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, China Daily reported.
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 crowds on Tiananmen Square.
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.
According to Foxtrot Alpha, the Z-20 is clearly descended — or at least heavily inspired — by the S-70/UH-60. The helicopters have the same general layout, same high visibility cockpit, engine placement, and tail arrangement. Both have permanently affixed landing gear. The main outward difference between the two is the use of a four bladed main rotor by the UH-60 and a five bladed rotor by the Z-20.
In 1984 China purchased 24 Sikorsky S-70C-2 helicopters, the civilian version of the UH-60 Blackhawk. The helicopters went straight into People’s Liberation Army service.
China probably would have purchased a lot more Blackhawks were it not for the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when the Chinese Communist Party sent the PLA into Beijing to disperse pro-democracy protests. The West, including the United States, slapped an arms embargo on China that is still in effect today.
Suddenly shut-out of the latest technology, it’s believed China started cloning the equipment it had already purchased.
Chen Guang, deputy manager of Avicopter and head of the Z-20 program, insisted in a recent interview with China Daily that the Z-20 — a twin-engine, multipurpose helicopter — was 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.
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.”
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.”
In the civilian helicopter sphere, AVIC’s products are gaining popularity in the market.
The latest in the company’s civilian product portfolio — the AC352 medium-lift utility helicopter — is on the want list of many domestic clients, said Sun Qingmin, another deputy manager of Avicopter.
The company has received initial orders for more than 10 AC352s from domestic buyers such as CITIC Offshore Helicopter, a leading Chinese general aviation services provider, and expects to sell at least 300 in China over the next 20 years.
“Though the airworthiness certification process is still underway, we have been working hard to promote the helicopter in the market, especially to existing users of our products in the government such as the public security and transportation authorities,” Sun said during a recent interview.
Meanwhile, China and Russia are working together on the research and development of a new type of heavy-lift helicopter, a major joint endeavor between the two countries in the aviation sphere.
Sources said the aircraft’s design work and assembly will be in China while the production of some key parts will be in Russia.
The aircraft will become the first helicopter jointly designed and built by China and Russia, and will be competitive in the international market, said Huang Chuanyue, deputy chief engineer at Avicopter.
“Russia has rich experience in the field of large, heavy-duty helicopter while China has advantages in medium-and small-size civilian helicopters. There are bright prospects in the bilateral cooperation on the research and development of helicopters,” Huang said recently.
According to specifications published by AVIC, the helicopter will have a maximum takeoff weight of 38.2 tons and a maximum cruising speed of 300 km/h. It will be capable of flying at altitudes up to 5,700 meters and have a range of 630 km.
It will be more powerful than all of the other helicopters in China in terms of carrying capacity — it will be capable of taking 10 tons of cargo, or more than 100 people inside the cabin, or carry 15 tons of freight via an external sling.
Besides building traditional models, Chinese designers have started preliminary research of an electric helicopter and are working toward developing a technology demonstration prototype.
Deng Jinghui, chief designer at the China Helicopter Research and Development Institute, said that researchers and engineers have carried out ground-based technology demonstration of an electrically driven tail rotor. They are making preparations for the device to be used on a 2-ton helicopter for flight test, he said.
Engineers will remove the aircraft’s original tail rotor, which is driven by the helicopter’s engine through the transmission gear, and also get rid of related transmission instruments, and then install an electric tail rotor that generates the driving force by itself rather from the engine, according to the designer.
“Replacing a conventional tail rotor with an electrically driven one is our first step in exploring and verifying the technical feasibility of an electric helicopter,” Deng said.