Just six years after the Wright brothers made their first flight in 1903, Feng Ru, a 26-year-old man born in Guangdong, designed, built and flew his own aircraft of leading-edge design. He did that in California and then returned to China to pursue his aeronautical business. After seeing Feng fly, Sun Yat-sen, the first president of post-imperial China, urged the Chinese people to “develop aviation to save the nation.”
Since the 1950s, China has advanced greatly in military aviation, but we still have not developed a trunkliner. So our country attaches great importance to the Comac C919 program. A Chinese trunkliner is the dream and wish of all Chinese people, especially those working in aviation. The postponement of the first flight until 2015 has puzzled many people. They have wondered whether C919 development is in trouble. They should not worry, because the C919 has not encountered any great difficulty, and its first flight will not be very late. This is the first Chinese attempt at developing a modern trunkliner, so the most important thing is to leave enough time for design, manufacturing and testing to ensure success of the first flight.
Preliminary and detailed design work for the C919 is complete. Parts are being made. Much testing on the ground will be conducted. The decision to postpone the first flight was sensible. We should not blindly pursue a schedule; doing so can result in important technical issues being neglected.
Boeing and Airbus have years of experience in airliner design and manufacturing, but a stream of problems emerged after the first flights of the 787 and A380. Progress after the first flights was greatly delayed, annoying customers. This reminds us that high-tech products present tremendous engineering difficulties; problems are inevitable. Special consideration should be allowed for China as it develops its first trunkliner.
Not all the metal and composite materials for a Chinese trunkliner need to be made domestically, and a small proportion is acceptable for flight testing, but we hope the ratio will rise. While global sourcing is common and the Chinese supply is immature, domestic capacity to provide critical materials ought to be built as soon as possible. Then Chinese manufacturers should be added to the list of qualified C919 suppliers. Many manufacturers in China are developing suitable aluminium and titanium alloys, plus composites and steel.
While we need to catch up to the 787 and A380 in material technology, the C919 has a competitive advantage over the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. Titanium alloy is 10% of the C919's structural weight, compared with 2.2% in the 737 and 4.5% in the A320. At present, the proportion of composites used in the C919 is higher than that for the 737 but a little lower than for the A320. The C919 also includes an aluminium-lithium alloy.
We must do our best to develop and produce critical materials as soon as possible, to ensure the success of the Chinese trunkliner. Otherwise, we will be subject to the control of other countries.
In developing commercial aircraft, we will use an advanced foreign engine at first, but this is not a good long-term plan. Many experts say the engine is the heart of an aircraft; they liken problems in Chinese aero-engine technology to heart troubles. In some ways the engine is harder to make than the airframe. Its materials, too, are more challenging. A Chinese engine for the C919 should advance a new generation in local materials technology.