircraft, but the ARJ21 - unlike the others - bears no relation to military transport aircraft and is purely a civil programme. It came about when the government decided the country should develop a regional jet able to operate in hot and high conditions and from short runways to open domestic air links in the western parts of China and bring this relatively backward stretch of the country into the 21st century.

Firm orders

So far the ARJ21-700 has firm orders from Shandong Airlines (10 aircraft), Shanghai Airlines (five) and Shenzhen Financial Leasing (20). It also has a memorandum of understanding from Shanghai Electric Leasing for 20 aircraft, Xiamen Airlines for six and the Laos government for two. Laos is the first overseas customer and has ordered the two ARJ21-700s on behalf of national carrier Lao Airlines.

The Shanghai Electric MoU "will be a firm order soon", says Zheng.

ACAC has also been negotiating for over a year with the China Aviation Supplies Import & Export Corporation (CASCG), the state-run organisation responsible for helping Chinese aircraft manufacturers to export.

CASCG last year was looking to order 20 ARJ21s with options for 10 more, but the two sides have been unable to reach a deal.

Zheng says discussions are continuing, but he expects it will take a long time to reach an agreement as some of those involved in the talks "insist on holding on to their position".

ACAC also wants to secure a firm order from one of China's big three commercial airlines - Air China, China Eastern Airlines or China Southern Airlines. In addition, industry sources say ACAC is working to secure a US customer, which would provide a valuable boost to the programme's credibility. The sources say this tactic is part of ACAC's efforts to put pressure on the US Federal Aviation Administration to certificate the ARJ21-700.

Garnering orders from Chinese carriers is ACAC's short-term sales objective, but the company also wants to sell the ARJ21-700 overseas, with the main export markets likely to be China's traditional stomping ground - developing nations in South-East Asia, the Middle East, South America and Africa.

But if the ARJ21-700 receives FAA certification it will, for the first time, give China the opportunity to sell in Western markets.

Thanks to a high-level approach from China, the US FAA has established a technical assistance branch in China with offices in Beijing and Shanghai. It is the FAA's only technical office outside the USA and its initial task is to help the ARJ21 gain Chinese certification in accordance with Western standards.

The Shanghai office has four employees including a flight-test specialist, avionics and electrical engineers and a mechanical systems engineer while the Beijing office has three employees including a structures engineer and manufacturing inspector.

At this stage, the FAA will only say it is helping ACAC with the Chinese certification process and that only after the aircraft gets that approval will it begin to look at whether to start the process of working towards FAA certification. But securing a US airline customer could give the FAA impetus to act and some of ACAC's US suppliers have also been encouraging the FAA to act because the more aircraft ACAC sells, the more these suppliers benefit.

Bombardier link

ACAC has another plan for breaking into Western markets and this one relies on Bombardier. AVIC I and Bombardier disclosed at the Paris air show in June that the Canadian aircraft maker is to partner with ACAC on the ARJ21-900, a 105-seat stretched version of the -700, and is investing $100 million in the programme. AVIC I, meanwhile, has agreed to invest $400 million into its aircraft factories to prepare them to work on the planned Bombardier CSeries 110- to 130-seat airliner.

ACAC and Bombardier will jointly design a new fuselage and interior for the ARJ21-900 and the aircraft promises to include more composites than the -700, a move that avoids some of the weight issues faced by the -700.

The ARJ21-700 is a 90-seat aircraft that started life as an 85-seater. The decision to lengthen the fuselage followed suggestions by air safety regulators, including the FAA, to move the middle exit doors further aft of the wing rather than forward.

But positioning the doors further back meant the exit doors would be too close to the aircraft's fuselage-mounted engines, so ACAC created more space between the doors and the engines by stretching the fuselage by about 1m (3ft). This created room inside for an extra row of five seats, but the stretch also increased the aircraft's weight, which led to ACAC asking its suppliers to help decrease the aircraft's overall weight.

At this time ACAC was also grappling with ways to reduce the aircraft's drag and improve the centre of gravity. Zheng says: "It took almost a year to optimise the design to solve these problems step by step."

Some of the changes made included making the aircraft's rudder, winglets and some other parts composite and altering the design of the nose and fairing.

Zheng says the total weight savings, including reductions that Western suppliers achieved, came to a total of 1,200-2,600kg (2,640-5,730lb).

But the fact that a 1m stretch caused weight issues for ACAC means it faces the same challenge with the ARJ-900. Zheng says ACAC wants Bombardier to provide "some technological breakthroughs" and expand the use of composites. For example, ACAC wants the -900's vertical and horizontal stabilisers as well as part of the fuselage to be composite, according to Zheng.

The advances made on the -900 will also eventually be "applied back" on newer versions of the -700, he adds.

Technical help

Bombardier president of new commercial aircraft programmes Gary Scott says that, although ACAC will be responsible for getting the aircraft certificated in Western markets, the Canadian aircraft maker will provide technical know-how and help ACAC to forge relationships with regulators to allow the aircraft earn overseas certification.

The $100 million Bombardier is investing is in cash, says Scott, adding that the services Bombardier provides to ACAC "will be paid for by AVIC I". In addition, Bombardier will receive a royalty for each ARJ21-900 sold.

In terms of the work, Scott says ACAC and Bombardier are looking to achieve some commonality between the ARJ21-900 and CSeries. The CSeries is to be 46% composite, with composite parts to include the vertical and horizontal stabiliser, aft fuselage, keel beams, floor beams and floor panels.

But its fuselage - to be built by AVIC I's Shenyang Aircraft - will be of aluminium lithium. Scott says Bombardier will "look to bring in some of the newer technologies we have envisaged for the CSeries", but he declines to say which parts of the ARJ21-900 will be composite.

In terms of specifics, he says only that there will be some commonality between the CSeries and ARJ21-900 in the fuselage cross-section, amenities and "our systems approach - for example, the fly-by-wire system".

Scott adds that, because the -900 is a stretched version of the -700, some "enhancements are required to get more range", so Bombardier will look to improve the propulsion system as well as the wing's lift capability by increasing its area.

Because ACAC's Western suppliers are firmly in place, Scott suggests changes are unlikely, although he stops short of ruling them out. "I guess that would be AVIC I's decision, but we are working with that baseline. It is difficult to change suppliers so we would look at it very hard before suggesting that any change be made."

Bombardier has yet to choose some suppliers for the CSeries and Scott says Bombardier will strive to find commonality in suppliers between the CSeries and ARJ21-900.

This means the Canadian aircraft maker could aim to select suppliers for the CSeries that are already on the ARJ21-900 programme, rather than vice-versa.

He sums up the "deeper co-operation" between Bombardier and AVIC I as "helping each other on respective products" to "make the whole more than the respective parts".

The fact that an experienced aircraft maker as Bombardier feels the need to partner China is testimony to how far China has come.

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