At first glance, Beijing’s lofty aspirations to fly and market home-produced passenger airliners are well on schedule: the narrow-body C919 series intended to take on Airbus’s A320 and Boeing’s 737 is set to get its airworthiness certification “in two years” according to Chinese reports, and work on a prototype for the CR929 wide-body jet being co-developed by Commercial Aircraft Corp of China and its Russian counterpart is said to be progressing well.

But the inconvenient truth is that China is entirely dependent upon US-developed aircraft design software. This is vital to each and every step, from drawing a conceptual airframe to detailed design and engineering phases, admitted Yao Weixing during an interview with the Beijing-based Science and Technology Daily. Professor Yao, of Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, recently led the design of a four-seater light aircraft.

Aircraft design and manufacturing has been revolutionized in recent decades by advanced computerization. Since the global aircraft industry entered the digital era in the 1980s, aircraft designs have become almost completely dependent on highly automated and integrated software systems developed and marketed by a small number of US firms. Such exclusive packages come with a fat markup.

Modern aircraft design is almost entirely dependent upon commercial design software. Different programs are required for each of the multiple elements in aircraft design – including aerodynamics, propulsion and control systems and structural specifications. Highly technical 2D drawings and 3D models must be produced by the software to plan and predict a new aircraft’s structural and aerodynamic properties.

J-10
J-10’s first flight was delayed for nine months due to China’s inability to redesign and remodel its landing gear. Photo: PLA Daily

And so it is that millions of dollars’ worth of foreign software is needed by Chinese firms including branches of the military if they wish to design a single airplane.

Back in 1997, development of the People’s Liberation Army’s lightweight multi-purpose J-10 fighter was grounded due to a 5-millimeter design error in the main landing gear imported from overseas.

The jet’s manufacturer, Aviation Industry Corp of China, was forced to postpone the J-10’s inaugural flight in order to commission an overseas firm to alter and re-manufacture the landing gear as the job was beyond the capacity of the state-owned military–industrial complex. The J-10’s inaugural flight finally took place nine months behind schedule.

Two decades on, questions are being posed about how much the Chinese domestic aircraft industry has really progressed, and how it can hope to take giant steps forward when it remains so highly reliant on foreign design know-how.