Comac's managers must be pretty embarrassed by the announcement that their flagship program, the 158-seat airliner, will make a delayed first flight at the end of 2015. Face is important in China, and there is a lot of it to lose if one is running a priority program intended to make the country proud.
But maybe they should recall that not only is commercial aircraft development difficult even for an experienced organization; it is all the harder for them because China has been in such a rush. And no one in the program is to blame for Comac inevitably being a Chinese state agency with burdensome bureaucratic culture.
Under the circumstances, they are not doing too badly, say some industry executives with good insight into the program. The delay announced this month means the C919, scheduled at program launch in 2008 to go into service in 2016, will not reach customers before 2017, and quite likely not until 2018. Admittedly, 10 years is a long time from launch to entry into service. Buttook nearly eight years to get the 787 into service, and it had been through the process seven times before. Meanwhile, Comac's regional jet, launched in 2002, is finally looking stable, on track for entry into service in mid-2014.
The C919 delay is the second for that program. The first, shifting the first flight from June 2014 to the second quarter of 2015, was reported by Aviation Week in June but not announced (AW&ST June 17, p. 96). The 2016 first-delivery target, not publicly revised, is unachievable. While an experienced Western manufacturer might allow just a year for flight-testing and related certification work, industry executives believe Comac will need its originally scheduled two years, even with expected help from. So entry into service in late 2017 looks likely if all goes well, and in 2018 if unexpected problems crop up, as they often do.
The new schedule reflects the realistic attitude of the current head of Comac, Jin Zhuanglong. “The goal is not to fly an aircraft that is not certifiable,” one industry executive quotes Jin as saying. The official adds: “This [the delay] is good news, because flying an aircraft that is not representative of the production version is a big mistake.” Comac is making faster progress with its structure suppliers, all Avic units, than it is in systems. The C919 has entered the manufacturing stage, with 95% of its parts designed, says Zhang Yanzhong, who announced the delay and is the director of an expert committee that is advising the cabinet on the program. Assembly will begin next year, he says.
Rollout of the first prototype must also have been delayed a second time. After the first postponement it was supposed to happen in December 2014, but Comac cannot plan to have the aircraft sitting on the ground for a year before flying. A sixth aircraft was added to the flight-test program.
The C919 iron bird, a ground rig on which systems are tested, is finally being fitted, at first to trial mechanical and hydraulic systems; by mid-2014 it will be fully operational with all systems, says an official. As recently as a month ago nothing was mounted, a strong sign of slow development.
Zhang attributed the delay to Comac's “present level of technological expertise and experience in building commercial aircraft,” an assessment that squares with the long-standing view of industry officials familiar with the program.
But that is not the whole story. For a start, Comac should not be so inexperienced, because it was supposed to have gained knowledge and experience with the ARJ21. The shaky C919 progress bolsters arguments of Chinese industry executives that the country has been moving too fast. In their view, China should have launched a turboprop airliner early last decade, instead of the ARJ21, then a regional jet followed by something like the C919. Compounding the error, the C919 was launched when the ARJ21 was years from certification.
Some people with insight into the C919 program say Comac has a remarkable amount of money and talented engineers that it liberally throws at problems. Others say that not enough trained personnel are available. “For each major system, they have a few relatively good people,” says an industry official. “But many more are needed.” Also, the ARJ21's struggles have drawn away key people.
Perhaps comparable with inexperience and the engineering shortage is the problem of Comac's governmental culture. Delegation is not well practiced in the Chinese state, and Comac managers often prefer to push decisions to their superiors. Groups working on disparate C919 systems are not always interacting as well as they should be with each other. Last year Comac acted on that problem by appointing managers with responsibility across several systems. Avic, an older organization, suffers from the same culture, but Comac was supposed to be more modern. Insiders say it is worse, because the C919 is a national and therefore political project.
The program was late in supplier selection and then very slow in contracting with the suppliers, though they generally moved ahead without agreements. Detail design and fixing the structural layout of the aircraft have been delayed. As late as the first half of this year the center wingbox was changed from composite to conventional aerospace aluminum construction, and Comac had still not chosen a material for the fuselage. The new metal wing box was ready, however.
Some C919 suppliers have been quite late in meeting targets. In some cases that was because they underestimated the time they would take to form required joint companies with divisions of Avic; that held up the systems the joint companies would produce. The program has also been slow to define the system interfaces, which suppliers need to finalize designs.
As a Chinese state agency, Comac has been declaring milestones passed and targets achieved even though not all work has been performed. The preliminary design review of the C919 was declared complete in December 2011 when important issues still remained to be sorted out; some aspects of the approved design were later changed. Suppliers' work has been reassigned.
The Civil Aviation Administration of China () has been slow at times. For example, it must perform conformity inspections, ensuring that parts and systems meet specifications and match drawings. The will not yet routinely endorse the Chinese certification, so the CAAC must take the time to notify the U.S. safety agency of conformity inspections. Also, Chinese documents need translation for the FAA.
Comac is aiming at completing ARJ21 flight-testing by the end of the year, leaving six months for further certification work. “There seem to be no major problems,” says an industry official. Another, agreeing, says the development schedule has been realistic since last year, when the 2014 target was set. The third volume-production ARJ21 is now under assembly and should be completed by the end of the year. Comac has ordered equipment for 20 production aircraft.
The third prototype, AC103, completed ground and flight tests for hot and humid conditions last month at Changsha. AC102 demonstrated high-altitude field performance at Golmud, Qinghai, in June. Comac quotes FAA officials as saying May trials of minimum takeoff speeds were outstanding.
Comac is compensating its suppliers for the lateness of ARJ21 certification. More supplier compensation will be due if, as is likely, the ARJ21 misses its production targets.