Airshow China 2018

This year’s 12th Airshow China 2018 exhibition held at Zhuhai between November 6 and 11 involved numerous debuts of aviation programmes and projects. Piotr Butowski reports

AVIC’s Chengdu J-10B prototype, serial number 1034, the test bed aircraft fitted with thrust vector control.
Piotr Butowski
A montage of images depicting the nozzle movement of the WS-10X engine with thrust vector control.
Aero Engine Corporation of China

THE MOST notable aspect of this year’s exhibition was a vastly increased number of unmanned aerial systems, not only in a dedicated exhibition hall, but also occupying considerable room in other halls and the static display.

According to the organisers, Airshow China 2018 beat previous records; more than 770 exhibitors from 43 countries, 150,000 trade visitors and 300,000 from the general public. Static and flight displays had 239 aircraft on display, though the organisers probably counted all of the UAV mock-ups to reach that number, because two years ago there were 151 aircraft and the airfield did not look more crowded this year. Two aerobatic teams from the People’s Liberation Army Air Force, the J-10-equipped Ba Yi and the newly established Red Falcon equipped with JL-8 jet trainers, took part in the flying display.

Despite its importance to the Chinese aircraft industry, there was no sign of a C919 narrowbody airliner; its ongoing certification trials proving more crucial to the programme. Also absent was the FC-31 fighter, which appeared at Zhuhai four years ago, but this year appeared only as a model.

Presence of foreign aircraft was also more modest than two years ago. There were no large airliners present (the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787-9 both attended Zhuhai 2016), and only the Airbus A220-300 (C Series) and Embraer E190-E2 made it to the show. Even a Russian presence at the show was light, featuring just the Ansat and Mi-171A2 helicopters during a South Asian tour of countries in the region.

Thrust vector agility

The first Chinese experimental fighter fitted with thrust vector control (TVC), AVIC’s Chengdu J-10B prototype, serial number 1034, delivered a really impressive performance over Zhuhai. The aircraft made its maiden flight fitted with TVC on December 25, 2017.

The experimental engine fitted is supposedly designated WS-10X, which features an axisymmetric, three-dimensional (3D) nozzle, that deflects up and down, and to the left and the right. Russianbuilt twin-engine Sukhoi Su-35 fighters operated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force have 2D (up and down) nozzles; the J-10B’s 3D effect is achieved by a V-like arrangement of two 2D nozzles. Russia is known to offer the Salyut AL-31FN series 4 turbofan engine fitted with a 3D nozzle, an engine that is suitable for the Chinese J-10. However, for obvious reasons, China prefers the indigenous engine option.

According to a presentation by Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC): “Thrust vector technology is one of the key technologies necessary for the fourth-generation fighter [the Chinese dub their latest fighter as fourth not fifth-generation]. Thrust vectoring significantly increases an aircraft’s close range combat ability. It can effectively shorten the aircraft’s approach and landing distance. It also improves stealth performance. TVC has a significant effect on improving an aircraft’s stealth, mobility [and] agility, reduces aerodynamic drag, and improves performance and survivability.”

The AECC advertises the thrust vector nozzle as: “a lightweight and efficient [solution], with lowrisk for both the engines and the aircraft that only requires a slight modification”.

The 13,000kg CH-7 all-wing air vehicle on the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation’s stand.
Piotr Butowski

Variable thrust nozzles will certainly be used on future variants of the J-20 and J-31 fighters. Reportedly, in early 2018, an experimental TVC engine was installed on J-20 prototype 2012.

Full-size, high-speed UCAVs

For the first time, Chinese aerospace companies displayed their full-size, high-speed, unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs), rather than small models, as previously.

This year’s show included the CH-7, the latest UCAV type to be displayed at Zhuhai by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), whose series of CH (Caihong or rainbow) UAVs has already achieved significant export success. According to CASC, Caihong UAVs have been sold to more than 20 customers in more than 10 countries. The most successful types in its UAV product range are the 630kg (1,389lb), CH- 3, the 1,330kg (2,932lb) CH-4 and the 3,000kg (6,614lb) CH-5.

The debuting CH-7 is a 13,000kg (28,660lb) all-wing air vehicle powered by an unknown single turbofan engine. Official information says: “[The CH-7 drone] uses its stealth features to reach deep into enemy positions. It carries electro-optical, radar or electronic countermeasure payloads. Two internal weapon bays carry anti-radar missiles, airto- surface missiles or glide bombs used to destroy high-value targets such as enemy command posts, missile launch positions and ships.”

One less typical task for the CH-7 is destruction of enemy airborne early warning aircraft with long-range anti-radiation missiles in coordinated operations with manned fighters.

