Surprisingly, one very significant event, about which, under certain conditions, all the Russian media would have thundered, passed quite quietly, without much fanfare. But this, just imagine, is the assembly of the first wide-body long-haul aircraft, which has not been given much. True, there is, as they say, one nuance: the aircraft is being developed jointly with China and, most importantly, it will be produced in China. In the modern, globalized world, this seems to be quite normal, but the talk about overcoming our dependence on imported aviation in this case sounds somehow false.
The Chinese newspaper Jiefang Daily wrote about this in early September. This, in general, was not a revelation - they said that assembly would begin in 2021 back in January of this year. And yet, as always happens with such global projects, there were always doubts about the timing. Moreover, the project is extremely complex technologically, and for the Chinese aircraft industry it is also absolutely new.
The novelty is designated CR929. The letter "C" in this case means "China", "R" is, of course, "Russia", and the number 929, according to the developers, also carries a certain meaning - the number "9" in China means reliability and longevity. The latter, in general, seems a little far-fetched, but so be it, let's forgive marketers for their little pranks. For the first time, they started talking about the need to develop a joint Russian-Chinese liner back in 2008, but a formal agreement was signed by the parties in 2014, during Vladimir Putin's visit to Beijing. In 2017, China-Russia Commercial Aircraft International Corporation (CRAIC) was established in Shanghai, an enterprise that became the official operator of the project. Probably, this should be considered a real start of development, because only after that serious work began on it, and in 2018, the UAC and COMAC agreed on the appearance (probably referring to a working sketch) of the new aircraft.
But then the work began to boil, and without any quotes. In 2019, at the MAKS-2019 air show, a full-scale mock-up of one of the CR929 compartments was presented, and now news has arrived about the start of assembly of the first aircraft, which is likely to be used for strength tests on the ground, but may be able to take off. The speed for such a project is simply phenomenal, and so far it is even difficult to say what it is due to - either the high interest of the parties, or the Chinese decisiveness with which they copy literally everything and in the shortest possible time. But in any case, the work on the project does not stand still, and this, of course, pleases.
It is assumed that the CR929 will be offered in three versions - the basic CR929-600, the extended CR929-700 and the shortened CR929-500. In turn, each of these options will have a different layout of salons, from a three-class "business first-class-economy" option to a single-class one, where the entire salon will have an "economy class" option. Accordingly, in this way it is supposed to vary the aircraft's capacity and its flight range. Obviously, developers want to offer potential customers options for all commercial niches, which, let's be fair, is quite reasonable.
At first, the CR929 is supposed to be equipped with engines from General Electric and Rolls-Royce. But in the future, it is planned to install the Russian PD-35 engine with a thrust of 35 tons, which, alas, is not yet available, but which is being rapidly developed by Russian designers. And this, in general, is the little that we will "get" from this project - the aircraft itself will be produced in China, and Russian enterprises, in addition to the mentioned engine (which is not yet available), will only make composite wings for it (with which, according to for known reasons, there are also problems).
Just in case, let's clarify: the decision to install the PD-35 engine on the CR929 has not yet been made, it will only "be offered" to the Chinese side after the completion of development work on it and the entire test cycle, approximately in 2027. And despite the fact that there are, of course, oral agreements, I simply do not want to remind the reader how many times we have been rudely “cheated” with these oral agreements in recent decades. No, I’ll remind you of one case - a verbal agreement not to expand NATO to the east, which was reached by such high-ranking people that it’s scary to even remember...
In fact, let's admit: it is beneficial for the Chinese not to bother with the Russian novelty, which, moreover, so far exists only in drawings and in the form of bench samples. The benefits are obvious - Western aircraft engine manufacturers are recognized leaders in this industry, all competitors' aircraft from Boeing and Airbus fly on American or British engines, and if they are installed, CR929 will certainly turn out to be no worse than competitors in terms of fuel efficiency. In addition, familiar propulsion systems will surely make the plane more popular with potential foreign buyers, and international certification will certainly be much easier and faster.
True, there is one deterrent - Beijing is unlikely to ignore the likelihood of further deterioration in relations with the United States and, as a consequence, its allies in Europe and around the world. Actually, it seems that this was the main reason for choosing Russia as the main partner in the development of a new aircraft. China, with its ever-increasing needs, is well aware that the PRC's civil aviation, almost entirely consisting of the machines of the above-mentioned western aircraft manufacturing giants, is the most vulnerable link to various sanctions. And the speed with which the CR929 project is being implemented, in part, suggests that Beijing is extremely interested in the creation and maximum localization of a wide-body long-range aircraft in China.
That is, we will not be cheated without the reason. But if we assume that relations between the PRC and the United States are somehow normalized, the likelihood of installing the PD-35 on a new "joint" aircraft will still be very low. Or we will face another danger - by blackmailing Russia with its readiness to work with the West, Beijing will begin to press Moscow to transfer PD-35 technologies and localize its production in China. There will be many reasons, and among Russian officials there will certainly be many who like to “meet partners halfway”, because we like to “optimize” everything so much.
