Z-20 family of medium-lift helicopters was a star attraction at the 5th China Helicopter Exposition
Prasun K. Sengupta
The 5th China Helicopter Exposition from October 10-13, which was jointly held by the Tianjin Municipal Government, the Aviation Industry Corporation of China Ltd (AVIC) and the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) ground forces, not only lifted the curtains on the Z-20 family of medium-lift helicopters, but also provided deep insights into the on-going development of two different types of heavy-lift helicopters. In all, the expo attracted 415 exhibitors from 18 countries, and had 53 civilian and military helicopters on display.
Huang Chuanyue, AVIC’s deputy chief engineer for heavy-lift helicopters, revealed that the new-generation variants of the Z-8 (the Z-8G and Z-8L) have a total take-off weight of 13 tonnes, while the joint Sino-Russian project to develop and build a 40-tonne new-generation heavy-lift helicopter (AHL), which will be lighter than the 56-tonne Mi-26, is expected to be available for deliveries in 2032. Powerplant for the AHL is still under development in Russia. Previously, it had been stated that the AHL was to be powered by Ukrainian Motor Sich JSC/Ivchenko-Progress AI-136T turboshaft engines.
Changhe Aircraft Industry Group’s (CAIG) Z-8G ‘Gaoyuan’ (Plateau) heavy-lift helicopter, earlier designated as the Z-18, is a heavily modified version of the Harbin Z-8, CAIG’s derivative of the Aérospatiale SA.321 Super Frelon. The Z-8G flew for the first time in 2014. Powered by three domestic WZ-6C turboshaft engines, it has a maximum take-off weight of 13.8 tonnes and can carry 30 troops, or five tonnes of cargo for up to 1,000km. The Z-8G’s design has replaced the Super Frelon’s distinctive boat-hull lower fuselage with a tail ramp and has added a small terrain-following radar in the radome. In addition, the much longer external sponsons are configured as fuel tanks, as well as mounting the aft undercarriage. The internal width of the load area has been increased from 1.8 metres to 2.4 metres. Some Z-8Gs are fitted with a SATCOM fairing on the tail-boom, aft of the engine exhausts. “We have completed flight training, and the next step is to focus on the integration with land forces,” said PLA Army’s 83rd Army Air Assault Brigade commander Song Zhipeng. The Z-8G has to date performed flight-tests reaching as high as 29,500 feet.
Chen Guang, Vice-General Manager of Avicopter, the corporate branch of AVIC in charge of the twin-engined Z-20 medium-lift helicopter’s production at the Harbin Aircraft Industry Group (HAIG), said in Tianjin that the Z-20 is a twin-engine, multi-purpose platform that is also China’s first helicopter to use an indigenously developed fly-by-wire flight-control system (FBW-FCS). Li Linhua, chief technology expert at AVIC’s China Helicopter Research & Development Institute, explained that the Z-20 also features a streamlined aerodynamic structure and new anti-icing technology. In November 2017 the Z-20 in PLA Air Force (PLAAF) colours completed its high-altitude flight-tests at Xiahe airfield (flying up to 4,000 metres, or 13,200 feet) in Gansu province. The Z-20’s requirement dates back to the Eighties, when China was seeking a medium utility helicopter for operations in its mountainous western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. The PLAAF eventually imported 24 Sikorsky S-70C-2s powered by General Electric T700-701A engines. Since then, the S-70’s performance in such regions has been unmatched, even with the later acquisition by China of Mil Mi-17V5s from Russia. Development of the Z-20 began in 2006, and the maiden flight took place on 23 December 2013.
Although the Z-20 bears a close external resemblance to the S-70, the former’s chief designer Deng Jinghui clarified that the Z-20 incorporates novel features like the FBW-FCS, five main rotor blades, and a more angular tail–to-fuselage joint airframe, all of which contributes to more lift, greater cabin capacity and higher endurance. In addition, a new fairing installed aft of the engine exhausts and another on the tail spine, are housings for the BeiDou (Big Dipper) satellite navigation system’s receiver antennae. Powerplant for the Z-20 is the domestically-developed WZ-10 turboshaft engine, providing 2,145shp of power. The Z-20 will be a key air-mobility and projection platform for the PLA, while its Z-230F will provide the PLA Navy with a much-needed shipborne multi-role naval helicopter.