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For a country similar in geographical size of U.S.A., China operates comparatively few helicopters – barely more than 560 machines at the last estimate, most of which are built abroad, with the rest built locally under license. But with demands growing in both military and civil sectors, change is on the horizon for China’s relatively small helicopter industry.
Early Practice: Z-5
The origin of the Chinese helicopter industry can be traced back to the late 1950s, when the Soviet Union agreed to help the Chinese Communist Party to build helicopters for both military and civil purposes. The first domestic helicopter built by the Chinese was the Z-5 (Zhishengji-5), which was based on the Soviet Mil Mi-4 Hound with some modifications.
The development of the Z-5 began in 1958 by Harbin Aircraft Factory (now Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation, HAMC ), which later became one of the two primary helicopter manufacturers in China. The design documents of the Mi-4 was handed to the Chinese in February 1958, and the first Chinese-built Z-5 make its first flight in December of the same year. Initial batch production began in 1959, but the production certificate was not issued until 1963 due to some serious quality problems. By the time the production stopped in 1980, a total of 545 units were built for the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and Chinese Civil Aviation.
The Z-5 is powered by a 1,770 hp Huosai-7 piston engine, with a maximum cargo payload of 1,500 kg. Later variants of the Z-5 have several modifications, including using metal main blades to replace the original wooden ones on the prototype, adding two external tanks, electrical hoist with winch and scoop, and a belly hatch for dropping cargos, The maximum speed of the later variant Z-5 has increased from 185 km/h to 210 km/h, the cruising speed has increased from 140 km/h to 170 km/h, and the service ceiling (with ground effect) has increased from 5,500 m to 6,000 m. An armed variant Z-5 has a 12.7 mm machine gun fixed on the belly and weapon racks to carry two unguided rocket launchers.
Through the Z-5 project the Chinese obtained valuable knowledge and experience in helicopter design and development. Soon after the Z-5 project completed, China began its efforts to develop an indigenous helicopter independently. In 1966 , Harbin began the initial studies on the first indigenous helicopter Z-6.
Compared to the Z-5/Mi-4, the Z-6 helicopter possesses many advanced features, including a 1,618 kW Wozhou-5 turboshaft engine and re-designed blades and fuselage to achieve better performance in highland regions, larger payload, and less vibration and noise. The Z-6 also borrows many mature features and technologies from the Z-5’s designs, including the rear hatch, tail boom and fin.
The Z-6 was mainly designed to carry airborne troops in the frontline, with a fuselage to accommodate 12 soldiers. It has a maximum take-off weight of 7,600 kg, a payload of 1,200 kg, a maximum speed of 192 km/h and a ferry range of 651 km.
The first prototype (No.6001) of the Z-6 was completed in 1967 for static tests. In 1968, the Z-6 project obtained officially authorization from the PLA and Chinese Government. On 25 December 1969 the second Z-6 prototype No.6002 made its first flight. From 1970, the Z-6 programme was relocated to the newly founded Changhe Aircraft Factory (now Changhe/Jingdezhen Aircraft Industry Corporation ) in Jiangdezhen, Jiangxi, which later became the second largest helicopter manufacturer in China.
The Z-6 helicopter was type classified in 1977, with 15 helicopters already built. However, despite being a technologically successful design, the Z-6 programme was later cancelled due to various reasons, including unsatisfying performance and poor reliability.
The restoration of the relationship between the Communism China and the West in the late 1970s on the basis of anti-USSR alliance gave the Chinese another chance to boost its helicopter industry. From 1978 to 1989, the Chinese helicopter industry took part in a series of international co-operations with Western partners including:
The purchase of 13 French AS 321Ja Super Frelon naval helicopters and the following reverse engineering product Z-8.
The bid for the PLA’s next generation utility helicopter between the Bell 212 and Sikorsky S-70C Black Hawk.
The negotiation on the purchase and possible licensed production of the Bell 47.
The purchase of 6 AS 342 Gazelle anti-tank attack helicopters and the proposed licensed production or reverse engineering.
At the same time, the establishment of the PLA Army Aviation Corps in 1988 and the boosting economy has stimulated the Chinese helicopter industry to grow rapidly, which has resulted in the introduction of Z-8, Z-9, and Z-11 helicopter.
