The first aircraft of AVIC I Commercial Aircraft's (ACAC's) ARJ21-700 regional jet model is due to be rolled out by year-end, from Shanghai Aircraft's assembly plant, where the first batch of planes is being assembled. Its first flight will be in March next year, and the ARJ21-700 is expected to receive Chinese certification in the third quarter of 2009. Its first customer will be Shandong Airlines.
The ARJ21 is the first Chinese indigenous aircraft programme that aims to meet Western certification requirements. It has a large number of Western suppliers and makes use of technologies that are new to China. ACAC will later seek to expand its sales base beyond China, to make the country a global player in the commercial aerospace industry.
Five of the first batch that is now being assembled are test aircraft; three for flight testing, one for static testing and one for fatigue testing. A sixth aircraft will be used for route proving flights. Flight tests will be conducted at the National Flight Test Centre at Xian, China's main testing location for civilian and military aircraft. Six pilots and five engineers are undertaking a six-week training course at the National Test Pilot School in the US, in preparation for the flight-test programme.
A 'proper' passenger plane
China already manufactures commercial aircraft, but the ARJ21 - unlike the others - is no converted military transport aircraft and is designed as a civilian aircraft from the ground up. The government decided that the country should develop a regional jet able to operate in hot and high conditions, as well as from short runways, to open domestic air links in the relatively inaccessible western parts of China, to bring this relatively backward stretch of the country into the 21st century.
So far, the ARJ21-700 has firm orders from Shandong Airlines (10 aircraft), Shanghai Airlines (five) and Shenzhen Financial Leasing (20). It also has MoUs with Shanghai Electric Leasing for 20 aircraft, Xiamen Airlines for six and the Laos government for two. Laos is its first overseas customer. It has ordered two ARJ21-700s for its national carrier, Lao Airlines.
Export is on the cards
ACAC has also been negotiating with the China Aviation Supplies Import and Export Corporation (CASCG), the state-run organisation responsible for helping Chinese aircraft manufacturers to export.
ACAC's long-term objective is to sell the ARJ21-700 overseas. Its main export markets are likely to be 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.
FAA sets up in China!
After a high-level approach from the Chinese government, the US FAA has established its only technical offices outside the USA, in Beijing and Shanghai. 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 structural engineer and a manufacturing inspector.
At present, the FAA is helping ACAC with the Chinese certification process. After it gets that approval, will begin the process of working towards FAA certification. Getting a US airline customer could greatly accelerate the process. In any case, some of ACAC's US suppliers have been pressing the FAA to act, because the more aircraft ACAC sells, the more these suppliers benefit.
The Bombardier connection
AVIC I and Bombardier announced at the Paris air show in June 2007 that the Canadian aircraft maker is to partner with ACAC on the ARJ21-900, a 105-seat stretched version of the -700, and will invest $100 million in the programme. AVIC I, in its turn, has agreed to invest $400 million in its aircraft factories to prepare them for 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. The aircraft will include more composites, to avoid some of the weight issues the present plane is facing. The fact that an experienced aircraft maker like Bombardier feels the need to partner China is testimony to how far that country has advanced.
The long and winding road
The ARJ21-700 is a 90-seat aircraft that started life as an 85-seater. The fuselage had to be lengthened following suggestions by air safety regulators, including the FAA, that the middle exit doors move aft of the wing rather than forward. But this meant the exit doors would be too close to the aircraft's fuselage-mounted engines, so ACAC stretched the fuselage by about 1m (3ft), naking room for an extra row of five seats.
The stretch increased the aircraft's weight, and ACAC asking its suppliers to help decrease the aircraft's overall weight, even as it was working to reduce the aircraft's drag and improve its centre of gravity. It took almost a year to solve these problems and optimise the design, including using composites for the aircraft's rudder and winglets, as well as altering the design of the nose and fairing. The total weight saved, including reductions from Western suppliers, was 1,200 to 2,600 kg.
The fact that a one-metre stretch could cause weight issues means the same challenges apply to the ARJ-900. ACAC wants Bombardier to provide some technological breakthroughs and expand the use of composites. It wants the -900's vertical and horizontal stabilisers as well as part of the fuselage to be composite. The advances made on the -900 will be applied to later versions of the -700.
While ACAC will be responsible for getting the aircraft certified in Western markets, the Canadian aircraft maker will provide technical know-how and help ACAC to forge relationships with regulators so that the aircraft earns overseas certification. Bombardier is investing its $100 million in cash, and all services Bombardier provides will be paid for by AVIC I. It will also get a royalty for each ARJ21-900 sold.
Cheaper by the dozen
The two companies will try to achieve the maximum possible commonalities between the ARJ21-900 and the CSeries, the letter being 46 per cent composite, including the vertical and horizontal stabiliser, aft fuselage, keel beams, floor beams and floor panels. Its fuselage, which is to be built by AVIC I's Shenyang Aircraft, will be of aluminium lithium. There will be commonalities in the fuselage cross-section, the amenities, and systems, including the fly-by-wire system, between the CSeries and ARJ21-900
Because the -900 is a stretched version of the -700, it is important to make enhancements that get more range. Bombardier will look to improve the propulsion system as well as the wing's lift capability, by increasing its area. ACAC's Western suppliers are firmly in place, and changes are unlikely. Bombardier has yet to choose some suppliers for the CSeries and it will try to find common suppliers for the CSeries and ARJ21-900.
The engine that will power the ARJ21-700, General Electric's (GE's) CF34-10A, is very similar to the CF34-10E that the 90-seat Embraer 190 regional jet uses. The 190 will be operating in China - Hainan Airlines has 50 on firm order - and that will help when it comes to establishing after-sales product support. GE is to set up an engine maintenance, repair and overhaul facility for the purpose, operated by a new or existing MRO in China, which could handle ARJ21-700 engines as well as those which power Embraer 190s.
Having an MRO in China for GE's CF34 series engines is critical, because it means ARJ21 operators will avoid the costs involved in shipping engines overseas for repair.
GE is also looking at the cost savings possible if CF34-10A engines are assembled in China, but initially all the engines will be assembled at GE's plant in Durham, North Carolina. Some of the engine's components are already being made in China.
GE will deliver the first two CF34-10A engines at the end of this year, in time for ACAC's planned roll out of the first ARJ21 aircraft. The engine's first flight will take place next year when the ARJ21-700 has its first flight. GE plans to have four engines plus flight-test engines as part of the test programme.
The CF34 series has proven technology, and the CF34-10E will have had one million flight hours before the 10A goes into service. Thrust requirements for the ARJ21-700 are much the same, despite issues with the aircraft's overall weight. The CF34-10A has a nine-stage compressor and delivers 17,500lb of thrust (78kN), which can be increased to 20,000lb. This little extra will be important for the ARJ21-900.
While 80 per cent of the CF34-10A is common with the CF34-10E, there are some key differences because the ARJ21 engines are rear-fuselage mounted whereas the E-190's engines are wing mounted; the gearbox had to be relocated, for example. GE has gone in for a modular architecture and a simple, single-stage turbine - the engine has a wide-chord fan blade, fewer fan blades and more thrust - so that the high-cycle engine is cost-efficient to maintain.