Jake's View

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

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 12:57am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 12:57am

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.