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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

China fast-tracking helicopter development

By: Mark Huber

China not only wants to be the world’s largest consumer of helicopters, it intends to be the largest producer. This is a lofty goal for a country that had less than 100 civil-use helicopters five years ago. Yet as early as 2000, executives who ran China’s state-owned aviation companies predicted that the country would be one of the foremost helicopter manufacturers by 2030. Near-term, China has its eyes set on acquiring 2,000 civil helicopters by 2013 and as many as 10,000 by 2020, according to China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corp.

The demand for helicopters is fueled by the country’s superheated $5 trillion annual economy, now the world’s second-largest behind the $15 trillion U.S. economy. Over the last decade the per-capita income in China quadrupled and the country’s economy is expected to continue to expand at double-digit yearly rates, according to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC). The country also is flush with cash. It holds the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves–$2.65 trillion.

Three Channels of Development

China is attempting to increase its vertical lift via three main channels: straight imports, joint ventures with foreign companies and the development of indigenous rotorcraft. Seemingly every month, a Western OEM announces new sales in China: AgustaWestland, Bell, Eurocopter, MD and Sikorsky all announced new sales there last year. So did Erickson Air-Crane, which last December announced a deal for five S-64Fs from China’s Taicang Aircrane for delivery this year and next.

As eager as China is for Western helicopters, it is more eager to buy them with local content and eventually leverage joint-venture relationships into its own indigenous helicopter industry.According to the USCC, this has long been part of a three-legged government policy. It includes large government investment in aviation, an offset policy that mandates technology transfers from foreign firms as a condition to gaining access to China and close coordination between China’s military and civil aviation sectors.

Strategic Partnerships

In its annual report to Congress last year, the USCC noted, “The development of China’s aviation industrial base would not be possible without the strong support it receives from the Chinese government. Beijing considers China’s commercial aircraft industry to be strategic and has made its development a national priority.”

China began this practice in the 1950s with the Soviet Union, manufacturing the Z-5, a version of the Mi-4 Hound, which was later leveraged into its own Z-6 military helicopter. In 1969, it established the China Helicopter Design and Research Institute. To date, state-owned Chinese companies have established joint ventures with AgustaWestland, Bell, Eurocopter and Sikorsky for the manufacture and or assembly of legacy aircraft in China including the AW109 and the S-76.

More ambitiously, China’s Avicopter is jointly developing the EC175 medium twin with Eurocopter. The country’s relationship with what is now Eurocopter, dates back to 1980, when Harbin Aircraft (HAMC) signed a deal to assemble 50 AS 365N1 and N2 Dauphins, designated the Z-9.

Eurocopter has sold approximately 150 aircraft into China and controls 40 percent of the parapublic and civil market. Avicopter also is known to be collaborating with Russian Helicopter’s Mil unit on the development of a 40,000-pound heavy lift helicopter. Chinese companies also are building components for these and other helicopters manufactured elsewhere and sold into the world market.

Western Technology

Evidence that China is leveraging Western technology, albeit very dated, into its own helicopters already is apparent. Last year it flew a new homegrown heavy-lift helicopter—the AC313--for the first time. The AC313 tips the scales at 27,600 pounds, can carry up to 27 troops, has a maximum ferry range of 560 miles and was built at the state-owned Avicopter unit of the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), the same company making Sikorsky S-76C++ airframes.

The AC313 appears to be an outgrowth of the 14,000-pound Chinese Zhi-8 medium helicopter. That helicopter is based on the 1970s-vintage Aerospatiale SA321 Super Frelon. China Daily, the state-run newspaper, hailed the helicopter as a “breakthrough in domestic aviation technology.” The AC313 is believed to have a maximum gross weight that could eventually increase to 30,000 pounds and an external load capability of at least 10,000 pounds. Certification is expected next year.

Late last year, Avicopter conducted the first flight of another helicopter, the light single AC311, which closely resembles a Eurocopter product. Certification of that helicopter is expected later this year. Chinese companies Changhe and Harbin were development partners on the Eurocopter EC 120.

Independent of these joint ventures, China continues to make substantial investments in helicopter development, recently opening a $1.2 billion helicopter R&D and production facility in Tianjin.

However, its inability to produce an advanced turbofan engine remains its “Achilles’ heel,” according to the USCC. “Without the ability to successfully produce a turbofan engine, China will remain dependent on imported engines,” it said, noting the ongoing thrust, blade and oil leak problems with the only homegrown turbofan developed in China to date, the military WS-10A. “Until China’s turbine engine industry becomes more mature, it is unlikely to develop a truly indigenous helicopter for global consumption,” the USCC concluded.

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