During a recent military parade in China one of the new items described as now entering service was a transport helicopter, the Z20, that could be mistaken for the American UH-60 BlackHawk. The Z20 was described as a helicopter with the same features and performance as the UH-60. How did this come about?
The Z20 entering service was no surprise as more than a year ago it was clear that the Chinese Army was replacing its Z-8A transport helicopters with the newer Z-20 design. This was unusual because the Z-8A had been used by the army for only six years. The army was not happy with the Z-8A and cited some serious problems, including poor performance, heavy maintenance needs and its tendency to stall in flight.
The Z-8 is based on the French SA-321. China purchased several of these in the early 1970s, and by 1976 were working on reverse engineering them and producing their own, illegal, version. The first flight of the SA-321 clone (called the Z-8) took place in 1985. But only about twenty of the Z-8 have been built since then. There were too many technical problems, plus the French were none too happy about this bit of theft and made their displeasure known to the Chinese as well as some willingness to bargain. While negotiating China persisted with their copy and in 2010 the Z-8B was in production. At that point only a dozen had been built. A more powerful engine, and hundreds of technical improvements still failed to produce a chopper the Chinese army was willing to pay for. The navy was happy with the original SA-321, and the Z-8 clones, but these operated at sea level. Eventually China developed an improved Z-8 called the Z-18 that was more reliable and the navy ordered them to replace the Z-8s they had been using. The Z-18 was apparently a success but that was too late for the army which went with the new Z-20, nicknamed the “Copyhawk” due to its similarity to the American Blackhawk. The Chinese army will order more Z-20s if CopyHawk succeeds where the Z-8 failed and that has apparently come to pass.
The Copyhawk first came to light in 2013 when photos from China showed what appeared to be an American UH-60 helicopter landing at a Chinese military base. This mystery helicopter was promptly dubbed “CopyHawk” for the Chinese eagerness to copy foreign military gear, often quite literally. While China has never had any BlackHawks, they did manage to buy 24 S-70s, the civilian version of the UH-60, back in the 1980s, before the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and subsequent arms embargo. The embargo meant a halt to American technical assistance in maintaining the S-70s. Forced to take over those duties China did so successfully and that gave them the confidence to attempt to clone the S-70. Several of these S-70s were known to still be in service as of 2013. The 2013 CopyHawk, on closer examination, was definitely an S-70 variant. There were several obvious differences (mainly in fuselage shape and rotor configuration). Parts of the CopyHawk looked like the new Chinese Z-10 helicopter gunship. In 2013 nothing was known of what engines and electronics were used in the CopyHawk or whether it was just an experimental design or a prototype for a new medium helicopter transport based on the S-70. The 2013 Copyhawks were developmental aircraft and a more recent prototype was spotted in 2016 was a bit different, but shortly thereafter the production model called the Z-20 appeared. China added UH-60 features the S-70 lacked and found it all worked.
China did indeed reverse engineer the S-70 and apparently used some parts taken from the twenty or so S-70s withdrawn from service and used all that to build prototypes of the Z-20 helicopter. China needed a new ten ton class military transport and the CopyHawk would be consistent with other new Chinese aircraft and ship designs since the 1990s, which included complex modern Russian aircraft like the Su-30 and, of course, decades of work using the French SA321 Super Frelon. China is now creating a new vehicle, ships and aircraft designs that take more from the West than long-time source Russia.
In the meantime, you will find some Chinese who will complain to you, quite sincerely, that the Americans based their Blackhawk on a Chinese design. That’s because those S-70s have been featured in Chinese media coverage of the armed forces since the 1990s. This often occurs when the military is called out to help with disaster relief (floods and earthquakes). Those S-70s always show up on the TV news, delivering emergency supplies and evacuating casualties. The crews were Chinese, the paint job and markings were Chinese Air Force and as far as most Chinese are concerned the helicopter was another product of the booming Chinese aviation industry.
The Sikorsky S-70 was a 1970s design that won the competition to replace the older UH-1 "Huey". The army currently has about 2,000 UH-60s and is upgrading the force with the new "M" model. So far, about 2,800 UH-60s have been built. The UH-60 was introduced in 1979. The 11 ton UH-60M can carry 14 troops, or 1.1 tons of cargo internally, or four tons slung underneath. Cruise speed is 278 kilometers an hour. Max endurance is two hours, although most sorties last 90 minutes or less. Max altitude is 5,790 meters (19,000 feet).
The Z-20 is the same weight, size and shape as the UH-60 and S-70. The Z-20 also has two engines and can carry up to fifteen troops or max payload of five tons of cargo. The Z-20 can also carry up to four tons via a sling underneath. The Z-20 has different electronics and different engines. Helicopter engines, like high-performance jet engines, have long been a weak link for China, which has yet to produce models that are comparable with Western designs. For helicopters, China has obtained European models and has been able to build some of those under license. The Z-20 might also be using one of the latest Chinese helicopter engine designs, the WZ-10.