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  • Jul 23, 2014
  • Updated: 2:45pm
Jake's View
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 12:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 12:57am

If Yaks can fly, so can China's jumbo

Xi's grand vision means a large aircraft will defy financial gravity, but with few takers for it

President Xi Jinping told Comac [Commercial Aircraft Corp of China] officials last month that the country must achieve the goal of creating its own "jumbo jet" at all costs.

"The ability to develop and make a large aeroplane represents the strength of a country's aviation industry," he said during a visit to the company. "Moreover it's a symbol of a country's overall strength and power."

SCMP, June 7

Ever heard of the Yak-42? I flew on one once with Bhoja Air (be glad of your ignorance) from Lahore to Islamabad and my Pakistani colleague, seeing my nail-biting distress, did his best to comfort me.

"Inshallah," he said.

Then there were those other triumphs of the Soviet aircraft industry, the Ilyushin Il-62, the Tupolev Tu-154 and the Antonov An-24 and, wonder of wonders, they are apparently all still flying. No wonder Russia is still poor. No wonder Aeroflot prefers Boeing and Airbus on its international routes.

You have it the wrong way round, Mr Xi. Developing a large aeroplane may indeed only be possible in a country of strength and power but it doesn't work the other way round. The route to becoming a country of strength and power does not lie through building a large aeroplane.

Mind you, more than just Soviet bosses have tried it that way. There was Harold Wilson in Britain with his "white heat of technology" which expressed itself in the white elephant of the Concorde airliner.

It will be flown by airlines in China, Singapore and African client states

Well, perhaps that is not quite fair. It was a joint project with France and therefore not Britain's delusion alone and, while these Concordes were indeed mostly painted white, they did not really resemble elephants. They only felt that way in the profit and loss accounts of the only two airlines that ever owned them.

For Britain it was a lesson in how a country can undermine its overall strength and power with ill-considered, state-sponsored ventures. For France that was business as usual, I suppose. For both it was a case of using taxpayers' money to make life slightly more convenient for the very rich. What a noble goal.

And still politicians in countries of middling influence try it all the time to puff up their self-importance. There is Brazil's Embraer and Canada's Bombardier, for instance, both heavily underpinned by their respective governments, both constantly trumpeted in expressions of national hubris. You're in company, Mr Xi.

Contrast it with the experience of a real builder of commercial aircraft. Joe Sutter, chief engineer of the Boeing 747, published his autobiography in 2006, and it reveals how unique the wide-bodied 747 was to its time and place, how no one expected such a success when work began.

Budgets were always tight, none of this "jumbo jet at all costs" business that Mr Xi advocates. Boeing brushed with bankruptcy during the period and its big focus for much of the 747's development time was actually on a supersonic plane.

It took customer demand to shift the preferences. If Boeing had instead taken its direction from notions of the overall strength and power of the United States, then today a Seattle museum would boast a dust-gathering supersonic jet aircraft and Boeing would be a forgotten name.

Even then it took company engineers to temper customer preference with reality. The prime customer, Pan American, expected a full double-deck aircraft. Sutter risked his job with his own board to prove it wasn't yet viable. How long do you think an engineer at Comac will last in his job if he speaks out at design meetings against anything for which Beijing has announced a preference?

I am sure Comac will develop a larger aircraft at some point. It will be fuel inefficient, outdated in technology even before it first flies unless half the money goes into leasing foreign patents, and deficient in safety features compared with Boeing and Airbus equivalents.

It will be flown only by airlines in China, Singapore and African client states and they will all soon need government financial rescues. It will be better than the Yak-42. I concede that much. It may even be as good as the Tupolev Tu-154. Maybe.

jake.vanderkamp@scmp.com

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This article is now closed to comments

skywalker
Dear Jake. The reason why supersonic passenger jets did not become a success is purely the fact that they run at high operational costs with only few passengers on board. But airlines need large aircrafts with a large number of passengers to be able to offer cheap tickets. This is all about marketing and economics of the aviation industry.
China's president set a technical goal. And that's the right way to go. First the industry must be able to master aircraft building, then understanding its client's needs and then offering the product with the right features at a good price.
The soviet aviation industry went down, because during the markets were not open at a the times of the cold war.
China is on the right path. If they manage to build a safe aircraft at the right price, the international aviation industry will buy it.
acowburn
Incredibly off target on Singapore -- one of the most advanced participants in the global aerospace supply chain.
cal10ten
Jake,
You anti-Singapore basher and quick to show your hatred of a fairly successful country. What makes you think Singapore will buy Chinese planes? What proof have you shown for you to make that stupid statement in your last para? For all you know, Cathay Pacific may have to buy Chinese planes in future on orders from Beijing, the way things are going for HK which may very well be just another Chinese city with no hope of ever becoming independent. At least Singapore is an independent and successful country and recognized as such by the global community of nations. The airlines in Singapore and the air force don't buy Chinese planes. They are pro-Americana and pro-Europe. So, let's be fair ... if that is possible for you. Such ignorance. Tsk tsk.
5372ff18-b7d8-4ed6-9303-52b40a3209cb
I have to disagree...China has state of art engines in its air force...the knowledge to efficient commercial design is semilinked with lightest of bodies and most importantly the engines...primarily three stages of what every engine must do...during cruise be ultra efficient, landing and take off have 30% extra power in reserve to maximum need for design...and be fail safe, this is where the difficulty is and China should have enough know how of tried tested reliable parts to make an great engine now...
oasis
To be fair, it would be cool if China *could* build a solid airliner. At this stage it might be more of a science project, with all the benefits and costs a science project brings. But perhaps the better thing to do is to start with modest goals and focus on the culture of quality
chaz_hen
Ahhh...the culture of quality. Nah, too much work and not enough immediate profits!
I Gandhi
China unfortunately will never be able to build better Jumbo jets than Vietnam or the Philippines. The Vietnamese and Filipino technology is so good that if they were to come together to build a Jumbo jet, they will be able to come up with a super Jumbo jet capable of seating 1,000 passengers. However if will only be able to fly at a cruising height of 3 feet and have a cruising speed at a spectacular 1 mile per hour.
A Kuro
China spending money on peaceful development is a wise move. Even if China were to spend billions on the Comac 919 aircraft it will be worth it. For every dollar spent, there is at least 3 dollars of indirect stimulus. It is certainly better than spending trillions of USD fighting unending wars like the US and her allies.
Hollander323
totally agree....this is what we call a strategic project, the planned deliverables are more than the project itself, there will be a whole lot of supporting technologies and industries developed as a result of the project development, streaming both upstream and downstream of the production.
chaz_hen
I doubt domestic Chinese customers would want to fly in a Chinese plane, much less Singaporeans. You're suggesting Singapore would buy them to curry favor only?

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