China’s C919 single-aisle plane facing strong headwinds midst technical challenges

According to a dozen sources familiar with the development of China’s C919 single-aisle plane, the program, which is already five years behind schedule, is likely to expect more delays with the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corporation (COMAC) struggling with a range of technical issues adding to headwinds for test flights.

Although delays are common in complex aerospace programs, the slow pace of progress is a potential embarrassment for China which has invested heavily in its first serious attempt to break the hold of Boeing and Airbus in the global jet market.

According to four sources familiar with the knowledge, the most recent problem came down to a mathematical error. COMAC engineers miscalculated the load, the amount of force that would be placed on the plane’s twin engines in flight, and had sent inaccurate data to CFM International, the engine manufacturer. As a result of these miscalculations, the engine and its housing are likely to have more reinforcements, said sources; these would add to COMAC’s expenses.

Such mistakes along with other technical and structural errors meant that by early December 2019, after more than two and a half years of flight testing, COMAC had completed less than a fifth of the 4,200 hours in the air that it needs for final approval by the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), said two sources close to the project.

Since 2008, COMAC has been developing the C919 – largely in secrecy.

COMAC officials say they are aiming for certification and delivery by 2021.

CFM, a joint venture between General Electric and France’s Safran, declined comment.

“Things do not always work out as planned, but I hope COMAC would slow down a bit and try not to rush things,” said a source familiar with the engine issue. “Otherwise there will be tons of issues later on.”

“The C919’s real mission is to conquer a domestic market dominated by its two foreign competitors,” said Jean-François Dufour, chief analyst of DCA Chine-Analyse. “Ten to 15 years from now, a next-generation C919, or other models developed by COMAC, may become real competitors on the global scene.”

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