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China's maiden jet flight in holding pattern
Publication Date : 07-08-2013
China's dream of having its first large commercial jetliner may have hit some turbulence, as the maiden test flight of the C919 will be delayed by a year to 2015.
Zhang Yanzhong, director of the program's advisory committee of experts and a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, said the programme encountered difficulties due to the manufacturer's present level of technological expertise and experience building commercial aircraft, but that these are not major setbacks.
"Generally speaking, the project is going well now," he said on Tuesday, without elaborating on what the issues are.
Based on the project's progress, it is impossible to make the maiden test flight in 2014 as planned, said an official with the Commercial Aircraft Corp of China, builder of the C919.
The first delivery of the C919, planned for 2016, may also be delayed, said the official, who is familiar with the project but declined to be identified.
Wang Ya'nan, deputy editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, said it will take at least two to three years for domestic and foreign authorities to authenticate the airworthiness of the C919.
"The earliest time for its delivery to buyers is likely to be in 2018 or 2019," Wang said.
Chinese airlines that placed orders for the jetliners said they will patiently wait for delivery.
"Only one year delay is OK for us, as it will not have much adverse effect on the airline's operations," said an official from a domestic airline who did not want to be named.
By the end of 2012, at least 15 companies, most of them Chinese, agreed to buy 380 of the aircraft.
GE's aircraft leasing arm has signed on to take 20 of the C919 planes. Other customers include China's big three airlines — Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines — and the leasing units of lenders such as Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and Bank of Communications.
Material and component suppliers of the aircraft have not been informed about the schedule changes.
"We are still working on the projects in line with the original schedule," said Xu Yingbing, director of communications (Asia-Pacific) of Honeywell Aerospace.
Honeywell Aerospace provides major systems including guidance systems and auxiliary power units for the C919.
Honeywell International and CFM International, a venture between General Electric and Safran SA, are among the C919's major suppliers.
The programne's delay is not a total surprise, experts said.
"I think the maiden flight of the C919 will be conducted in 2015, and it is quite natural that the date of the test flight is postponed," Wang said.
Development and testing of a new aircraft, especially a large jetliner, go through very complicated processes, he said, noting that companies like Boeing and Airbus had also delayed test flights.
Some of the postponements of Boeing and Airbus were caused by technical problems, but sometimes they were made out of commercial considerations, Wang said.
For instance, the company knew that it would take five years to develop a new aircraft but still announced that the maiden flight would be performed within four, Wang said.
"The reason they deliberately announced an early date was to grab the market," he said.
China is building the 168-seat plane as it tries to break the stranglehold of Airbus SAS and Boeing in the global market for aircraft of this size. Last year, COMAC, builder of the C919, asked its project designers to work 12-hour days and six-day weeks to meet the deadline for the maiden flight.
The C919 is not China's first attempt to build a large plane. From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, China worked on the four-engine, narrow-body Y-10, but the project was eventually aborted after doubts over the aircraft's profitability and feasibility, although three prototypes had been manufactured.
"The C919 is hence the first, so it is logical that China may take a longer time to develop it," Wang said.
The biggest obstacle developers have to overcome is the propulsion system, he said.
"In addition, whether the test flight can be performed on schedule depends on the results of ground tests, which examine the performance of every system on the plane."
COMAC has started the parts and components manufacturing of C919, and it is working on the research of some key technologies, according to the company.
Bloomberg contributed to this story.