An undated image of what is believed to be a prototype of the Z-20 high-altitude utility helicopter. Photo: Weibo
An undated image of what is believed to be a prototype of the Z-20 high-altitude utility helicopter. Photo: Weibo

The People’s Liberation Army is set to retire its fleet of the UH-60 Black Hawk utility helicopters imported from the US in the 1980s and replace them with the domestically-developed Z-20 series that is capable of ascending to high altitudes and also landing on Chinese aircraft carriers and destroyers.

The new 10-ton medium-lift multi-role helicopter series, built by the Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Corp, a subsidiary of the state-owned Aviation Industry Corp of China, fills the gap between the Chinese Air Force’s lightweight and heavy-lift helicopters.

Z-20s fitted with the domestic WZ-10 turboshaft engine providing 1,600 kW of thrust can operate in the mountains of Qinghai and Tibet at an altitude of up to 4,000 meters to form the backbone of the PLA’s contingency response to transport troops and goods there.

The Z-20 is also versatile and small enough to be interoperable across Chinese navel vessels while still being able to have a full suite of anti-submarine warfare capabilities installed, something the current Ka-28 and Changhe Z-8/Z-18 cannot do, according to a report by Aviation International News.

A diagram of the Z-20 that has been circulating online. Photo: Weibo via
A UH-60 Black Hawk in Afghanistan. Photo: US Army

The AVIC and the military have been careful to avoid any association that may leave the impression that the Z-20 is a copycat or clone of the Black Hawk. They stress the Z-20’s entirely different avionics and power systems, despite the two’s strong resemblance in appearance, such as the tail wheel arrangement.

“It would be ludicrous to suggest that Lockheed Martin, parent of the manufacturer of the Black Hawk helicopters, would share any core technologies with AVIC to aid the development [of the Z-20],” said the Beijing-based Global Times.

Still, there were reports that Pakistan allowed PLA technicians to examine a Black Hawk abandoned by the US special forces after the operation to kill Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011.

But major differences between the two are that the Z-20 has a fly-by-wire design and a five blade rotor, while the Black Hawks have four blades.

The Chinese helicopter also has a more angular tail-to-fuselage joint frame for greater lift, cabin capacity and endurance, and its communications system is reportedly compatible with the country’s BeiDou satellite navigation system.

The Z-20 will likely make its debut at the Zhuhai Airshow this November, according to the PLA Daily, with a number of versions that adapt to different terrain and weather conditions for use by the PLA’s ground forces and navy.

The Z-20’s upcoming commission, following China’s armada of other cutting-edge, homemade “20 series” aircraft, including the J-20 fifth generation stealth fighter and the Y-20 strategic airlifter, shows that China has taken its indigenous aircraft research and development to new heights.