After intense disputes over market shares, it seems China and Russia have put their differences aside, and work continues on their widebody joint-project, the CR929. The China-Russia International Aircraft Cooperation is looking to begin building the aircraft this year and for mass production to start from 2025 onwards.
History of cross-border collaboration
Despite a rather bleak outlook for the widebody market for the foreseeable future, the joint project between Russian and China to produce a dual-aisle, long-haul jetliner is moving along. Following the resolution of disputes over technical know-how, subcontractors, and market shares, the two parties seem to have found common ground (or rather, air).
The China-Russia International Aircraft Cooperation, or CRAIC, wants to begin constructing the first CR929 before the end of the year. The collaboration has already shortlisted several subcontractors, most of whom are reportedly subsidiaries of China’s state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC).
The AVIC is a Chinese state-owned aerospace and defense group with its headquarters in Beijing. It was established in 1951 and has grown to incorporate over 100 subsidiaries. Meanwhile, the history between the two countries in the field of aviation date back even further.
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Russian dual-aisle experience needed
The Soviet Union used to export military aircraft to China, which later began copying the USSR’s fighter jets and transport airplanes. Many Soviet-produced Russian aircraft also ended up across the border, but mostly as an add-on to military deals.
Of course, today, Chinese airlines have no interest in purchasing Russian-made Sukhoi Superjets. China set up COMAC – the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China in 2008, to cater to the growing demands of Chinese commercial aviation with homegrown jets.
COMAC has done fine on its own when it comes to its regional jet, the ARJ21, currently in service with eight Chinese airlines. The manufacturer says it has received orders for a total of 616 planes from 23 customers. Meanwhile, COMAC’s narrowbody project, the C919, is also on track for certification within the year.
However, when it came to a new widebody to compete with the likes of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, domestic technological know-how was lacking. Thus, what was initially intended as the COMAC C929 became the CRAIC CR929.
Compromise on objectives reached
When manufacturing needs to take into account political ambitions, things are not always entirely straightforward, and the project has hit several bumps in the road. Perhaps the most severe entailed disagreements over market shares in China. If forfeited, this would have made the project nearly pointless for Russia. In July 2020, the Russian Minister of Industry and Trade, Denis Manturov, told AviaPORT,
“The Chinese entered this project with one objective—to obtain technologies and keep their own market for their own airplane. Our objective was not to share technologies but to get access to the foreign market. Nevertheless, we are looking for a compromise and continuing joint financing of the program.”
As China’s aviation sector is part of the country’s national strategic plan ‘Made in China 2025’, COMAC will most likely be expected to show some results with the CR929. Thus, the political will to resolve the disagreements has led to the advancement of construction, with wind tunnel tests focusing on wing-jet configuration taking place in March this year.
If nothing else goes awry, the schedule is now for the CR929 to make its maiden flight (initially targeted for mid-2021) by 2023, with mass production commencing a couple of years later. The intention is to offer the aircraft to customers in three different models.