A proud, profitable takeoff

By Zhao Lei | China Daily | Updated: 2019-11-18 09:10
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Chinese-made helicopters ride revolutionary tech, cost benefits, promise to transform global aviation industry

Over the next 20 years, joint venture partners Avicopter, the helicopter branch of State-owned aircraft giant Aviation Industry Corp of China, and Airbus Helicopters, the French aircraft-maker's subsidiary, expect to sell about 800 to 1,000 AC352 choppers worldwide, including 300 in China, with profits to be split equally.

Profits from sales of indigenously manufactured choppers are expected to be substantial - not just for the joint venture but other Chinese companies on the back of their new-age aircraft such as the Z-20, which are seen revolutionizing the global aviation industry spanning the civilian and military sectors.

Chinese-developed affordable, game-changing copter designs topped off by low operational and maintenance costs are already in the market, and newer models are in the pipeline. They are expected to confirm China's stature as a growing power in helicopter technologies, spawning a multibillion-dollar business with implications for defense, civil and general aviation, and innovation - electric helicopters are within the realm of possibility.

In the foreseeable future, Chinese-made copter models are tipped to figure in a wide range of activities: maritime search-and-rescue missions, disaster aid, medical air services, maritime patrols, offshore oil rigs' transport operations, tourism, business aviation, news coverage, freight, offshore industries' operations, and police aviation squadrons - again, not just in China but the world over, experts said.

In China, locally made military-grade choppers are expected to be used in special warfare and antisubmarine operations.

The latest and brightest harbinger of the shift in the global helicopter market dynamics appeared during the grand National Day parade in Beijing on Oct 1. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, more than 80 helicopters developed and built by AVIC flew past the Tian'anmen Square.

Eye-catching achievement

The massive display of Chinese-made helicopters has been seen as evidence of the remarkable achievement made by the country's aviation industry over the past several years. The display's highlight was the public debut of the Z-20, China's first domestically developed medium-lift utility helicopter.

Ten days after the parade, several Z-20s from the People's Liberation Army Ground Force's aviation units were sent to the fifth China Helicopter Exposition in Tianjin and were shown on the ground and in the air, making them the biggest attraction at the expo.

The Z-20 is one of the best of its kind in the world, according to project insiders at AVIC.

Chen Guang, deputy manager of Avicopter, is the in-charge of the Z-20 project. He said in a recent interview with China Daily that the Z-20 is a twin-engine, multipurpose helicopter designed and built by Chinese researchers on their own. The aircraft, he said, is able to operate in all landforms, including plateaus, and can fly in difficult weather conditions.

Powered by two advanced Chinese turboshaft engines, the helicopter is mainly tasked with transportation missions and can be conveniently refitted to execute other types of operations, he said.

Chen noted that every part on the Z-20 was developed and made in China.

Li Linhua, chief technological specialist at the China Helicopter Research and Development Institute in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, said the Z-20 features a streamlined aerodynamic structure, and new anti-icing technologies.

"One of the helicopter's technological edges is its (cutting-edge) fly-by-wire flight control system," Li said. "The adoption of such technology substantially reduced the Z-20's overall weight and makes it easier for pilots to drive the helicopter."

Wang Xibao, chief engineer at AVIC's Harbin Aircraft Industry Group in Heilongjiang province that produces the Z-20, said the rotorcraft is capable of fitting in different environments, including the sea, so can also be deployed on ships.

Fang Bing, a retired researcher from PLA National Defense University, said the Z-20 will be one of the key elements in the PLA Ground Force's transformation effort because it is badly needed by the Ground Force to carry out high-mobility air and land operations.

"Air-enabled deployment of troops and weapons relies on utility helicopters such as the Z-20. Besides conventional functions, they can be equipped with some weapons to conduct combat tasks," the researcher said. "In addition to the Ground Force, the Z-20 will be useful in the Air Force and Navy as it is suitable for many tasks like search and rescue, special warfare and anti-submarine operations. It will be deployed in the military on a large scale."

According to Cui Yiliang, editor-in-chief of naval equipment magazine Modern Ships, the Z-20 will strongly improve the combat capability of PLA Navy's surface fleets.

"It is capable of fulfilling a wide range of missions that other Chinese helicopters have difficulties executing, including anti-submarine and anti-ship combat, signal relay for ship-launched missile and special assault," Cui said.

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