Is China’s ARJ21 Just A MD-80 Copy Or Is It The Beginning Of China’s Rise In Commercial Aviation?

Photo: Danny Yu

China’s bid to become a major player in the global aerospace industry is moving forward, with the recent certification of the ARJ21. Mass production has commenced and the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or COMAC, reports that it already has 413 orders for the ARJ21 from 19 customers.

The Deputy Director General of China’s Ministry of Industry, equipment industry department, Yang Shuanchang says the aircraft will serve as a model for the development of similar prototypes like the C919, which is expected to be submitted for certification in 2019. Industry observers say the real test of mettle will be the pending certification of the C919.

A United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)-type certification has to be granted as a preliminary condition for any aircraft to be entered into the intensely competitive worldwide aviation market. Boeing and Airbus initially bristled at the potential competition coming from China, in part because the Chinese government has a record of investing heavily in state-run ventures. Those fears were somewhat allayed however since, in spite of these investments, getting the ARJ21 off the ground has taken a decade longer than originally anticipated due to serious issues that arose during the testing phase, calling into the question China’s ability to compete and create indigenous designs.

MD-80 Frankenstein

Early problems with the ARJ21 included avionics and wing cracks. For example, in early static testing, the wings broke or cracked when put under pressure before reaching the average pressure point set by regulators. Because of this, the CAAC limited the plane’s flight envelope during the test program. In addition, tests uncovered faulty wiring. Testing for icing and stall speeds were also postponed. The perpetual problems led aviators and avgeeks to refer to the ARJ21 as an MD-80 Frankenstein with a little CRJ and unreliability mixed in.

The ARJ-21 looks awfully familiar to the original MD-80 shown here. Photo Bill Abbott (Wikipedia)

The ARJ21 is partially built on specs from the old MD80, thanks to the presence of U.S. manufacturers in China. McDonnell Douglas was operating an MD80 manufacturing facility in Shaghai prior to its merger with Boeing, thanks to a lucrative deal inked in the early 90s. During this time period, presses and other parts were shipped from the United States to the Douglas facility. This gave the Chinese access to Western technology.

Once Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas, production of the MD80 ceased, marking the end of an era. After abandoning the final MD80 and MD90 assembly lines in China after about 30 frames, Aviation Industrial Company inherited McDonnell Douglas tooling.

China Announces Regional Airliner Project

It did not take long before China was announcing it’s “new” regional airliner project, unveiling a design that was eerily similar to the MD80 design. COMAC officials in Shanghai vehemently defend the ARJ21 as an original design. However, despite COMAC’s protests to the contrary, it is commonly accepted that the ARJ21 is fundamentally a redesign of the DC9. There is a general consensus throughout the industry that the ARJ21 is an incarnation of the MD-80 airframe as well, especially since the initial phase of the ARJ21 life cycle began after Boeing made an agreement with COMAC to make a larger version of the MD87.

The ARJ21 was originally launched way back in 2002. It is essentially a reengineered MD-80 with a body shrunk down to regional jet dimensions. It features a new wing designed by Antonov and General Electric GE CF34 turbofans. The aircraft, which has been dogged by issues that led to the lengthy certification delays and major redesigns, has a list price of about $30 million which is a fraction of the cost of jets sold in the West. In spite of the lower price tag, the ARJ21 is significantly more expensive to operate since it is much heavier than traditional Western jets, and therefore, consumes much more expensive jet fuel.

The C919: China’s Ace in the Hole?

Flying Ace? COMAC C919 taking off from Shanghai – Pudong International Airport. By Weimeng at [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)
The airworthiness of China’s next market entrant, the C919, is already being questioned. Comac VP Shi Jianzhong stated that a number of “issues” with the C919 engine and technology that led to delays for the latest second round of testing. It is difficult to determine the actual status due to lack of transparency from Chinese manufacturers. However, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China executives announced Friday that the C919 testing is back on track. The aircraft is slated to take its third test flight within the next few weeks, if not sooner.

Honeywell navigation systems, Liebherr landing gear and CFM International Leap-1C engines are integrated into the design, even though industry observers say technology powering the C919 is largely out of date. Only time will tell if Chinese Civil Aviation will be established as a major global contender. The aviation community is eyeing the C919 to determine if China will be catapulted into an aviation super power or remain parked at the gate in light of test failures caused by manufacturing problems once again.