China's helicopter builder is developing aircraft it cannot sell in the West
Avicopter sees itself becoming one of the world's great helicopter makers, alongside the likes of . A rather large obstacle stands in its way, however: Western countries, the world's largest helicopter markets, do not recognize Chinese rotorcraft certifications.
Undeterred, the rotary-wing subsidiary of Avic has now at least received Civil Aviation Administration of China () type certificates for two helicopters this year. The latest is the AC311, a key product in the company's strategy. That aircraft and the other newly certified type, the three-engine AC313, are both heavily modified versions of French helicopters.
Certification of the AC311 came at least six months later than Avicopter expected last year. No reason for the delay has been given.
The development plan for the AC313 includes U.S. or European certification, says Xu Zhaoliang, the chief designer of the 13.8-metric-ton aircraft. Yet the difficulty in doing that illustrates the size of the obstacle in Avicopter's path.
A foreign authority could eventually recognize a Chinese helicopter certification, but only after reviewing and confirming the CAAC's expertise in airworthiness assessments. Certifications issued by the CAAC prior to that, including the AC313's, would not be recognized.
Reviewing and confirming an old foreign certification, issued under different standards, would be nearly impossible, says one Western industry official closely involved in airworthiness assessments. There is a way around the problem—redesigning the aircraft and putting it through a second certification process—but such a costly effort would be hard to justify if aimed only at widening a type's market.
Still, it is an effort that Avicopter has recently undergone for the AC313—and only for local approval. That may be a measure of the company's determination.
Avic's various units stress time and again that one of their biggest challenges is achieving airworthiness certification, including from the CAAC. The basic problem, says Yin Shijun, CAAC deputy director general for airworthiness, is that its engineers do not have enough opportunities to accumulate airworthiness knowledge—though judging from the many projects proposed by Avic companies, that may not be a problem for long.
In conjunction with the June certification of the AC311, Avicopter announced orders for 62 of the single-engine, 2.2-ton aircraft from state enterprises, some linked with the manufacturer. The order figure is remarkably large for the nascent local market, but it is unclear whether the contracts are binding, since “orders” announced by Chinese manufacturers sometimes do not represent binding contracts, especially when the customer is a state firm.
Avicopter sees the AC311 as crucial for its goal of developing a lineup of helicopters in the 1-13-ton range. “According to a domestic and international research and analysis, light helicopters in the 2-ton class account for more than 40% of the civil market and the prospects for their employment are vast,” the company says.
The AC311 can carry six people and has a 900-kg (2,000-lb.) maximum load capacity, 620-km (385-mi.) range, 4-hr. endurance and 242-kph (150-mph.) maximum cruise speed. “The tips of the main rotor blades are elliptical, improving aerodynamic efficiency and reducing aerodynamic noise,” the manufacturer says.
The rotorcraft is similar to and follows the configuration of the Eurocopter AS350 Squirrel, an unauthorized copy of which Avicopter builds as the AC301. The Chinese company says it has independently developed the AC311 using three-dimensional digital techniques and that it has been designed in accordance with international airworthiness standards. Industry officials say Eurocopter did not help.has supplied its LTS101-700D-2 engine for the program, but signed an agreement with Avic unit China South Aviation Industry last year to cooperate on the Arriel 2B1A for the AC311.
Despite the unexpectedly late certification, development of the helicopter appears to have been quick and was presumably aided by familiarity with the Squirrel. Preliminary design was completed in 2009 and detail design and engineering development in March 2010. First flight occurred the following November. In 2011, the company said it would be certified by the end of that year, while a third new helicopter, the 1-ton AC310, would be approved by May 2012. The AC310 has yet to achieve certification, though.
Another key challenge for Avicopter is to develop dynamic components that need overhauling only after long intervals. Even in China, buyers cite the need for frequent overhauls of Avicopter aircraft as a reason for buying more expensive imported helicopters. Avicopter says the AC311's dynamic components are designed to be long-lasting, but it gives no figures.
The type is also important because it will provide work for Avicopter's new base at Tianjin. The company, owned jointly by the Tianjin city government and Avic, also encompasses long-established Chinese helicopter plants such as Harbin Aircraft and Changhe Aircraft, in Jingdezehn. The AC311 was originally a project of Changhe.
