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China’s aviation – tech reality

As you can imagine, there are many facets to China’s aviation. Of prime importance to the country is the production of its own aircraft –…

As you can imagine, there are many facets to China’s aviation. Of prime importance to the country is the production of its own aircraft – commercial, business, military, etc. – locally, with minimum sourcing of parts, skills, and experience from the developed countries. The realities will not ordinarily be in China’s favour because of the country’s thin portfolio in aircraft manufacturing. Building an aircraft is not exactly the same as constructing a workable railroad or putting up a skyscraper. Extraordinarily special skills, matched only by decades of experience, experimentation, and flight testing, are required in manufacturing aircraft. Also, the potential scale of loss of life in aircraft crashes creates perceptions and the associated politics. Exploiting lessons-learnt over many decades is not a Chinese option, because there are no tangible Chinese aviation legacies.
To appreciate the potential challenges facing China in the arena of fully home-grown aircraft, be aware that the first powered aircraft flew in the U.S. in 1903, more than 110 years ago, and several of the aerospace companies in the U.S. have been in existence for more than 60 years. Although China does not have to start from scratch, aviation experts believe that the U.S. is comfortably 40 or more years ahead of China in aerospace technologies.
Although the reality today is that China has not been able to locally manufacture full aircraft with local resources (the way many developed countries have), there might be a way to narrow the gap. On the one hand, folks in the West, especially the U.S., suggest the existence of formidable espionage efforts from China that are aimed at obtaining aircraft technical data illegally from aircraft manufacturers in the U.S. If those efforts succeed, China may be able to leapfrog the aircraft development process and shorten the gap. However, China’s highly aggressive efforts to design, develop, manufacture, test, and deploy aircraft are well known, and it seems the country is approaching the problem from many angles.
Broadly speaking, aircraft business is divided into two parts, engine and airframe. The engine is the propulsive component, or the part that is responsible for causing the aircraft to move forward. In typical mid-sized commercial jet engines, there are two engines, each of which is attached to a wing of the aircraft. The airframe refers to the rest of the aircraft. Thus, it includes the fuselage, or the large “tubular section” inside which the passenger seats are located, the wings, and other structures such as the appendages in the tail region that are used to stabilize and control the aircraft. The wing is the aerodynamic component of aircraft. It represents the lifting surface, which is needed to provide the “upward” (lift) force required to overcome the combined weight of the aircraft, fuel, and the passengers.
Of course, the engine and the airframe work together – for example, you need the forward motion provided by the engine in order to obtain the upward (lift) force provided by the wing! The aircraft industry is divided along these two functional components (engine and airframe), and it is rare to have a company specialize in both aspects. Examples of Engine Companies include Pratt and Whitney (U.S.), Rose Royce (U.K.), Honeywell (U.S.), General Electric (U.S.), Williams International (U.S.). Examples of Airframe Companies include Boeing (.U.S.), Airbus (France), Northrop Grumman (U.S.), Lockheed-Martin (U.S.), Cirrus (U.S.-based Chinese company), and Gulfstream (U.S.). Some of these companies specialize in small scales of the engine (Williams International) or airframe (Cirrus, Gulfstream).
There are companies in China that assemble aircraft from parts made in the West. It is important to note that the aircraft operated by domestic Chinese airlines are imported from Boeing, Airbus, etc. The same can be said for military planes, although in this case, China probably finds a “more agreeable friend” in Russia.
Importation of engines or complete aircraft is not at all the priority of the Chinese government: China wants to build its own aircraft manufacturing base. Unfortunately for China, it does not seem the country has any (non-Chinese owned) companies in the developed world that will support the Chinese ambition. Folks would rather have China import vehicles and parts from the West – after all, the country represents a huge potential market for any company.
Friends or no-friends, China is forging ahead with its aerospace industry development programs. As with most industries in China, the aerospace industry is government-driven. That is, the Chinese state is investing heavily into the aviation sector, to boost its domestic aircraft manufacturing portfolio. An unexpected boost for China in business and general aviation comes from U.S. aerospace companies that have had to be sold (to Chinese owners) because of deteriorating aerospace business in the U.S. As an example, the U.S. light-aircraft manufacturer, Cirrus, was acquired from Teledyne (U.S.) by Chinese Aviation Industry General Aircraft (CAIGA), a subsidiary of Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC), in 2011, while the U.S. light-helicopter manufacturer, Enstrom, was acquired by Chongqing Helicopter Investment (in China) in December 2012. Furthermore, U.S. piston-aeroengine aftermarket parts manufacturer, Superior Air Parts, was sold to Superior Aviation Beijing in 2008, and was combined with Brantly, which itself was acquired by Qingdao Haili (China) in 2007. This means that the B2B (bomber) helicopter production capability moved to Qingdao, where unmanned versions are also being developed.  There are many other similar aerospace-related deals that will significantly close the aviation gap between Beijing and the U.S.
The bottom line of this article is that two factors: aggressive government programs and the ability of Chinese companies to purchase financially-troubled U.S. aerospace companies, are helping to accelerate the development of Beijing’s home-grown aerospace capabilities.

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