By Abdus Sattar Ghazali
Chinese military releases video of aircraft on smooth runs in country’s mountainous southwest, suggesting advances to problem-plagued AL-31F engines, South China Morning Post has reported.
Footage of Chinese warplanes on drills in the country’s mountainous southwest suggest the military has overcome engine problems plaguing the aircraft at high altitudes, sounding a warning to regional rival India.
Video of Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-11 jets flying low over snow-capped mountains was posted on the People’s Liberation Army’s official website.
The jets are part of China’s fleet of third-generation lightweight multi-role fighter aircraft and are powered by Russian AL-31F engines.
Military observers said the engines had previously lost power above 3,000 meters, leading to a string of accidents.
In September 2015, a J-10 from the former Shenyang Military Region crashed on a night patrol when the plane climbed above 3,350 meters, state-run China Central Television reported. The pilot ejected to safety.
The footage also showed a Shaanxi Y-9 transport aircraft taking off and landing at a high-altitude airport. The Y-9 can carry 106 passengers or 132 troops at one time.
A Xian JH-7 fighter-bomber is also seen flying over the snow-covered terrain, filling out the combat line-up in the PLA Air Force’s Western Theatre Command, which ranges from Chongqing to Tibet and Xinjiang.
Military analysts said the apparent smooth flights by the warplanes suggested the air force had overcome the engine’s high-altitude problems, bolstering the PLA’s defenses against India.
The apparent advances come less than a year after a protracted border stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops in the Doklam region in the Himalayas, South China Morning News said.
China in talks for sale of jet engine technology to Germany
Tellingly, China is in talks to sell Germany state-of-the-art machinery and technology critical in the manufacture of high-performance jet engines, South China Morning Post (SCMP) has reported.
The machinery produced turbine blades capable of withstanding temperatures several hundred degrees Celsius higher than the melting point of metallic alloys, SCMP quoted a Chinese scientist as saying.
Turbine blades convert heat generated by combusted fuel into the energy that propels a plane. The blades are one of the most important components in modern aircraft, both military and civilian, and their quality determines how safe, powerful and durable a jet engine will be.
The technological progress could be a very important step for made-in-China jet engines, with China now the world’s largest market for commercial aircraft. Thousands of planes are on order from Airbus and Boeing, and China is also developing its own C919 passenger jet.
In recent years, tremendous leaps in blade-processing technology, combined with breakthroughs in alloy casting and aerodynamic design, have allowed China to produce a brand-new series of powerful military jet engines, according to SCMP.
The most notable example is the WS-15 turbofan jet engine, designed for use in China’s J-20 stealth fighter. The WS-15 has experienced reliability problems, but state media boasted last year that its performance matched that of the Pratt & Whitney F119, the world’s most advanced jet engine in military service, which was developed in the United States for the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor stealth fighter. China and the US are the only countries in the world with tactical stealth jets in service.
“We are willing to share with industrial partners in Germany our latest hardware and technology,” an un-named Chinese scientist was quoted as saying. “Industrial representatives from the two sides have finished the first round of contact.”
The export of state-of-the-art machinery to Germany – traditionally known for its high-quality products – would improve the international image of China’s manufacturing industry, the scientist said.
“The collaboration between China and Germany is continuing to deepen in multiple sectors, the positive progress achieved is broadly recognized, which reflected the high level of Sino-German relations,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in response to South China Morning Post questions about the negotiations.
“The prospects for cooperation between the two sides in the fields of hi-tech and intellectual property are very promising … we would like to work together with Germany to promote new progress in cooperation in the relevant fields under the principle of mutual openness, mutual benefits and mutual development.”
Professor Chen Jiang, from Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, who was involved in the development of new jet engines for China’s air force, said he would not be surprised if China provided military jet engine technology to Germany, which built the world’s first jet fighter at the end of the second world war and supplies many jet engine components, including turbine blades, to American and British manufacturers.
China’s turbine blade breakthroughs have won numerous top national science and technology prizes since 2010. They include the development of a unique hollow structure to make lighter and stronger blades; new single-crystal alloys capable of withstanding high temperatures; and a special membrane that can be applied to a blade’s surface to accelerate cooling. Two of the national science and technology prizes announced by Beijing this week were awarded for work on turbine blades: one for single crystal alloys and the other to do with mechanical grinding.
The US and Britain are home to the world’s four dominant jet engine makers: General Electric (GE), Pratt & Whitney, CFM-International and Rolls-Royce.
He said one challenge was to achieve high output while keeping defect rates low. GE, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce had been researching the manufacture of turbine blades for decades and guarded the technology as one of their top business secrets.
“Our machine has outperformed theirs on some benchmarks,” the scientist said. “The Germans have seen and grown interested in our technology.”
Professor Peng Jiahui, who studied laser processing technology in Huazhong University of Science and Technology, said many Chinese researchers and engineers who had worked at GE, Pratt &Whitney and Rolls-Royce had returned to China and significantly increased the pace of jet engine development.
But a more important factor driving China’s technical innovation was the size of market, he said.
China had more than 1,700 military planes in service, second only to the US. The demand for turbine blades from China’s air force, which was still expanding rapidly, required the industry to come up with better manufacturing methods.
Sino-Russian wide body jet to use self-developed engine
Rostec State Corporation, the Russian industrial conglomerate co-developing a long-haul wide-body aircraft with China, said last August that the two countries will develop their own engines for the project, with the apparent longer-term aim of breaking the duopoly enjoyed by General Electric and Rolls-Royce, South China Morning Post said.
Victor Kladov, director of Rostec’s international cooperation and regional policy, was quoted as saying that the development and manufacture of an engine for the planned 280-seat wide-body jet, known as the C929, is a top priority.
“Only China and Russia will be the manufacturers of the engine,” he said, and “will try our best to churn out a best-class engine, to support this aeroplane [project].”
China and Russia have lofty ambitions for the widebody jet, which is being designed to have a range of 12,000 kilometres, said Daniel Ren of South China Morning Post.
Shanghai-based Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (Comac) and Russian companies including aircraft assembler United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) and Rostec set up a 50-50 joint venture last year to develop the long-haul passenger plane, with deliveries targeted at beginning in 2025.
The global long-haul aero engine market is currently dominated by GE and Rolls-Royce.
The C929 already has 570 orders from 23 foreign and domestic customers, and Comac officials predict China will require 6,865 new aircraft over the next 20 years, just over a fifth of those twin-aisle planes SCMP said.
Rostec also announced it would soon sign an agreement with Aviation Industry Corp of China’s general aviation subsidiary Avicopter to jointly manufacture heavy-duty helicopters.
The payload of the helicopter will be up to 15 tonnes and its service ceiling, the maximum altitude an aircraft can reach, will hit 5,700 metres.
Kladov said China has demand for at least 200 helicopters of this kind.
Rolls Royce chairman predicts Chinese-made jet engines coming soon.
The world’s second-largest economy will likely start manufacturing engines for jumbo jets soon, according to Rolls-Royce , a long-time engine manufacturer for commercial and defense aerospace.
“In the long-run, it’s very possible and plausible that China and other countries will be looking to develop wide-body engines,” said Rolls Royce Chairman Ian Davis at the Singapore Summit last year. “It makes sense for industrialized countries to start doing so and we assume at some stage of the future that they will come in.”
The Shanghai-based Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or COMAC, has already begun the development of a narrow-body engine.
“It’s a big growth market and I think the key, as always, is to make sure you’ve got competitive products that really offer something to customers,” said Davis.