Next-gen Chinese engines power down – but for how long?

When Chinese airframer Comac's C919 passenger aircraft was still being developed as a competitor to Boeing's 737 and Airbus A320, much was said about a "home-made engine" for a home-grown aircraft.

But more than two years later, the fanfare has died down, even as the C919 continues test flights and looks poised to enter service with Chinese carriers – minus the Chinese engines, for the time being.

The prototype of the CJ-1000AX, the alternative powerplant manufactured by Chinese engine maker AVIC Commercial Aircraft Engine (ACAE), was first publicised in December 2017, after 18 months of assembly. ACAE had signed a deal with Comac a year earlier to supply engines to the narrowbody programme.

The CJ-1000AX was touted as the "home-made engine" by the state-owned Global Times newspaper that would "replace imported foreign engines in future". The C919 will initially be powered by CFM International Leap-1C engines.

Last May, the CJ-1000AX hit a milestone in its development when it achieved power-on. The high-bypass turbofan engine's core reached a maximum speed of 6,600rpm, according to Chinese officials.

FlightGlobal has previously reported that China plans to build 24 more CJ-1000 prototype engines to support an airworthiness campaign, with entry into service targeted after 2021.

Citing an Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC) researcher, Global Times painted a bright future for the turbofan: "The CJ-1000 is designed for the C919, but is expected to power the Boeing 737 or Airbus 320 or a similar newly built aircraft in the world market by 2025."

Meanwhile, the AEF3500 – formerly known as the CJ-2000 – was first unveiled at the 2018 Airshow China in Zhuhai. The turbofan was pitched as a Chinese engine alternative for the Sino-Russian CR929 widebody programme.

Little is known about the status of AEF3500, but media reports suggest it could be put into service on the CR929 by around 2030. Similarly to the C919, the CR929 could enter service in 2025 powered by western engines, before a Chinese-made option is offered a few years later.

It could, however, face competition from Russia in the form of the Aviadvigatel PD-35-1 powerplant. In January last year, United Engine and Aviadvigatel were picked by Moscow to develop the demonstrator powerplant.

While AECC continues with work on the two engine types, the aircraft they were supposed to power are moving on with development. It remains to be seen if China can strike a double win with domestically manufactured engines on a home-grown aircraft.