Shi Wen, chief designer of the Rainbow series of UAVs, said a prototype CH-7 could fly within two years (a promotional video said one year), emphasising the type is being developed by the company as an internal programme, without external funding. One obvious question about CASC’s range is: what about the CH-6? Two years ago, Shi Wen said the company was considering developing a Global Rainbow UAV, equivalent to the RQ-4 Global Hawk and capable of operating for more than 50 hours at 49,000ft altitude. Perhaps this as yet unknown UAV is the CH-6.

A much smaller jet-powered all-wing air vehicle named the Skyhawk (Tianying) was displayed by China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC). The only information provided about Skyhawk was its 3,000kg (6,614lb) weight, and its main mission: strategic and tactical reconnaissance in a high-threat combat environment. According to a CASIC announcement in February 2018, the Skyhawk had at the time recently completed its maiden flight and three test flights in about 40 days.

On display outside the exhibition halls, the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation’s jet-powered Skyhawk all-wing air vehicle designed for strategic and tactical reconnaissance inside non-permissive environments.
Piotr Butowski

Another similar, but unnamed UCAV was presented at Zhuhai by the AVIC corporation. No information about the design was available, but the author believes it to be a subscale demonstrator of a future unmanned aircraft.

Despite its known existence, the Sharp Sword all-wing, jet- powered UCAV designed by No. 601 Institute and built by the Hongdu facility in Nanchang was absent at Zhuhai. Not shown in public to date, the Sharp Sword has an estimated wingspan of 14m (46ft) and a weight up to 10,000kg (22,000lb). The Sharp Sword is powered by a single non- afterburner turbofan, probably an indigenous WS-13. The type has been undergoing tests since January 2013 and is reportedly ready for series production.

Giant drones

Among the many dozens of UAVs presented at Zhuhai, two distinguished themselves by their sheer size. The Sichuan-based company Tengden with Poly Technologies presented several UAVs in similar twin-boom configuration, each powered by two engines. The largest type, dubbed the TW356, is a flying frame, to which a modular payload is mounted between the turboprop engines. A square- section cargo pod was mounted on the TW356 mock-up present at the show; alternative payload modules include a Balance Beam early warning radar (the same system as used on the KJ-200 aircraft), communication or electronic warfare systems, and a remote sensing pod.

Sichuan-based Tengden displayed its twin-boom configured TW356 designed to modular payloads mounted in the fuselage.
Piotr Butowski
Three ARJ21-700s, each one painted in the livery of one of the first three operators; Chengdu Airlines (far aircraft), Genghis Khan Airlines and Urumqi Air (near aircraft).
Piotr Butowski
A model of the Aero Engine Corporation of China’s AEF-3500 turbofan engine designed for CR929 airliner.
Piotr Butowski
The forward fuselage mock-up of the new CR929 airliner was unveiled on the first day of the Zhuhai 2018 show. United Aircraft Corporation

The Tengden company also presented a model of the much larger TW765 UAV with similar twin boom configuration, but with four jet engines, and configured with a 40m (131ft) wingspan, weighing 65,000kg (lb), including a 24,000kg (lb) payload, a range of 7,500km (4,050 nautical miles) at Mach 0.65 and 42,600ft altitude. The TW765’s primary purpose is to be transport, but a reconnaissance, early warning and aerial tanker version is planned. Tengden is advertising the TW765 as the world’s largest UAV under development.

Beijing-based Zhonghangzhi Science and Technology Company (ZHZ) presented a mock-up of the TD10, which is destined to be the world’s largest unmanned helicopter, featuring three two-blade, bearing-less, coaxial rotors, with a take-of weight of 15,000kg (33,000lb). The project will be implemented at a ZHZ subsidiary to be established at Zhuhai. The TD-10 is designed for not only transport of cargo, but also disaster relief and ire-ighting operations. A TD-10 cabin shown at Zhuhai featured passenger seats.

ZHZ has already built the 3,000kg (6,600lb) T333, which is China’s largest unmanned helicopter to date.


Three Chinese passenger aircraft are at various stages of development: the regional ARJ21 is in production, the medium C919 is undergoing testing, and the widebody CR929 is being designed.

The Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) ARJ21 gained 60 new commitments at Zhuhai, bringing the total number of aircraft on order to 528 (including options and letters of intent). Shanghai SPDB Financial Leasing ordered 30 aircraft (15 firm orders and 15 options), while AVIC Leasing signed a preliminary agreement for 30 ARJ21s; these aircraft are intended for the newly created Tianju Airlines. Since 2015, only eight ARJ21 aircraft have been in operation with Chengdu Airlines; the next customers, who will have received their aircraft by the end of 2018, are Genghis Khan Airlines and Urumqi Air. Three ARJ21s arrived at Zhuhai, each one in the livery of the first three operators. The current production version is the 90-seat ARJ21-700, and the 115-seat ARJ21-900 is being planned.

