Deja vu meets je-ne-sais quoi. Sino-U.S. partnership promotes SL100 airliner-cum-large business jet in a double European debut.

Launching of a new aircraft program always sends a frisson of excitement through the hearts of even hardened airshow regulars. Furthermore, the Chongqing Commercial Aircraft Corporation (CCAC) StarLiner 100 has an exotic Chinese ring to its name, so it may seem ungallant to point out that this hopeful newcomer was, actually, trailed at the Geneva business aircraft show last month.

However, for those with long memories, and harboring a suspicion that the SL100 looks rather like a mini Sukhoi Superjet, we have here not so much of a nubile Parisian debutante as the aviation equivalent of mouton dressed as agneau. Which is not to deny that exotic ladies with “a past” can hold a certain fascination for some.

That said, it can’t be argued that CCAC is not a new company, for it was formed only on May 5 as a joint venture between Mei Li Xing Hang Industrial Corporation (MLXH), based in Chongqing, China, and Alliance Aircraft Corporation, now of Reading, Pennsylvania. Alliance and the SL100 are the brainchildren of Earl Robinson, who also becomes CEO and president of CCAC.

The experienced Robinson, whose European ventures have included the ill-starred Fairchild Dornier 728 and 928, says that CCAC has secured US$81 million in Chinese funding to launch the StarLiner on its route through development to certification and production. Chinese banks have pledged a further $800 million. But this, it appears, is to finance aircraft sales and support activity prior to initial deliveries.

StarLiner will be built in China from 2019 onward, initially as a US$20 million (at 2015 prices), 50-seat airliner capable of Mach 0.8 cruise and a range of 2,000 nmi. By the following year, it will be available as a business jet with additional fuel for at least twice that range.

It was in June 2000 that Alliance signed an agreement with the newly formed Sukhoi Civil Aircraft division, which would “design and produce” the StarLiner family, comprising four versions with two fuselage widths (three- and five-seat) and two lengths. These would accommodate between 50-110 passengers, but it is only the smallest version that is envisaged today.

The relationship with Russia’s major manufacturer broke up in recriminations and acrimony in November 2000 and the present Superjet project was born the following year. Meanwhile, Alliance hawked StarLiner assembly in both New Hampshire and West Virginia; entered an agreement to launch production in Harbin, China, from 2003; tried to buy the defunct Fairchild Dornier assets for European manufacture (and to save the Do 328); and auctioned office furniture in July 2001 to pay off some of its debts.

Now Robinson and Alliance are back in the airliner business, the U.S. end of the operation contributing US$11 million in intellectual property to the operation in the form of design work already done. Against all odds, Robinson is content that enough funds have been pledged and is "happy we will get through to certification" by the FAA, EASA and Chinese authorities. Keeping an eye on the funding flow will be CFO, Scott Gaul – another member of the original ‘year 2000’ team.

An incredibly tight development schedule will embrace employment of the latest technologies. Full fly-by-wire control, an efficient wing and all-composite construction mean the 50,000-lb. class SL100 "can compete with turboprops quite well," says Robinson, defying the conventional wisdom in the airliner industry.

This will be achieved on the power of two 9,000-pounds-thrust turbofans or geared fans of a type yet to be decided. Whichever power plant is chosen, the far-reaching promise is that the StarLiner will deliver 20% economies over the first-generation ERJs, CRJs and ATRs it is intended to replace. “Our studies show a market for at least 600 aircraft among regional carriers around the world in the next 15 years,” Robinson says.

Data currently on the CCAC website show the SL100 to be the same size, weight and performance as the baseline version of a decade and a half ago. Then, Honeywell AS900 or PW308s, both slightly less powerful than today’s target, were on the engine shortlist.

Is there any risk that this super-ambitious venture will displease the Chinese government, which does not like rivals to state-sponsored programs? "No," Robinson declares. "Seating capacity is well below the COMAC ARJ21; we don't compete."

As the reputed origin of the ultimate long-term-planning game, chess, China now has, in Alliance, a partner no less experienced in unhurried maneuvering for strategic advantage. The coy American lady and her eager Chinese suitor are well matched, but relationships may become a little more frenetic as 2019 looms.