Chinese-made helicopters promise to transform global aviation industry

BEIJING (China Daily/ANN) – Copters ride revolutionary tech, cost benefits.

Over the next 20 years, joint venture partners Avicopter, the helicopter branch of State-owned aircraft giant Aviation Industry Corp of China, and Airbus Helicopters, the French aircraft-maker’s subsidiary, expect to sell about 800 to 1,000 AC352 choppers worldwide, including 300 in China, with profits to be split equally.

Profits from sales of indigenously manufactured choppers are expected to be substantial-not just for the joint venture but other Chinese companies on the back of their new-age aircraft such as the Z-20, which are seen revolutionising the global aviation industry spanning the civilian and military sectors.

Chinese-developed affordable, game-changing copter designs topped off by low operational and maintenance costs are already in the market, and newer models are in the pipeline. They are expected to confirm China’s stature as a growing power in helicopter technologies, spawning a multibillion-dollar business with implications for defence, civil and general aviation, and innovation-electric helicopters are within the realm of possibility.

In the foreseeable future, Chinese-made copter models are tipped to figure in a wide range of activities: maritime search-and-rescue missions, disaster aid, medical air services, maritime patrols, offshore oil rigs’ transport operations, tourism, business aviation, news coverage, freight, offshore industries’ operations, and police aviation squadrons-again, not just in China but the world over, experts said.

In China, locally made military-grade choppers are expected to be used in special warfare and antisubmarine operations.

The latest and brightest harbinger of the shift in the global helicopter market dynamics appeared during the grand National Day parade in Beijing on Oct 1. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, more than 80 helicopters developed and built by AVIC flew past the Tian’anmen Square.

Eye-catching achievement

The massive display of Chinese-made helicopters has been seen as evidence of the remarkable achievement made by the country’s aviation industry over the past several years. The display’s highlight was the public debut of the Z-20, China’s first domestically developed medium-lift utility helicopter.

Ten days after the parade, several Z-20s from the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force’s aviation units were sent to the fifth China Helicopter Exposition in Tianjin and were shown on the ground and in the air, making them the biggest attraction at the expo.

The Z-20 is one of the best of its kind in the world, according to project insiders at AVIC.

Chen Guang, deputy manager of Avicopter, is the in-charge of the Z-20 project. He said in a recent interview with China Daily that the Z-20 is a twin-engine, multipurpose helicopter designed and built by Chinese researchers on their own. The aircraft, he said, is able to operate in all landforms, including plateaus, and can fly in difficult weather conditions.

Powered by two advanced Chinese turboshaft engines, the helicopter is mainly tasked with transportation missions and can be conveniently refitted to execute other types of operations, he said.

Chen noted that every part on the Z-20 was developed and made in China.

Li Linhua, chief technological specialist at the China Helicopter Research and Development Institute in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, said the Z-20 features a streamlined aerodynamic structure, and new anti-icing technologies.

“One of the helicopter’s technological edges is its (cutting-edge) fly-by-wire flight control system,” Li said. “The adoption of such technology substantially reduced the Z-20’s overall weight and makes it easier for pilots to drive the helicopter.”

Wang Xibao, chief engineer at AVIC’s Harbin Aircraft Industry Group in Heilongjiang province that produces the Z-20, said the rotorcraft is capable of fitting in different environments, including the sea, so can also be deployed on ships.

Fang Bing, a retired researcher from PLA National Defense University, said the Z-20 will be one of the key elements in the PLA Ground Force’s transformation effort because it is badly needed by the Ground Force to carry out high-mobility air and land operations.

“Air-enabled deployment of troops and weapons relies on utility helicopters such as the Z-20. Besides conventional functions, they can be equipped with some weapons to conduct combat tasks,” the researcher said. “In addition to the Ground Force, the Z-20 will be useful in the Air Force and Navy as it is suitable for many tasks like search and rescue, special warfare and anti-submarine operations. It will be deployed in the military on a large scale.”

According to Cui Yiliang, editor-in-chief of naval equipment magazine Modern Ships, the Z-20 will strongly improve the combat capability of PLA Navy’s surface fleets.

“It is capable of fulfilling a wide range of missions that other Chinese helicopters have difficulties executing, including anti-submarine and anti-ship combat, signal relay for ship-launched missile and special assault,” Cui said.

Bullish forecast

In the civilian helicopter sphere, AVIC’s products are gaining popularity in the market.

The latest in the company’s civilian product portfolio-the AC352 medium-lift utility helicopter-is on the want list of many domestic clients, said Sun Qingmin, another deputy manager of Avicopter.

The company has received initial orders for more than 10 AC352s from domestic buyers such as CITIC Offshore Helicopter, a leading Chinese general aviation services provider, and expects to sell at least 300 in China over the next 20 years.

