On the Shoulders of Giants: How the Lessons of the Shanghai Y-10 are Shaping COMAC’s Future

As China’s independently developed commercial airliner program continues to progress, so too does the discussion within the aviation community and mainstream media surrounding its products.  A common reaction to any industry newcomer is to analyze the situation and figure out how it fits into the current environment. One reliable way of doing this is by taking a look at history, and in doing so one could easily be led to classify the ARJ21 or even the C919 as “China’s first large passenger aircraft”, however, this is far from the truth. Decades before the ARJ21 took to the skies, China designed, built and flew a large passenger aircraft known as the Y-10. The unusual story of the Y-10 has a lot to offer in terms of modern insight into China’s current passenger aircraft endeavors. Its history provides many lessons that influence COMAC’s current projects. Moreover, the way the memory of the Y-10 has been treated has changed over time, reflecting changing attitudes and revealing the philosophy of COMAC going forward.

The development of the Shanghai Y-10 began in August 1970, when the National Planning Commission of the PRC approved a report outlining the production of a large passenger aircraft in Shanghai.  After a decade of meticulous designing and testing, and following 166 ground experiments, the first complete example was produced. Two bodies were built, with serial number 01 reserved for ground testing and number 02 for flight testing. What resulted was a 4-engined, medium-sized jetliner with a maximum takeoff weight of 110,227 kg or 242,500 lbs., capacity for up to 178 passengers, and a range of up to 5,160 miles.  In many ways, the Y-10 was an innovative design in commercial aircraft manufacturing. For example, it utilized “peaky” airfoils in the design of its wings to allow for better high speed handling and aerodynamic efficiency, a unique method of moving control surfaces in which they were brought into motion by moving tabs, and underwent the largest full scale testing of its hydraulic, fuel, and electrical systems for the time, using modern computer technology.

The program pressed on and the first prototype completed its maiden flight on September 26, 1980. In the years that followed, the Y-10 would undergo a wide variety of flight tests. On December 8, 1981, the Y-10 completed its first cross-country flight, travelling from its production base in Shanghai to the capital in Beijing where it provided an aerial demonstration for a crowd of over 8,000 people before returning to Shanghai. In the years following, the flight model would tour the northeastern city of Harbin, as well as Urumqi in the western Xinjiang province, Guangzhou, Kunming, and finally the city of Lhasa, located 11,614 feet above sea level. These formative years seemed to promise a bright future for the project, not only as a successful transport aircraft, but also as a widely heralded symbol of Chinese technological aptitude.

The Y-10 parked at Lhasa Gonggar Airport During its Aid Mission in 1984

However, in 1984, the Y-10 program was abruptly halted and the only two existing aircraft were unceremoniously put into retirement. This action left the Y-10 program shrouded in mystery and gave birth to theories claiming that the retirement of the Y-10 program was due to political influence, when in fact its cancellation was a result of market pressures. Although the Y-10 was a technically impressive aircraft, it was still a generation behind the newer western aircraft being introduced to China during the Reform and Opening-Up Period.  With four engines and a 5-man flight crew, the Y-10 was unable to compete economically with the two engines and two-man flight crews offered by western aircraft, and thus struggled to secure any orders. By this point, the writing was on the wall and the project was cancelled.

Three decades later, the Chinese aviation industry has undergone significant change. COMAC’s ARJ21 has already entered service, the next-generation C919 is undergoing flight tests, and the wide-body CR929 is being developed at a steady pace. While these projects seem far detached from their predecessor, upon closer inspection, the lessons learned from the Y-10 are apparent in each one. First, COMAC  began operations with the understanding that it must provide a competitive product to its customers. To do this, COMAC adopted a new strategy combining indigenous Chinese design with high-tech components sourced from renowned suppliers abroad. This time around, the goal is not simply to prove to the world that China can build its own jetliner. Rather, COMAC wants to offer aircraft that are economically and technologically competitive with other aircraft around the world. Moreover, the company has welcomed input and consultation from experts around the globe. Thus, by taking a more globalized approach to aircraft design, COMAC is avoiding the mistakes that made the Y-10 obsolete. As COMAC works toward the future, its products will continue to become more competitive, with each project deriving knowledge from those that came before. The company has acknowledged, for example, that the C919 is drawing many lessons from the development of its predecessor the ARJ21, which was undoubtedly shaped by lessons from the Y-10.

The Y-10 Displayed at Dachang Airport

With this in mind, the technical legacy left behind by the Y-10 is obvious on COMAC’s aircraft. However, as the first Chinese passenger aircraft the Y-10 also holds significant symbolic value. Examining how COMAC has treated the memory of the Y-10 provides some insight on the development of the company’s overall philosophy. When the Y-10 program was cancelled in 1984, it was abrupt, and without fanfare.  One of the test aircraft was displayed in an inconspicuous location in Dachang, where it would eventually fall into a state of disrepair. This action suggests that the sentiment surrounding this historical aircraft was, at the time, less than favorable and something perhaps to be forgotten rather than celebrated.

However, recent years have demonstrated a dramatic shift in the mindset towards the Y-10.  The formally derelict Y-10 displayed at Dachang received a renovation and fresh coat of paint after a statue was erected in front of it displaying the words “never give up” in Chinese and English. Even more recently, the Y-10 was disassembled, placed on a truck, and moved to a new location closer to COMAC’s headquarters in Pudong. There, a re-reveal ceremony was held by COMAC executives to honor the aircraft and those who worked on it. This time, in addition to Chinese and English, the statue read “never give up” in Russian as well.

The Y-10 is Transported to its New Home in Pudong

The change in sentiment and reverence towards the Y-10’s memory over the years is striking.  It is reflective of both a nation’s determination to accomplish a dream, and the evolution of COMAC’s company culture of learning from the past in order to flourish in the future.

With its new location, a place of honor bestowed by the company that inherited the mission of its designers, the Y-10 has received a completely new role as a proud reminder of the past and an ambassador of hope and promise for the new generation of Chinese aircraft.

The Unveiling of the New Display in Pudong