Air Transportation: Chinese C-17 Diversifies


April 2, 2019: The aerial refueling version of the new Chinese jet transport, the Y20, has been spotted (from the air). This is apparently the anticipated Y-20U. This tanker version apparently flew for the first time at the end of 2018. It appears to be equipped with Russian made UPAZ-1M refueling pods under each wing. Russian tankers also attach a third one of these pods to the rear fuselage of the aircraft. The Y-20U will probably carry 120,000 liters (31,000 gallons) of fuel, as well as cargo or passengers. Up to 3,000 liters a minute can be transferred from each of these pods using the hose and drogue method. The Y-20U will have a crew of six, to include three refueling operators if three pods are installed. This is but one of several specialties the Y-20 will be used for.

In early 2013 the Y-20 flew for the first time and it entered service with the Chinese Air Force in 2016 as the Y-20A. So far about 20 have been built, including eight prototypes. The Y-20 was a major milestone because for the first time China had developed a large military jet transport. The Y-20 aircraft is similar to the American C-17 and has a max weight of 220 tons and a max payload of 66 tons. The Y-20 will likely include many characteristics of the 195 ton Il-76, a Russian heavy transport that can carry up to 50 tons and that the Chinese have been using for decades. The Y-20 can travel 4,500 kilometers with max payload, 7,800 kilometers with 40 tons and at least 10,000 kilometers carrying just passengers or 130 paratroopers. Max speed is 900 kilometers an hour and cruise speed is about 700 kilometers an hour. Max altitude is 13 kilometers (42,000 feet). There is a crew of three; two pilots and a loadmaster. The aircraft is all Chinese made except for the four engines, which are Russian. The J-20 has been tested with similar, but less effective, Chinese WS-18 engines. China expects to have the superior (to the Russian engines) WS-20 engine ready in a few years and these will replace the Russian ones in new aircraft and in existing aircraft as engine replacement is required. Currently, 400 J-20s are planned, most of them for cargo.

In 2013 the two existing Y-20 prototypes underwent ground taxi tests two weeks before the first flight. China proudly described the construction of the Y-20, using specially developed composite materials for many components. These strong and lightweight materials were formerly only available from Western suppliers. China expected most of the Y-20 components to come from China and so far, except for the engines, that is the case.

The similar American C-17 entered service in 1996, two years after its first flight, and each C-17 has a useful life of 30,000 flight hours. China has yet to reveal similar performance data for the Y-20. The 290 ton C-17 can carry up to 100 tons (including one M-1 tank) anywhere in the world because of in-air refueling. The C-17 costs about $250 million each while the Y-20 goes for less than $200 million. There are several export customers for the C-17, including Britain, Australia, India, Canada, Qatar and the UAE. The U.S. Air Force operates 203. China wants to stop using Russian IL-76 heavy transports and become the largest producer, and exporter, of these heavy transports in the world. In addition to the tanker version, China is also planning to build its next-generation AWACS (air control) aircraft around the Y-20.

Up until 2005, China was content to buy Russian heavy transports. In 2005 China placed a $1.5 billion order for 38 Il-76 transport planes and Il-78s (tanker versions of the Il-76). But in 2006 China canceled the deal when Russia tried to up the price 27 percent (to $50 million per aircraft). China went looking elsewhere, including urging its domestic aircraft manufacturers to come up with something. That process eventually led to the Y-20, but in the meantime, China needed some more jet-powered military transports. China urged domestic manufacturers to come up with something and by 2011 an acceptable design was presented. Two years later it flew and three years after that it was in service. China will not be buying any more Il-76s although it continued to buy the same engines that power the Il-76. Already the Y-20 is competing with the Il-76 and C-17 for export sales.


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