“Though the airworthiness certification process is still underway, we have been working hard to promote the helicopter in the market, especially to existing users of our products in the government such as the public security and transportation authorities,” Sun said during a recent interview.

“We are optimistic about the AC352’s market prospects in China because the Ministry of Public Security has plans to set up more than 300 police aviation squadrons across the country in the near future and will consequently need a lot of utility helicopters like our AC352.”

He also said China has long coastlines and many offshore industries, and that can lead to solid demand for advanced long-range helicopters such as the AC352 to conduct a variety of operations, including transportation and maritime search and rescue.

“Many of our targeted clients told us that they urgently need the AC352 and that as soon as its airworthiness certification is done, they will place orders,” Sun said.

Lu Weijian, the AC352’s chief designer at Avicopter, said: “Potential users told me that they are attracted by the helicopter’s good economy and low operational and maintenance costs. They said the helicopter will be useful in rescue missions, medical air services, maritime patrols and offshore oil rigs’ transport operations.”

The AC352, China’s first 7-metric-ton-class helicopter, was co-developed by Avicopter and Airbus Helicopters in 2006. It made its first flight in December 2016 in Harbin, Heilongjiang province.

The European model, which Airbus Helicopters refers to as the H175, made its maiden flight in December 2009 in France and was certified in January 2014 by the European Aviation Safety Agency. Deliveries to buyers began in December 2014, according to Airbus Helicopters.

The helicopter has a maximum takeoff weight of 7.5 tons, a maximum carrying capacity of 3 tons and a cruising speed of 275 kilometres per hour. It can fly up to 850 km in a single operation, according to Avicopter.

It said the AC352 is one of the most comfortable and environmentally friendly medium-sized helicopters in the world, adding that, in addition to two pilots, it can transport up to 16 passengers.

Heavyweight co-operation

China and Russia are working together on the research and development of a new type of heavy-lift helicopter, a major joint endeavour between the two countries in the aviation sphere.

Bilateral talks are close to completion with terms waiting for review and approval by governments, according to sources close to this program.

Sources said the aircraft’s design work and assembly will be in China while the production of some key parts will be in Russia.

The aircraft will become the first helicopter jointly designed and built by China and Russia, and will be competitive in the international market, said Huang Chuanyue, deputy chief engineer at Avicopter.

“Russia has rich experience in the field of large, heavy-duty helicopter while China has advantages in medium-and small-size civilian helicopters. There are bright prospects in the bilateral co-operation on the research and development of helicopters,” Huang said recently.

According to specifications published by AVIC, the helicopter will have a maximum takeoff weight of 38.2 tons and a maximum cruising speed of 300 km/h. It will be capable of flying at altitudes up to 5,700 metres and have a range of 630 km.

It will be more powerful than all of the other helicopters in China in terms of carrying capacity-it will be capable of taking 10 tons of cargo, or more than 100 people inside the cabin, or carry 15 tons of freight via an external sling. By comparison, the AC313, the currently mightiest type, can carry 4 tons inside the cabin or lift 5 tons outside the body.

Wu Peixin, an aviation industry observer in Beijing, said heavy-lift helicopters can transport a large amount of cargo or heavyweight items in and out of poorly accessible areas in an efficient manner, so will bring great convenience to people living there.

He said that such helicopters are indispensible in emergency response or disaster aid operations in these regions.

AVIC estimates that China will need at least 200 heavy-lift helicopters within the coming three decades.

Innovation to fly high

Besides building traditional models, Chinese designers have started preliminary research of an electric helicopter and are working toward developing a technology demonstration prototype.

Deng Jinghui, chief designer at the China Helicopter Research and Development Institute, said that researchers and engineers have carried out ground-based technology demonstration of an electrically driven tail rotor. They are making preparations for the device to be used on a 2-ton helicopter for flight test, he said.

Engineers will remove the aircraft’s original tail rotor, which is driven by the helicopter’s engine through the transmission gear like such part does in all helicopters, and also get rid of related transmission instrument, and then install an electric tail rotor that generates the driving force by itself rather from the engine, according to the designer.

“Replacing a conventional tail rotor with an electrically driven one is our first step in exploring and verifying the technical feasibility of an electric helicopter,” Deng said.

He said engineers plan to use about two years to test how the electric tail rotor will work on the helicopter and if everything goes well, they will replace the same helicopter’s engine and the conventional main rotor with an electric generator, an electric motor and an electrically propelled main rotor for further tests.

Within the coming decade, Chinese aviation engineers will strive to build an all-electric helicopter and the keys to this goal are the high-power density motor and high-performance battery, which will take the place of engine and electric generator.

Wang Yanan, editor-in-chief of Aerospace Knowledge magazine, said that compared with a conventional helicopter, an electric model features multiple advantages such as simpler structure, better control, less pollution and reduced operational cost.

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