The first time China attempted to build a large passenger jet, it tried — and failed — to reverse-engineer a Boeing 707 that crash-landed in Xinjiang in 1971.
The latest vehicle for China’s aviation dream, the Comac C919, has just completed its first test flight after Beijing decided to take a different path: buying parts from European and US aviation companies rather than stealing their technology.
After many mis-steps, the maiden flight of the 158-174 seat aircraft was a big moment for China, economically and politically.
The government told state-owned Comac in a congratulatory note that the C919 “carries great weight and importance to the country’s innovation drive”. Seeing it “flying in the blue sky makes generations of Chinese people’s dream come true”, it added.
The C919 is designed to compete with the workhorses of modern short-haul aviation, the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. It has a ready-made customer base as China is forecast to overtake the US as the world’s biggest aviation market in 2024.
Comac has also built a smaller regional jet, called the ARJ21, and is developing a long-haul aircraft alongside Russia’s United Aircraft Corp.
China has been trying to build large passenger aircraft since the Mao Zedong era, when Communist officials bridled at the prospect of having to fly overseas on foreign-made aircraft.
President Xi Jinping, who often travels abroad on a Boeing 747 operated by Air China, is unlikely to start flying on the C919 soon, as it will be at least a couple of years before it goes into mass production.
But China’s airliner project is still driven by politics as much as policy.
Throughout the sprawling Comac factory in Shanghai, Communist propaganda banners bearing slogans from Mr Xi and others urge workers to knuckle down to achieve the Chinese aviation dream.
“Remember your mission, march forward and win the ‘three battles’,” says one, referring to the markets for regional, short-haul and long-haul jets.
Mr Xi is keen to show progress on high-profile initiatives such as the C919 ahead of the next five-yearly congress of the Communist party in the autumn, where he will be trying to strengthen his grip on power.
By successfully bringing the C919 into mass production, Comac would join the select club of companies with the technical expertise to build large passenger jets including Boeing of the US, Europe’s Airbus, Canada’s Bombardier and Russia’s Sukhoi and Tupolev.
In addition to prestige, China wants to reduce its reliance on foreign aircraft manufacturers, primarily Boeing and Airbus. But, paradoxically, the C919 has only got this far because of the co-operation of western suppliers.
The wings and the tail are made in China, but many of the most important and most technologically advanced parts are purchased from foreign companies, such as GE and Safran, which provided the engine, and Honeywell, which supplied the wheels and brakes and communication and navigation systems.
Buying components from these industry leaders has helped to speed up the development process. But the C919 is still 10-15 years out of date, compared to the latest versions of the A320 and Boeing 737, meaning it will probably cost more to run.
That need not dent sales of the aircraft as most of China’s airlines are state-controlled and they can easily be encouraged to use it. They have already made orders for more than 500 C919s.
If China really wants to prove it can compete with Boeing and Airbus, rather than Tupolev and Sukhoi, it will have to sell its aircraft in developed markets, which will require better technology and hard-to-achieve certification from European and US regulators.
That is where Beijing may well hit the limits of Chinese aviation with western characteristics. Chinese officials have a history of covering up technical problems with domestically produced aircraft and not reporting accidents.
Corruption, political interference and a lack of transparency make western regulators nervous, and undermine the potential for innovation in China.
Derek Levine, who wrote a book on China’s aviation ambitions, warns that “unless China learns how to make the most sophisticated elements of a plane, they’ll always be a step behind”.