AVIC I Commercial Aircraft

ARJ21–Pent-up demand for low-cost regional jets in the People’s Republic of China and a treasure trove of tooling left over from a failed partnership with McDonnell Douglas has convinced AVIC I Commercial Aircraft Company (ACAC) to launch the development of a pair of 78- to 105-seat RJs known as the ARJ21. The concept, first unveiled at the 2001 Beijing Air Show, represents China’s most comprehensive effort to build an international supplier base for an indigenous aircraft.

The ARJ21 program partners–a consortium led by government-controlled AVIC I and in which 15 separate shareholders hold an interest–have now signed no fewer than 10 major U.S. and European aerospace components suppliers to contribute to the effort, expected to yield a completed prototype ready to fly by mid-2006. During Singapore’s Asian Aerospace exhibition in late February, ACAC vice president for procurement and supply Tao Zhihui told AIN that engineers continue to meet all program development milestones on time, and that by the end of this year, the company will have released 90 percent of the design’s structural drawings to the various partners.

Major suppliers to the ARJ21 effort include GE Aircraft Engines, which ACAC has recruited to adapt yet another variant of its CF34 line–the 18,000-pound-thrust CF34-10A–for its rear fuselage-mounted powerplant requirement. Another U.S. company, Rockwell Collins, has agreed to supply its Pro Line 21 avionics suite, while Phoenix, Ariz.-based Honeywell contributes the primary flight controls. Others include Parker Hannifin (hydraulic and fuel systems), Hamilton Sundstrand (APU and electrical power system), Kidde (fire suppression system), Liebherr Aerospace (landing gear and environmental control system), Sagem (cockpit flight control system), Eaton (cockpit panel assemblies and lighting controls) and Goodrich (tires and brakes). Despite its ambitions to market the airplane elsewhere in Asia, ACAC has yet to recruit a supplier from the region outside China.

Looking conspicuously similar to a Douglas DC-9 and sporting the same 3+2 interior seating arrangement, an extended range, baseline-capacity ARJ21 would carry between 78 and 85 passengers as far as 2,000 nm at a cruise speed of Mach 0.78. A proposed stretched version, to follow in a timeframe defined by market interest, would carry between 98 and 105 passengers as far as 1,800 nm, said Tao. The certification program calls for roughly a year-and-a-half of flight testing with three flying prototypes and a pair of static ground-test articles.

The ARJ21 will owe much of its design heritage and appearance to a partnership formed in 1992 between McDonnell Douglas and the China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation (CATIC) to co-produce MD-90s in China for the domestic market. A contract revision signed in November 1994 reduced the number of Chinese-built airplanes in half, to 20, and called for the direct purchase of another 20 U.S.-built aircraft. By 1998, however, three years after the U.S. Department of Commerce found that the Chinese illegally diverted some sophisticated machine tools to military aircraft factories, only three shipsets of parts had ever arrived at the final assembly site in Shanghai. Although the Chinese shipped all the tooling back to Shanghai, it never completed an MD-90.

The four Chinese factories involved in the MD-90 program included the Shanghai Aviation Industrial Corporation, Xian Aircraft Company, Chengdu Aircraft Company, and Shenyang Aircraft Company–the very same entities recruited for the ARJ21. As in the case of the MD-90, the Shanghai facility has taken responsibility for the horizontal stabilizer and final assembly. Xian Aircraft, maker of wing sections for the Airbus A320, Boeing 737 and ATR 42/72, would build the airplane’s wings and all its fuselage sections. Chengdu Aircraft, located some 400 miles southwest of Xian, would build the nose section, while Shenyang Aircraft supplies the empennage.

Scheduled to enter its detailed development phase next month, the ARJ21 would use a supercritical wing designed by Ukraine’s Antonov. To speed a decision on the final wing configuration, ACAC has commissioned four separate wind-tunnel testing regimes, said Tao, under way simultaneously at Antonov, TsAGI in Russia and at state facilities in Holland and China.

The ACAC official said the government projects a need for as many as 500 airplanes over the course of a 20-year production run, scheduled to start with CAAC certification at the end of 2007. The partners plan for a production rate of three per month within “one or two years” of then, said Tao. Shanghai, which now employs some 7,000 workers, will use its MD-90 tooling to assemble the ARJ21.

So far three Chinese customers have signed contracts to take delivery of a total of 35 airplanes. State-controlled Shandong Airlines, based in the eastern city of Jinan, has signed for 10 of the airplanes to replace seven Bombardier CRJ200s and two CRJ700s. Yet another Chinese CRJ operator, Shanghai Airlines, has ordered five ARJ21s, while the program’s largest customer–Shenzhen Financial Leasing Company–has spoken for 20.

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