airliner designs

Aug 20, 2014

China’s Comac 919 reveals the tip of a mystery

There have been many dismissive and patronising western media stories about the c919. They will all end up on the wrong side of history.

Ben Sandilands β€” Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

The nose of the c919 prototype emerges in COMAC's Chengdu facility

China has rolled out the nose section of its COMAC c919 single aisle airliner, a project which in some respects isΒ  short on details but supported by a very substantial investment in cutting edge technology.

The c919 is nearest in nominal specifications to the Airbus A319 and its soon to appear new engine option of NEO version, or to the Boeing 737-700 and its not so soon to appear 737-7 MAX new engine technology version.

The key difference however is in range. Both the A319s and 737-700s and their new engine enhancements have maximum range reach of around 7800 kilometres.

COMAC's latest mock up image of the c919

However the COMAC specs as most recently published (below) vary from an initial 4075 kilometres to as much as 5555 kilometres.

“C919” is the short form of trunk liner code for “COMAC919”. COMAC is the acronym of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd. The letter “C” is the first letter of both “COMAC” and “China”. It indicates that this trunk liner program is the will of China and her people. It is a short-medium range commercial trunk liner that can claim indigenous intellectual property. Its all-economy class layout entails 168 seats, and the hybrid class layout 156 seats. The basic version is designed to cover a range of 4,075 km, while the enhanced version can stretch to 5,555 km. Such designs may satisfy the operating demands for different routes. Its economic life is designed to be 90,000 flying hours/30 calendar years.

Despite this point of difference, and a seating capacity slightly larger than that of the A319 and 737-7 and smaller than those of the A320s and 737-8s, there is of course massive overlapping of mission capabilities between the c919 and the Airbus and Boeing products, with the former already rolling out of the Airbus China final assembly line for its A320s in Tianjin.

One of the engine alternatives previously highlighted for the c919 was the Pratt & Whitney GTF or geared turbo fan design, which is also in different forms, an option on the A320NEOs the forthcoming Embraer E-2 regional jets, the Mitsubishi MRJ, and the not so forthcoming Bombardier CSeries, where test flights stopped in May because of an engine incident which could be dismissed as mere ‘fireworks’ but has since turned into something of a saga.

However COMAC chose the CFM LEAP engine new tech alternative, which is the sole option on the 737 MAXs and one of two options, with the P&W design, on the A320 NEOs.

The c919 will also feature a China designed high tech engine, and is understood to include significant avionics systems purchased from US suppliers.

There is nothing unusual in this, the amount of European, US, Japanese, and South Korean sourced components in both Airbus and Boeing airliners is often quite high in terms of value and function. Half the engines on today’s Boeing 737s are French, through the Franco-American CFM International venture. A critical part of all 787 Dreamliners is made in an Airbus plant in Germany, and so forth.

What has started to emerge from the COMAC plant in Chengdu is an airliner that it could be argued China must build for itself because the western jet makers simply can’t produce enough of what it needs in the time frame required.

Both Airbus and Boeing have forecast a 30 year demand for close to 3000 new single aisle jets like the A320, 737s and c919s in China alone, which in the context of huge non China demand for the same sized airliners, no single source can provide.

There is no really clear indication when COMAC expects the c919 to be deliverable, but earlier announcements said it would happen this decade.

The role of the c919 in China is not just to satisfy home market demand, but the do so with technological parity with its long established western rivals at the very least.

China has demonstrated such determination in terms of commercial satellite launch systems and is doing the same in manned spaced flight, large orbital assemblies, and (so far) unmanned lunar exploration.

There have been many dismissive and patronising western media stories about the c919. They will all end up on the wrong side of history.

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18 thoughts on “China’s Comac 919 reveals the tip of a mystery

  1. ggm

    I would agree with your summary. Consider Huawei. once a sub-manufacturer for Cisco, now world-scale deployments in its niches and taking Cisco and Juniper and Alcatel on head to head.

    Or the Chinese high speed train deployments, which leverage best-of-breed from France and Germany.

    Most complaints center on IPR theft but I suspect underneath this is the reality: the size of the market means China can (and does) dictate a substantive technology transfer requirement to sell into their territory, and since they have the world debt, they are a market too big to ignore.

    I don’t have a problem with it. The stats don’t lend themselves to significantly higher rates of systematic failure on trains, or home routers, or 3G wifi dongles. Why should it be any different on their aircraft?

  2. Scott

    I don’t know Ben.

    The history of Commercial chinese aviation is not great. A lot of defunct projects and dodgy ripoffs.

    The space program is not really an accurate comparison as it comes straight out of Government ballistic missle research, which they has been involved in since the 50’s. There is no doubt China can be effective when it wants to be, especially when it acts in its National interest.

    But COMAC is not that. It will be Ilyushin and Tupolev’s competitors in the developing world at best.

  3. George Glass

    Boeing and Airbus have already squeezed every bit of efficiency possible out of conventional aircraft configurations. Dont see a paradigm shift here.

  4. Ben Sandilands

    Agree. It’s about parity, not a paradigm shift. Wonder if COMAC will do what Korean Aerospace is already moving towards, and outsource the labour to America, or maybe in ten years time, Australia. OK make that 20 years time in our case.

