August 19, 2013
Credit: Comac Concept
Comac's managers must be pretty embarrassed by the announcement that their flagship program, the 158-seat C919 airliner, will make a delayed first flight at the end of 2015. Face is important in China, and there is a lot of it to lose if one is running a priority program intended to make the country proud.
But maybe they should recall that not only is commercial aircraft development difficult even for an experienced organization; it is all the harder for them because China has been in such a rush. And no one in the program is to blame for Comac inevitably being a Chinese state agency with burdensome bureaucratic culture.
Under the circumstances, they are not doing too badly, say some industry executives with good insight into the program. The delay announced this month means the C919, scheduled at program launch in 2008 to go into service in 2016, will not reach customers before 2017, and quite likely not until 2018. Admittedly, 10 years is a long time from launch to entry into service. But Boeing took nearly eight years to get the 787 into service, and it had been through the process seven times before. Meanwhile, Comac's ARJ21 regional jet, launched in 2002, is finally looking stable, on track for entry into service in mid-2014.
The C919 delay is the second for that program. The first, shifting the first flight from June 2014 to the second quarter of 2015, was reported by Aviation Week in June but not announced (AW&ST June 17, p. 96). The 2016 first-delivery target, not publicly revised, is unachievable. While an experienced Western manufacturer might allow just a year for flight-testing and related certification work, industry executives believe Comac will need its originally scheduled two years, even with expected help from Bombardier. So entry into service in late 2017 looks likely if all goes well, and in 2018 if unexpected problems crop up, as they often do.
The new schedule reflects the realistic attitude of the current head of Comac, Jin Zhuanglong. “The goal is not to fly an aircraft that is not certifiable,” one industry executive quotes Jin as saying. The official adds: “This [the delay] is good news, because flying an aircraft that is not representative of the production version is a big mistake.” Comac is making faster progress with its structure suppliers, all Avic units, than it is in systems. The C919 has entered the manufacturing stage, with 95% of its parts designed, says Zhang Yanzhong, who announced the delay and is the director of an expert committee that is advising the cabinet on the program. Assembly will begin next year, he says.
Rollout of the first prototype must also have been delayed a second time. After the first postponement it was supposed to happen in December 2014, but Comac cannot plan to have the aircraft sitting on the ground for a year before flying. A sixth aircraft was added to the flight-test program.
The C919 iron bird, a ground rig on which systems are tested, is finally being fitted, at first to trial mechanical and hydraulic systems; by mid-2014 it will be fully operational with all systems, says an official. As recently as a month ago nothing was mounted, a strong sign of slow development.