Air Transportation: The China Heavy

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June 15, 2018: Two years after the Chinese Air Force received its first production model Y-20 air transport seven are now in service. Earlier in 2018, the Y-20 was used, for the first time, for dropping paratroopers as well as cargo by parachute. The Y-20 is similar to the American four engine C-17 heavy jet transport. But the Y-20 was developed and put into production much more quickly and apparently going to be built in much larger number.

The 220 ton Y-20 is based on years of experience with the similar Russian Il-76. China ordered Y-20 development to begin back in 2006, after canceling a $1.5 billion order for 38 Russian Il-76 transport planes and Il-78s (tanker versions of the Il-76). The stated reason was that Russia tried to up the price 27 percent. China had been looking elsewhere, including urging its domestic aircraft manufacturers to come up with something. That process eventually led to the new Y-20, which one Chinese aircraft manufacturer (Xian) was already working on, just in case. China has long wanted an air transport similar to the C-17. An improved Il-76 seemed like a good option but Russia had to give up on an Il-76 replacement because of economic and political problems. Moreover, China was able to hire the Antonov Aircraft Corporation in Ukraine for help in design and manufacturing. The Y-20 looks very similar to the An-70 that Antonov has been developing. Construction of the Y-20 uses the latest production methods (employing computer generated component design and 3-D printing). The current Y-20s use four Russian jet engines but these will eventually be replaced by Chinese WS-20s.

The new Y-20 comes pretty close to what China was hoping to get from Russia. The Y-20 is more similar to the C-17 than the Il-76. That is on purpose because while the Y-20 will replace the current fleet of 195 ton Il-76s, China is also looking at the export market, which is more receptive to American than Russian style transports. The Il-76 a Russian heavy transport that entered service in 1975 and can carry up to 50 tons. The Y-20 can carry 66 tons and fly 4,500 kilometers without refueling (7,800 kilometers with 40 tons or over 10,000 kilometers with 110 paratroopers). Around 300 regular passengers can be carried as well as armored vehicles, including one 55 ton Type 99 tank (the heaviest one China has).

The Y-20 made its first flight in 2013 when there were two prototypes being heavily used to work out any problems with the aircraft design. The aircraft is now in full production. So far eight Y-20s have been built and the air force recently received the first of many production models. The Chinese air force would like to obtain several hundred Y-20s and there is also the export market. The C-17 has 280 ordered or in service and production may soon end.

The C-17, which entered service in 1995 and has an enviable useful life of 30,000 flight hours. The Y-20 has some similarities with the C-17 but is mainly based on Ukrainian Antonov designs. 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. Over fifty have been sold to foreign users, including Britain, Canada, Australia, and India. The U.S. Air Force operates over 200. Chinese military planners want many more Y-20s as well as getting away from depending on Russia for heavy transports. Dealing with Russia can be difficult even in the best of times. The Y-20 will be competition for the Il-76, which is still in production with nearly a thousand ordered or built since 1974. If the C-17 production ceases, as planned, in the early 2020s there will be even more business for the Y-20.

 


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