The plant remains the builder of the AC313, developed from the military Z-8, itself a license-built version of the French Super Frelon. The rotorcraft has already been redesigned once to conform to updated certification standards—the CAAC refused the manufacturer's application to certify the Z-8 for civil use in 2004, the agency's Yin tells International Aviation, the Chinese partner of Aviation Week. The CAAC determined then that an aircraft certified to military standards in China in the 1970s was not a candidate for civil use now. That appears to have sent the design authority, the China Helicopter Research and Development Institute, back to the drawing board to develop the considerably revised AC313.
The aircraft has new main and tail rotors, Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6B-67A turboshafts and a fuselage using composite material. Like other Chinese aircraft, it has high-altitude operations as a key objective, so that it can fly from bases on the Tibet-Qinghai plateau. The CAAC has certified it to operate from fields as high as 4,500 meters (14,800 ft.).
A faster way for China to make its way in helicopter manufacturing is to build foreign types in facilities supervised and approved by foreign airworthiness authorities. While license production or assembly may no longer hold much interest for Avicopter, a private company in Chengdu wants to do just that. Talks between Chongqing Helicopter Investment andhave been suspended, however, says Fulvio Maurogiovanni, the Italian company's senior vice president for China.
AgustaWestland and Chongqing Helicopter last year proposed joint assembly of an unnamed helicopter at the site that the Chinese company had acquired for its planned manufacturing base.
But Maurogiovanni says AgustaWestland is unable to meet the ambitions of the Chongqing company. Chongqing Helicopter wants to assemble an AgustaWestland type to market domestically and internationally, and it wants to assemble or build helicopters for other manufacturers, too.
Apart from those sticking points, a deal was quite close when the two parties stopped discussions, he says, adding that he is impressed by the Chinese company's determination to get into the helicopter business
“We are not closing the door because we think Chongqing is a market that allows good penetration [of the national market] and Chongqing is itself growing,” says Maurogiovanni. “But we cannot compromise on those two points.”
Chongqing Helicopter was set up in January 2011 with registered assets of 3.3 billion yuan ($528 million), 130 hectares (320 acres) of development land and backing from the government of Chongqing, which is nominally a city but actually a small province with a big urban area and a population of 30 million. AgustaWestland has envisaged an operation there that would at first assemble major modules and gradually move to more complex manufacturing processes.
The proposal is remarkable because it might turn out the largest aircraft to be privately assembled in China—that is, without the involvement of Avic.
“I would just love to do something in China without Avic,” says a Western industry executive who has long experience in working with the group and thinks a private partner would be much more efficient, providing it could find skilled staff. Avic and state commercial aircraft builder Comac employ the great majority of Chinese aircraft manufacturing personnel.
The opportunity to try manufacturing or assembly of aircraft in China without Avic may not be available at Chongqing, however. Two industry executives say Avic may become involved in Chongqing Helicopter. According to one, Chongqing Helicopter has always wanted some association with the state group, presumably to gain access to skilled workers and managers and political clout.
Avic is trying hard to improve its efficiency, but Western executives—many from enormous companies that are hardly free of bureaucracy—express frustration at the slow decision-making and management infighting of the state group. Officials in Western companies are also sure that a private partner would use labor and capital much more efficiently, driving down costs.
While the Chongqing talks are suspended, AgustaWestland is turning its attention to an obvious opportunity in training more of the pilots and other specialists that will be needed if it and other manufacturers are to fully exploit the market.
Aircraft makers and operators say the shortage of trained people will restrict growth even as the Chinese air force loosens its grip on low-altitude airspace, opening up a great potential market for rotorcraft. Since China has few civil helicopter pilot schools, the industry has to send students abroad, notably to the U.S. That restricts the supply further, because the students must have adequate English.
“AgustaWestland thinks that having a training center in China with Chinese instructors is a must,” says Maurogiovanni. “We want to build a network of service centers and a training center.”
Not just pilots and ground technicians are needed; rescue helicopters must have skilled operators for their equipment, such as winches. Again, in China the supply of personnel with such training is tight.