Changhe Aircraft Industry Corporation began the reverse engineering work of the 'Super Frelon' in 1976. The first flight of Chinese-made Z-8 took place on 11th Dec 1985. However, due to various technical problems, only a small number of Z-8s (fewer than 20) have been built fifteen years after its first flight.
In addition to transport and rescue missions, the Z-8 could carry a torpedo and dipping sonar for anti-submarine warfare. Some reports indicated that China planned to fit the Z-8 with two YJ-8 (C-801) anti-ship missiles, but this has never been seen in operational service. Changhe has also developed an army transport variant Z-8A, with radar radome and stabilising floats removed. However, this variant has never entered service.
China and France signed the agreement of assembling 50 Eurocopter AS-365N Dauphin II multi-purposes helicopters at Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation (HAMC) in 1980 , with the first helicopter rolled out in the following year.
The initial 28 helicopters are Z-9 basic variant, which is equal to the AS-365N1, and the following 20 helicopters are improved variant Z-9A, which is equal to the AS-365N2. The production of the 50 helicopters completed in 1992. In September 1993, Harbin and Eurocopter agreed on the co-production of another 22 Z-9As.
At the same time, Harbin began to indigenise the production of the Z-9. In 1988, Harbin experimentally built two Z-9A-100s, which included more Chinese contents. On 16th January 1992, the first indigenous variant Z-9B with 71.9% Chinese-made parts flew successfully. The batch production of the Z-9B continued thereafter with around few dozens delivered.
The successful Z-9 has already been developed into a big family with many variants for different purposes, including the basic army transport, anti-tank missile attack, electronic warfare, communications, artillery spotting, naval shipborne anti-submarine warfare and search and rescue (ASW/SAR), police, and the latest improved variant H410A.
The Z-11 is a Chinese copy of French AS 350B Squirrel light helicopter by Changhe Aircraft Industry Corporation. The Z-11 programme was officially approved in 1989 and the development began in 1992. The first flight of the Z-11 took place in Dec 1994 .
The Z-11 is designed for training, scout, liaison and rescue, as well as various civil missions. Although being descrined by the manufacturer as 'multi-mission', the future of the helicopter remains gloomy due to its limited take-off weight, insufficient armament, low suvivability, and outdated technology. So far the PLA has only ordered few (no more than 20) Z-11s for pilot training.
The Z-11 is two-ton class six-seater lightweight helicopter. The three-blade main rotor is mounted above center of fuselage. A single turboshaft engine is mounted inside the body with air intakes on top of the cabin and a blackhole exhaust.
Since the 1990s the Chinese helicopter industry, mainly comprising Harbin Aircraft Industry Co. and Changhe Aircraft Industry Co., has become much more active in developing themselves to meet future demands with products manufactured locally under the help of international partners.
Both Harbin and Changhe have been involved in international co-operations with European and U.S. helicopter industry.
The EC 120 lightweight helicopter programme, which includes Eurocopter, Harbin/CATIC, and Singapore Aerospace Co, has been under development since the mid-1990s, while Changhe has become an international partner for the Sikorsky S-92 medium transport helicopter programme.
The Chinese helicopter industry is currently planning to develop the 5/6-ton class helicopter to meet a range of military and civil requirements with one basic design. The programme aims to develop a family of next generation helicopter with identical dynamic systems, potentially with a choice of turboshaft engines depending on the model and mission. The programme has three potential products:
A baseline 5,500 kg Chinese medium helicopter tactical for transport for the PLA Army Aviation;
A 6,000 kg third-generation attack helicopter also for Army Aviation; and
A 5,000~6,000 kg commercial transport helicopter with potential growth
In May 1997, China signed a $70~80 million contract with Eurocopter France to develop an appropriate rotor system (main/tail rotor hubs and blades) for China’s next generation helicopter. In March 1999, Agusta announced it has also signed $30 million contract with the Chinese to develop the transmission system (gear box and transmission components) for China’s next generation helicopter. The first flight of the new generation Chinese helicopter is expected to take place between 2005 and 2007.
Update: AVIC Z-15
APPENDIX: China’s Military Helicopter Fleet as of 2005
Contribution: Dong Feng
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