  5. George Glass

    Well, in that case it better come with sheep skin seat covers and a set of steak knives!

  6. [email protected]

    In my occupation as a freight train driver, my daily drive is relatively new diesel locomotives built in Chengdu.

    If I find out that the plane I am about to board is made in Chengdu, I will not be getting on board.

  7. George Glass

    If it aint Boeing…..

  8. Uwe

    @ endeavour.paul.

    In my experience you get what you pay for ( actually what the manufacturer gets paid and not the amount you have been billed for πŸ˜‰

    Funnily this is a recursive article, I would like to move attention to Ben’s first sentence:

    “There have been many dismissive and patronising western media stories about the c919. They will all end up on the wrong side of history.”

  9. icarus

    I still remember the goods Japan produced before and after WWII cheap and shoddy, but that changed drastically within a relatively short time. There is no reason for China not doing the same and I am sure they will.

  10. MikeofPerth

    Sometimes it’s not always the better product. Sometimes it’s the better marketed, distributed or priced product. Out of the L-1011 and DC-10/MD-11 series what was the better plane? Arguably the L-1011 I’d say. Unfortunately Lockheed was hit with 2 years of delay in getting the Tristar out there thanks to Rolls Royce. The DC-10 got the jump in the market and Lockheed pulled out of the commercial aircraft business. MD stayed in the game another 13 years after Lockheed before the Boeing merger and their damn MD-11 still draws the wrong type of attention to this day from aviation authorities over its finicky handling characteristics during landing.

  11. Uwe

    icarus, in Britain “Made in Germany” initially was force on German goods to mark them as cheap copy. (english parliament : Merchandise Marks Act 1887 )

    See where that ended πŸ˜‰

  12. Tango

    Engines: The entry engine is a CFM LEAP variant, P&W bid on the engine choice but COMAC choose the CFM. So, while possible, its extremely unlikely that P&W gets on this aircraft as it them is totally outside the bounds of the current project scope (the other engine choice supposedly coming from China).

    I would not call it state of the art, I would call it last generation art as it breaks no new ground, its simply a copy of what has been done elsewhere. More accurately its going to be heavier passenger per passenger as this is a learning experience and the biased (hopefully for those who fly it) is toward safer.

    It is also in trouble project wise as it is not being concurrently certified. China was supposed to get the ARJ21 certified and then use that process on the 919.

    The shadow certification issue has gone quiet but until that is completed, the 909 can’t start its process.
    No one has said if they can even make parts for it unless certification process in place. If it all piles up and then has to be all done at once the agencies can’t grind it through. That process is done a bit at a time and the results analyzed, check and then approved (or denied and to be re-done). Simply not enough staff to let it logjam on you. It may fly by 2020 and when it gets certified is ? Boeing will probably release the new 737RS by the time its actually in service (early 2020s)

    So, other than engines and a bit of composites (and the center wing box may change to aluminum when they try to deal with that) its a very conventional aircraft.

    By the time they get their aircraft certified, a new generation of single aisles will be launched. As they will have little experience under their belt, trying to copy a CRFP fuselage will drop them behind again. As long as Boeing and Airbus do not take them for granted, China will never get a chance to leap ahead. If they were going to this would have been cutting edge, not 70s tech.

    They also have zero experience support world wide aircraft operations and customer service (assuming they sell any outside of China.) As this is a government program its rife with overhead and bureaucratic inertia.

    Keep in mind the cutting edge product coming out of China are not Chinese, they are designed elsewhere and manufactured in China.

    Jets launches are few and far between. Its not like you can ramp up the cycle and do it more often than the other guy. Your experience is only once every 10 or 15 years, not new VCR 5 times a year where you get each new iteration better and better until its perfected. They will stay years behind.

    China is having fits trying to develop engines (they can make engines, but not the long endurance reliable ones needed to get an airline outside of China to buy).

  13. Tango

    “I still remember the goods Japan produced before and after WWII cheap and shoddy, but that changed drastically within a relatively short time. There is no reason for China not doing the same and I am sure they will.”

    When your desgn cycle is short you can correct your screw ups. Aircraft are 10-15 years projects and when you get it wrong you are toast not to mention lagging tech that you have not mastered.

  14. Ben Sandilands


    Many thanks for your engine note, which has caused me to change the copy, as well as bang head on desk! Cheers

  15. Geoff

    Ben – History also tells us that the educated middle class currently being created in China will eventually want some form of liberal democracy as their form of Government. The Chinese leadership may try to transform themselves from (so-called)Communists to Fascists however in an enlightened society expect a backlash. Not until they sort that out will the country really blossom.

  16. Tango

    Ben – you are welcome.

  17. Achmad Osman

    Wow – lots of jingoistic comments –

    Ben – fully agree with your assessment. We are witnessing the teenage years of the Chinese dragon. At one stage, not that long ago, Brits used to snigger at the “pathetic and backward” colonists in the Americas too.

  18. Uwe

    Geoff, China appears to very carefully avoid going down the US way. With good reason.

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