Full-scale development of a Russo-Chinese widebody may begin next year

Russia’s United Aircraft Corp. (UAC) and China’s Comac have begun preliminary design of their proposed joint 250-280-seat widebody airliner, which Moscow now expects to enter service in 2025. This phase should be completed by July, says UAC President Yury Slyusar, while Industry and Trade Minister Denis Manturov suggests that full-scale development will begin next year.

“We have the money for this,” Manturov says, referring to the preliminary design. As for the next design stage, more funding will be needed, and this would fall in the 2016-18 budget cycle, according to an Interfax-AVN news agency report on the press conference.

By “next design stage,” Manturov appears to be referring to detail design. That implies that a nine-year program for full-scale development will be launched in 2016. Entry into service in 2025 would be at the end of the target period previously set as 2023-25. China and Russia each allowed eight years for development of their narrowbody airliners, the C919 and MS-21, respectively, and each now expects that it will take 10 years to bring those aircraft to fruition.

Last November Slyusar, who was then Russia’s deputy industry and trade minister, said that the aircraft would make its first flight in 2021-22. Development cost is now estimated at $13 billion before the ruble’s recent fall in value, he says. That compares with a figure of $7-8 billion he mentioned in November. The cheaper ruble should reduce the U.S.-dollar cost of the program, however; the two sides are probably budgeting in dollars because that is the currency customers and suppliers will use.

The structure of the proposed Russo-Chinese widebody is likely to have a large composite content. Credit: United Aircraft Corp.

UAC and Comac, both state-owned, signed a memorandum on cooperation for the program in May 2014. A joint feasibility study was completed in autumn 2014 with positive results, says a UAC official.

Russian industry is keen to work with the Chinese since Beijing can afford to help fund the program. The joint widebody program has been met with great support from the Russian government, but a wholly Russian effort may struggle for funding. Comac is far less keen about the endeavor, say industry officials in China, because the Chinese industry would likely receive government backing for independent development of a widebody. One has been planned for several years under the name C929.

UAC is likely to develop and build the composite wing and fin for the widebody while Comac handles the fuselage, says Slyusar. Although that blueprint assigns the most difficult part of the airframe to Russia, the UAC president points out that not all of the technology is coming from his side. “China is now not only a market and investor but is also providing some expertise in technologies needed for our joint project,” he says.

Still, UAC has more experience in major composite structures than the Chinese industry has, although Avic, Comac’s airframe supplier, owns Austrian composites specialist FACC. UAC subsidiary Aerocomposit has developed the carbon-fiber wing for the MS-21 in cooperation with FACC and Diamond Aircraft, another Austrian company. That wing completed fatigue testing at the government aeronautical engineering institute TsAGI near Moscow last spring. Comac considered developing a composite wing for the C919, but ultimately decided against it.

The MS-21 wing has since been sent to TsAGI for static testing. Program managers for the widebody are looking at their options in acquiring tooling that needs to be ordered early, says an industry official in the U.S. Their requirements are consistent with the large-scale use of composites that Slyusar describes.

The UAC president hopes that most of the work on the aircraft will be done in Russia. That point should be settled soon, since detailed work distribution will be defined during the current, preliminary design phase. UAC estimates that the world will need 8,000 widebody airlines through 2033, with 1,000 bought by Chinese airlines.

Comac’s studies have pointed to a gap in the market for a widebody with the moderate range of 7,400 km (4,000 nm), but in November Mikhail Pogosyan, who was then president of UAC, said the joint airliner would have a range of up to 12,000 km and seat 250-300 passengers. Slyusar has refined that to 250-280 seats in the basic version, which could later be lengthened or shortened.

The intended engine for the type has not been mentioned, but a competitive widebody would almost certainly need a Western powerplant in its initial versions. Similarly, Western onboard systems would normally be expected.

Tensions between Russia and the West over the past year must increase the desire of Moscow, if not Beijing, to equip the aircraft as far as possible with systems from Russian and Chinese factories. The Chinese are probably far from building an industry capable of producing robust, efficient aircraft systems able to meet globally recognized certification standards, but Russian industry could develop some equipment.

Russia’s United Engine Corp. (UEC) says it discussed possible joint development of a high-thrust engine for the new widebody with Avic during Airshow China at Zhuhai last November. The parties have had “serious negotiations,” a UEC representative tells Aviation Week. The parameters of the joint engine should be defined in the first quarter of this year. It would be a Phase 2 powerplant for the aircraft, which would probably go into service with a Western engine.

Avic Commercial Aircraft Engines has been working on the preliminary design of a turbofan for the widebody, with the aim of entry into service between 2025 and 2030.

The Chinese have had far less experience in developing transport aircraft than the Russians, but they trail only slightly in producing aircraft with globally recognized airworthiness certification. UAC’s Sukhoi Superjet 100 regional jet is the first such Russian aircraft; it entered service in 2011 and has certification endorsed by the European Aviation Safety Agency. Comac’s ARJ21, a similarly sized aircraft, was declared airworthy in December after a certification program monitored by the FAA.