COMAC is also planning to put an ARJ21 variant with improved secondary structures and cabin equipment, intended primarily to reduce aircraft’s weight into production in 2021.

COMAC’s C919 narrowbody airliner did not arrive at the show, but no wonder. Since the type’s maiden light on May 5, 2017, two aircraft have been undergoing certification trials, which are too important to the programme to warrant withdrawal of an aircraft to attend the show for an entire week. COMAC plans to ly the third C919 light-test aircraft (of six planned) by the end of 2018.

AVIC’s J-10B test bed fitted with smoke generators trails red smoke during a spirited display routine thanks to its thrust vector controlled engine.
Piotr Butowski
A mock-up of ZHZ’s TD10 heavy unmanned helicopter.
Piotr Butowski

On the first day of the exhibition, a mock-up of the front fuselage of the CR929 was unveiled. The CR929 project was jointly implemented by COMAC and Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), hence the aircraft’s CR designation.

In March 2017, COMAC and UAC established the China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corp Ltd (CRAIC), with both partners owning equal shares for the execution of the CR929 project. The CRAIC headquarters is located in Shanghai while the project’s joint engineering centre is in Moscow. An intergovernmental agreement, signed during a visit by President Vladimir Putin to China in June 2016, provided the basis for the cooperation.

Speaking at Zhuhai, the CR929’s chief Russian designer, Maxim Litvinov, who previously worked on the Sukhoi Superjet aircraft, said the preliminary design phase and supplier selection of the aircraft’s main components will be completed by the end of 2019. His Chinese counterpart is Chen Yingchun, previously the deputy chief designer of the C919. The Russians want to produce the CR929’s carbon fibre wing, making use of technologies mastered for the Irkut MC-21 airliner. The Chinese will manufacture carbon fibre fuselage sections at a new facility currently under construction in the city of Zhangjiagang; Italian company Leonardo is to supply the production technology. The CR929’s final assembly line will be in Shanghai. The prototype CR929 is expected to fly in 2023 with deliveries expected to commence in 2027.

Capacity of the basic CR929- 600 version in a typical threeclass cabin configuration is 280 passengers over a 12,000km (7,456-mile) range; in a high density configuration the cabin can seat 440 passengers. The CR929 family will include the stretched CR929-700 and the shortened CR929-500.

The CR929-600 has a wingspan of 63.9m (209ft 8in), a length of 63.8m (209ft 4in) and a height of 17.4m (57ft 1in).

Six Hongdu JL-8 trainers of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force newly established Red Falcon aerobatic display team.
Piotr Butowski
Norinco’s Golden Eagle CR500 mini-unmanned helicopter, designed for ISR and strike missions, was just one of the unbelievable number of unmanned air vehicles on display at Zhuhai 2018.
Piotr Butowsk
Urumqi Air ARJ21-700 B-001Z with a People’s Liberation Army Air Force Y-20 heavy transport in the background.
Piotr Butowski

Large turbofan

The type of engine for the CR929 has yet to be selected, but there will be a two-horse race between the GE Aviation GEnx and the Rolls-Royce Trent; by 2023 there will be no other engine in this class available. After 2027, the Russians and the Chinese would like to equip the CR929 with an indigenous engine. Russia’s United Engine Corporation (UEC) is actively promoting its PD-35 engine. In December 2017, the Aviadvigatel design bureau received a contract worth RUB 64.3 billion for production of PD-35 technology demonstrator engines; this stage of the PD-35’s development is due to be completed by December 2023. According to current design details the PD-35 engine is to attain a 77,000lb (343.2kN) takeof thrust, a bypass ratio of 11, an overall compressor pressure ratio of 53, and a thrust speciic fuel consumption of 0.49lb of fuel per hour-pound of thrust.

Making less publicity, the AECC is working on its CJ2000 engine featuring the scaled-up core of the CJ1000 turbofan currently being designed for the C919. As early as September 2017, the AECC and Russia’s UEC and China’s AECC signed a memorandum about cooperating with the development of an engine type for the CR929. Perhaps the PD-35 and the CJ2000 will eventually be joint programmes.

Elsewhere at Zhuhai 2018, the AECC quite unexpectedly presented a model of its large AEF3500 turbofan. No characteristics were given, nor was a purpose for its development. Dimensions of the model engine on display and the number 35 in the engine designation suggest its rating is in the 35-tonne or 77,000lb (343.2kN) class, and intended for the CR929. Puzzling is the fact that the AEF3500 is designed solely by the AECC with no hints of Russian contribution. It is not known how the AEF3500 is related to the CJ2000.