The helicopter industry in China is steadily growing, nourished by ongoing large-scale development projects in the nation. Various helicopter original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) have tried to secure a foothold in China to capture some of that emerging market.
One of these is Russian Helicopters, which predicts China’s helicopter market to reach about 5,000 units over the next several years.
Viktor Kladov, director of international cooperation and regional policy of parent company Rostec, said the market in China is considered one of the most promising markets globally, particularly for its civil sector and air force.
China in April launched its Ministry of Emergency Management, a state-operated organization responsible for the implementation of rescue and emergency care. To date, representatives of the newly established center have announced plans to purchase up to 300 new helicopters, mostly light and medium.
The Chinese market for civil helicopters has taken a huge step forward in recent years. In 2017, it became the world’s largest in terms of both value and volume. Since 2010, the market has increased almost four times from 195 to 900 units in 2017 — and likely will continue that climb this year.
Echoing statements that China is seeing increased demand in helicopters, Chen Yuanxian, VP of Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC), said rotorcraft are ideally suited to navigating China’s complex geological environment.
Huang Chuanyue, deputy chief designer at Avicopter, the helicopter unit of AVIC, agrees. For both emergency relief and engineering operations, China is in dire need of multifunctional heavy-lift helicopters that have various capabilities, he said.
Chinese analysts predict the annual growth of the domestic helicopter market will range between 200 and 220 units per year. In order to meet these needs, China plans to continue purchasing helicopters from abroad as well as develop its own. In the latter case, the Chinese government plans to attract global helicopter manufacturers to establish indigenous production facilities.
One of those companies will be Airbus Helicopters, which is currently readying the launch of an assembly plant for commercial H135s in China. The facility, located in the Jimo Provincial Hi-Tech Industrial Development Zone, will be jointly operated by Airbus and Qingdao United General Aviation Company Ltd., a joint venture between China Aviation Supplies Holding Company and Qingdao United General Aviation Industrial Development Company. Airbus Helicopters holds 51% of shares in the venture.
Production is expected to begin in early 2019 and should produce 18 H135s annually. Airbus said production capacity at the facility could increase with demand.
Helicopters produced at the new facility will be configured for medical evacuation, law enforcement and offshore oil-and-gas production, among other industries. According to some industry assessments, China is projected to need 600 H135s over the next 20 years.
Hong Kong’s Government Flying Service in June has received three Airbus H175s for public services. As launch customer, GFS is the first operator of this new variant. The service will receive four more of these by the end of the year.
Another company establishing its presence in China is Bell. The U.S.-based company has 140 of its helicopters currently operating in China. With its 2017 agreements with Reignwood International Investment Group Company Ltd. to purchase 110 505 Jet Ranger Xs and with Shaanxi for 100 Bell 407GXPs, Bell will just about triple its fleet in China over the next few years.
Bell projects both its 505 and 407 to be the most popular models in China due to anticipated growth in the nation’s helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS), law enforcement, utility, tourism and corporate segments, Bell’s managing director of North Asia, Jose Jacinto Monge, told R&WI.
“Our plan is to grow our sales by replacing aging Bell 206L4s with new Bell 505s, developing the HEMS and law enforcement markets with the Bell 429 and positioning the Bell 412EPI for search and rescue, and firefighting,” said Monge. Monge also said it hopes to target its 525 to Chinese customers this year in preparation for its certfication.
China also recently reached an agreement for Russia to build a new heavy-lift helicopter manufacturing facility as part of the Advanced Heavy Lift project.
The facility will produce a new helicopter with a takeoff weight of 38 tons, an internal payload capacity of 10 tons and up to 15 tons external load. It will be able to perform tasks in highlands at an altitude of more than 9,800 feet (3,000 meters) above sea level. Initially, the partners plan to produce 200 of these helicopters.
The Chinese helicopter industry has historically focused on the reproduction and adaptation of foreign helicopters. Since the 1970s, China has been specializing on building analogues of Soviet and Western (mostly French) models. Examples of this include the Chinese Z-5 and Z-6 helicopters, which are based on the Soviet Mi-4 and Mi-17.
In addition, China’s most common light helicopter, the Z-11, is similar to the Airbus AS350 Écureuil model. The Chinese Z-9 anti-tank helicopter has many similarities with the Airbus Dauphin, while its Z-8 heavy helicopter could be considered an analogue of the Airbus SA321 Super Frelon.
In the late 1990s, the Chinese helicopter industry began to change its approach to helicopter development by moving toward adoption of foreign technologies, with the aim of producing its own, original helicopters. The latest successful example became the Z-10 attack helicopter, which is intended primarily for anti-tank missions.
Designed by the Russian Kamov design bureau, Z-10 was further developed and flight tested by the 602nd Research Institute under Wu Ximing and is being built by Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation.
Airbus and China’s Harbin Aircraft Industry Group of AVIC have collaborated on a super-medium platform — the Z-15, which is the Chinese variant of the H175. The civil version of the helicopter, known as AC352, weighs seven tons and will accommodate 14 to 16 passengers and two crewmembers. The helicopter is equipped with two Ardiden 3C engines, developed by AVIC and Safran Helicopter Engines. Overall, the partners plan to produce up to 1,000 of these helicopters during the next five to seven years.
China continues tests of new modifications of its Z-20 model, the Chinese version of the U.S. Black Hawk UH-60, and variations of the Z-8.
Leonardo said the Chinese helicopter market remains one of the most promising for the further development of the company. This year Leonardo plans to deliver to China at least 26 helicopters, including the AW119Kx, AW109 Trekker and AW139.
AVIC also unveiled an unmanned attack helicopter last year, called the AV500W. The maximum take-off mass of the unmanned helicopter is 24 feet (seven meters) long and weighs 992 pounds (450 kg), while the maximum speed is 105 mph (170 kph). It has a flight altitude of more than 13,000 feet (4,000 meters).
On the military side, China aims to develop a new combat helicopter for its air force. For more than two decades, CAIC WZ-9 was the primary combat helicopter of the Chinese Air Force. It was developed from the French Airbus AS365 Dauphin.
“At present, the Chinese army needs a large number of multi-purpose medium helicopters. Unfortunately, the Chinese Air Force does not have enough workhorses, for example, as the UH-60 Black Hawk in the U.S. Army,” said Chinese military analyst Wu Peixin.
Other analysts say China will need 3,000 military helicopters, especially for heavy-lift and multi-purpose combat segments.
China has historically lacked domestic engine production. Nearly all of its engines for its Z-series helicopters were imported from abroad, primarily from Russia or General Electric. However, a recent move by the Chinese government and some local companies to establish a new large-scale production facility for fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft engines might change that.
The newly established corporation, known as Aero Engine Corporation of China, focuses on the development, testing and production of engines for the needs of the nation’s domestic aircraft and helicopter industries. Chinese President Xi Jinping hopes that with a workforce of 95,000, the facility will speed up domestic engine production. RWI