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The Y-20: A (Big) Chinese Knockoff

Xian_Y-20_at_the_2014_Zhuhai_Air_Show

The Y-20 Looks Awfully Familiar to a C-17 Globemaster

China has a reputation for producing knockoff products (“knockoff” in this case being a softer term than “counterfeit”).  Perhaps the biggest knockoff, size-wise, has been produced by China’s Xian Aircraft Industrial Corporation. The Y-20 military transport plane has many similarities to the United States’ Boeing C-17 Globemaster III. Not only do photos show an uncanny similarity, the Y-20 is also similar to the C-17 in terms of overall size and weight plus cargo capacity.

After about eight years of development, the Y-20 made its maiden flight in January of 2013 and made its public debut at the Zhuhai airshow in China in November of 2014.
(In what was regarded as a controversial decision, the U.S. military sent a C-17 to the airshow. The cost and the politics were criticized, but perhaps the U.S. wanted to have an “in your face” on-site comparison of the two heavy transports.)

While China has proved to be adept at copying designs, the country has had trouble developing engines powerful enough to power those designs. In the case of the Y-20, it uses Soloviev D-30 engines made by Aviadvigatel, a Russian company. Still, those engines have trouble measuring up to those manufactured by General Electric, Pratt & Whitney or Rolls-Royce.

Robert M. Farley, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky’s Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce, told the New York Times that engine designs have plagued China’s aircraft and aerospace ambitions.

“The problem with Chinese engines is that they’ve been remarkably unreliable,” Farley said. “Engines require extremely tight tolerances in construction; even small errors can lead to the engine burning out.”
A lack of engine power could explain why the Y-20 is a smaller in size in a side-by-side comparison to the C-17. The Y-20 wingspan is 148 feet and its length is 154 feet. The C-17 checks in at 170 in wingspan and 174 in length.

The United States developed the C-17 to help its military adopt to global rapid deployment demands. The ability to transport troops and equipment long distances – in essence, using an “air bridge” – is something that China’s military obviously believes is a necessity.

The Y-20 also has design elements seen in the Airbus A400M and the Antonov An-70 (first developed by the Soviet Union). Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

China has been under a Western arms embargo since 1989. Popular Mechanics reports that the country has faced numerous claims of using hackers and spies to seek out military technology secrets from around the world.
According to DefenseWorld.net, U.S. officials claim that the Y-20 was developed using designs from Boeing that were stolen. In 2009, a former Boeing employee was convicted of selling C-17 technical details to China.
The Y-20’s codename is Kunpeng, the mythical bird of ancient China that can fly for thousands of miles. The Y-20’s Wikipedia says that “within the Chinese aviation industry itself, the aircraft is more commonly known by its nickname Chubby Girl.”

Apparently, China has yet to copy political correctness.

Written by Wendell Barnhouse

Wendell Barnhouse is a veteran journalist with over 40 years of experience as a writer and an editor. For the last 30 years, he wrote about college sports but he has had an interest and curiosity about aviation since he was in grade school.