China plans test flights for first homegrown jet airliner

By Christopher Bodeen BEIJING, AP

China’s first homegrown jet airliner, the ARJ-21, is scheduled to roll off the production line by year’s end, with the first test flights scheduled for next March, newspapers reported Thursday.

Marking a milestone toward completion, the plane’s wing was delivered to manufacturer China Aviation Industry Corp. I’s assembly base in the central city of Xi’an on Wednesday, the China Daily said.

That delivery “signaled the manufacturing has made a significant breakthrough and guarantees the jet’s final assembly (will be) on schedule,” AVIC I General Manager Lin Zuoming was quoted as saying by the paper.

The plane marks an intermediary step in China’s quest to design and build large aircraft, a goal listed among 16 major projects under a government program launched in 2006 and referred to in Premier Wen Jiabao’s speech to the national legislature on Monday.

China’s targets are believed to include production of a 200-seater jet by 2010, along with its engines, although it is unclear what progress has been made in that direction.

Seating 70 to 110 passengers with a maximum range of 3,702 kilometers, the ARJ-21, or Advanced Regional Jet for the 21st Century, has been put forward as a competitor to Boeing and Airbus’s dominance in the Chinese market, particularly for relatively short feeder flights.

Its GE turbofan engines and avionics are imported, but the airframe and other parts were produced in various AVIC I plants around China.

Test flights were originally scheduled for late 2006 and there was no word on the reason for the delay. The project was approved in 2002 and China’s government invested 5 billion yuan (US$645 million; euro491 million) in its original stage of development, the report said.

Smaller domestic carriers such as Shanghai Airlines, Shandong Airlines and Xiamen Airlines have ordered 71 of the planes, while AVIC I is also targeting export markets in Asia, Africa and South America, it said.

Company officials expect to sell 300 of the planes to Chinese customers within 20 years, and Lin said delivery of the first jet is scheduled for the third quarter of 2009.

The Aviation Industry Development Research Center affiliated with AVIC I puts China’s demand for civilian aircraft at 2,230 by 2025, similar to estimates by foreign makers.

Industry reports say the ARJ-21 is similar to the Douglas DC-9 — reflecting an earlier tie-up between McDonnell Douglas Corp., which was later acquired by Boeing, and the state-owned China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corp. The aircraft uses components from 19 international suppliers.