Probably, this scenario can be called the most dangerous for Russia. And if Moscow accepts it, then Beijing will only have to localize the production of composite wings, which, with all the technical documentation and access to Western technologies (and it will be, if relations between the PRC and the United States become warmer), will not be a special problem. That is, in this case, Beijing is playing a completely win-win game: if relations with the West finally deteriorate, it will have a very good plane that can completely cover the needs of the domestic aviation market, and there will be something left for export, and if a "thaw" follows, you can will completely localize production in China, get the most modern technologies in the field of civil aircraft construction and leave Moscow with a pile of technical documentation and "a sense of deep satisfaction".
True, Russia also has a fallback. It bears the designation Il-96-400 and, under certain circumstances, can sweeten us the pill of another "swindle". The option, in general, is not so bad, and maybe even very good, but only under certain conditions.
Let me remind you that the Il-96 aircraft was developed back in the late 80s - early 90s. In principle, there is nothing terrible in this: the aerodynamic schemes have not changed much since then, the airframe of the car in all subsequent modifications has hardly undergone changes (although it was periodically lengthened and shortened), the latest developments in the field of our civil aircraft industry hint that we we can carry it out. The problem with this aircraft from the very beginning was one - the engines. It just so happened that first the Soviet, and then the Russian aircraft engine building was, as if to put it mildly ... oh, yes, "not very." And if in the military sphere, where power has always been a key parameter, it was still possible to turn a blind eye to the gluttony, small resource and poor performance of our aircraft engines, then in the civilian, where these characteristics were one of the key ones, our aircraft industry was expecting a fiasco as soon as it was the domestic aviation market is open.
Only 31 aircraft were built on the basis of the Il-96. Most of them have been taken out of service or are in storage, and at the moment, only 14 aircraft fly. Of these, 11 are in operation by the Special Flight Squad "Russia", moreover, 4 of them are in the IL-96-300PU modification (Control Center, or, in common parlance, "Presidential Board"). And 3 more are operated in Cuba, including, as you might guess, and as "Plane No. 1", that is, the official plane of the first person of the state.
During the operation of the Il-96 in all its guises, not a single accident has happened with the plane, resulting in human casualties. And even though the total flight time of these aircraft is much less than that of the Boeing-767, for example, it can still be stated that the aircraft turned out to be reliable. Reliability and excellent aerodynamic quality are two key parameters in demand in modern civil aviation. That is, if we raise fuel efficiency and operating costs to modern standards, we can get an aircraft that fully meets all modern requirements.
The probable appearance of the PD-35 engine is precisely designed to solve this problem. Moreover, the new version in this case can be made two-engine, which promises not only an additional gain in fuel efficiency due to better aerodynamics, but also the possibility of creating a new wing - lighter and more aerodynamically "clean". Probably, this is not obvious to everyone, so a small explanation - two "extra" engines are not only the worst aerodynamics, but also additional fuel lines, electrics, power elements. Due to the fact that the center of mass of the wing is displaced further from the fuselage, the loads on it are differently distributed, which leads to a heavier weight due to higher strength requirements. Two engines, albeit much more powerful and heavy, make it possible to get rid of the listed disadvantages, making the car both lighter and, paradoxically, more reliable - yes, there are only two engines, but there are much fewer auxiliary mechanisms, which also sometimes become the causes of malfunctions and even accidents.
That is, if we do not rely on the kindness of our Chinese comrades, and continue to work on modern versions of the "old man" Il-96, Russia will be insured against very bad scenarios. Whether Beijing and Washington make up, or they quarrel altogether, we will always have a backup option that will perfectly fit for the role of the main one. Moreover, under certain circumstances it will be a good lever of pressure on Beijing. Which, as practice shows, is very useful in international relations, even the most cloudless ones.
And the IL-96 is simply beautiful. According to the author's subjective assessment, this is the most beautiful wide-body airliner in the world. And the more beautiful the plane, the better it flies. In addition, its predecessor, the Il-86, was distinguished by the highest reliability - for many years, with rather active operation, it also did not know catastrophes with human casualties. The resumption of production and operation in Russia (and then, possibly, and beyond its borders) of the aircraft, created on the basis of the Il-96, would be a completely logical result of the "restart" of the Russian civil aviation industry, along with the creation and serial production of the Sokhoi Superjet 100 and MS -21. And the Sino-Russian project, which with a 90% probability will become purely Chinese in the foreseeable future, can and should be perceived, nevertheless, as a useful but risky experience.
The main thing is not to transfer PD-35 production technologies to Beijing. Otherwise, the Chinese who have gained momentum will survive us from their own market...