ARJ21 – From Early Challenges to Aviation History

November is a big month for the ARJ21, as it marks the successful completion of the aircraft’s maiden flight, as well as the first delivery to launch customer Chengdu Airlines.  With this in mind, the eleventh month of the year seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the history and growth of China’s first homegrown commercial aircraft. 

The ARJ21 is a historic aircraft for both China and the global aviation community, but the process of getting the ARJ21 program off the ground (ahem…pun intended) was long and full of challenges.  Ultimately however, the team dedicated to the ARJ21 program persevered through a multitude of obstacles to ensure that China’s first born civil aviation child would not just survive, but thrive!

The ARJ21 program officially kicked off in 2002 under the AVIC Commercial Aircraft Company (ACAC), but was later transferred following the formation of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) in 2008.  On November 28, 2008, ARJ21 Aircraft 101 successfully completed its maiden flight, which was an exciting accomplishment in China’s civil aviation effort.  However, as the aircraft moved through the flight test and certification process, the ARJ21 team faced numerous hurdles that delayed the program’s timeline.  Lou Ronghuai, former Director of the ARJ21 project, reflected on one of the hurdles that eventually led to a victory in an interview regarding his time with the program.  Mr. Lou discussed his feelings of nervous anticipation on December 1, 2009 while conducting the first stabilized pitch 2.5g ultimate load static test of the ARJ21, and the subsequent crushing disappointment when the aircraft failed, tapping out at 87 percent. 

While initially devastated by the outcome, Mr. Lou heeded the advice of COMAC’s Chairman at the time, Zhang Qingwei and used this as an opportunity to study the results, learn from the mistakes and create a better, safer aircraft.  Mr. Lou spent the next seven months tirelessly working with the research and design teams, airworthiness experts and project managers to dissect every problem area, study the issues and understand what went wrong, why it went wrong and how to fix it.  

On June 28, 2010, the rework of the aircraft was complete and the ARJ21 was ready for the second test.  At 5:00 pm on June 28th, at the China Flight Test Institute in Yangling District, Xi’an City, Shaanxi Province, China’s first commercial aircraft reached 100% in the maximum load static test!  

While this wouldn’t be the last obstacle for the ARJ21 program, it provided valuable lessons and reinforced the importance of safety over speed.  The program team would carry these lessons forward as they worked to complete the test flight and certification process.  For example, as the specific weather patterns necessary to complete icing tests continued to evaded the test flight team, they conducted careful research and came up with a creative solution to complete the mission: Canada.  With that, in April of 2014, the ARJ21 made its first trip abroad to Windsor, Canada where the proper conditions to execute icing tests and satisfy certification requirements were found over the Great Lakes!  Later that year, on December 30, 2014, all of the hard work, patience, and dedication to the mission paid off when the ARJ21 received its Type Certification from the CAAC.  From that point forward, the ARJ21 program has been full steam ahead!

On November 29, 2015, COMAC delivered the first ARJ21 to launch customer Chengdu Airlines!  This was an incredibly special moment for COMAC and China, as the Middle Kingdom had an official player in the world of commercial aviation.     

Seven months later on June 28, 2016, an ARJ21, operated by Chengdu Airlines took its first commercial service flight. 

A year later on July 9, 2017, the ARJ21 received its production certificate from CAAC opening it up to mass production.  To date, COMAC has delivered 20 aircraft in total with 16 of those going to Chengdu Airlines who has and safely flown over 540,000 customers (and counting!) on an ARJ21 aircraft!

On October 26, 2019 Chengdu Airlines began running the first international route with an ARJ21 between China’s Harbin Taiping International Airport and Vladivostok International Airport in Russia. 

As the ARJ21 program continues to break new ground with Chengdu Airlines, COMAC has made three deliveries to Genghis Khan Airlines (formerly Tianjiao Airlines) who began formal operations with China’s first homegrown aircraft on July 26, 2019.  Genghis Khan is also the first airline to run an entirely domestic fleet!

In August of 2019, the ARJ21 and China’s civil aviation program as a whole enjoyed a significant event as an ARJ21 participated in the second phase of the Beijing Daxing International Airport’s test flight process.  This was the first time a Chinese domestic aircraft participated in test flights for a new airport, but certainly not the last!

On September 12, 2019, COMAC rolled out the very first ARJ21 completed in the newly minted Pudong assembly line.  The final assembly center, situated near Shanghai Pudong International Airport, launched on March 18, 2019 in order to ramp up the production of COMAC’s aircraft.  The Pudong assembly line has the capacity to produce up to 30 aircraft a year, and if necessary can support a second line.

With increased production, additional deliveries, new airline partners and exciting new variants (CBJ!), the upward trajectory of ARJ21 program continues to accelerate!  Using the lessons learned from past challenges, China’s civil aviation program has built a solid and unshakable foundation for an incredibly bright future!