Farnborough Air Show

CR929 Widebody Suffers Delays Due To Lack of Engine

 - July 14, 2022, 7:00 AM
A model of the CRAIC CR929 widebody appears at Moscow's MAKS 2021 air show. (Photo: Vladimir Karnozov)

Should Rolls-Royce or General Electric not agree to supply a suitable engine, the Sino-Russian CR929 widebody twin will face a significant delay, at least until 2030. Shanghai-based Commercial Aircraft International Corp. (CRAIC), a 50/50 joint venture between China’s Comac and Russia’s UAC, manages the project.

Soon after CRAIC’s founding in 2017, it began searching for a powerplant in the 77,000-pound thrust range. Because China and Russia had no suitable engine, the partners decided to use either the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 or General Electric GEnx-1B76 on prototypes and early-delivery airplanes. That, theoretically, would have allowed for first flight in 2022 or 2023 and shipments to begin in 2025.

Yet the deepening rift between East and West prevented the U.S. and UK manufacturers from obliging CRAIC, and so the company will likely have to wait for an engine to come from Eastern sources.

China’s AECC had begun developing the CJ-2000 turbofan using Ukrainian technology and components, but the project now appears likely to go nowhere after the Russian air force destroyed the Motor-Sich aero-engine plant in Zaporizhzhia on May 26. An earlier plan for a close relationship between Chinese and Ukrainian aero-engine industries fell through after the government in Kyiv vetoed the sale of a major stake in Motor-Sich to Chinese investors.

The only hope now lies with the PD-35 from Aviadvigatel, a member of Russia’s United Engine Corporation (UAC). Its experimental gas-generator (engine core) entered trials last autumn. Now the core is undergoing a second testing phase at Baranov’s Central Institute of Aviation Motors in Moscow.

This year, Russian manufacturers began making experimental parts for the PD-35’s fan, which measures 122 inches in diameter. Because of the fan’s size and curved geometry, it must use composite blades.

Schedules call for the completion of the first complete engine next year. Should testing prove successful, Aviadvigatel will set the PD-35’s final configuration in 2025 and start serial production in 2028. If so, the first deliverable examples could appear in 2029 or 2030.

Late last year, the Kremlin allocated an extra 44.6 billion roubles ($750 million) for development of the engine. On May 27, the SibProektNIIaviaprom scientific-research institute in Novosibirsk reported the completion of the plan for how to establish an experimental production facility for PD-35 developmental prototypes.

The partners optimized the PD-35 design for the CR929-600. This first family member would weigh 540,000 pounds and carry 280 passengers 6,480 nm. The first metal was cut on a structural member in September 2021. Two months later, Russia’s AeroComposite company reported commencing the manufacture of technology prototypes for the CR929’s composite wing.

According to China’s Plan for Civil Aviation Development 2021-2025, the country needs 1,200 aircraft in the CR929 class. Together with exports, that justifies plans for a production run of 800 over a period of 20 years. The project will require $20 billion to pay for research and development, preparation for production, and an after-sales support system.

Because CRAIC will place the CR929 assembly line in Shanghai, the factory there will export airplanes to Russia, where official estimates call for a need for between 50 and 120 units. In view of recent U.S. and European Union decisions to ban sales of jetliners to Russian airlines, the latter might need more airplanes to compensate for canceled Airbuses and Boeings and airplanes that will be prematurely withdrawn from service due to a lack of spares and technical support from OEMs.

The first deliverable CR929s will not likely become available before 2029, so Russia believes the four-engine Il-96 can bridge the gap in the interim. Over the short-term, UAC will keep producing two Il-96-300s annually while admitting that the airplane's high per-seat fuel burn makes it unattractive to airlines. This year, the company hopes to fly an improved and stretched Il-96-400.

“In case of necessity, this Il-96 can be launched into a limited series for commercial airlines,” said Yuri Borisov, deputy prime minister responsible for the military-industrial complex in the Russian government. “Perhaps two to three airplanes a year will do. I think that many should be sufficient to keep long-haul services alive. Right now, no more is needed.”

When the PD-35 becomes available, its first application will be a twin-engine version of the Il-96-400M. Reducing engine count from four to two will improve the type’s performance and help stimulate airlines to place more orders, potentially justifying an annual output of three to four airframes.