February 21, 2013: The new Chinese jet transport the Y-20, flew for the first time on January 26th. For the first time China has developed a large jet military transport. The Y-20 aircraft is similar to the American C-17 and appears to have a max weight of 220 tons and a max payload of 80 tons. The Y-20 will likely include many characteristics of the 195 ton Il-76, a Russian heavy transport that can carry up to 50 tons and that the Chinese have been using for decades.
The two existing Y-20 prototypes had been undergoing ground taxi tests two weeks before the first flight. China has since revealed that it had developed composite materials for many components of the Y-20. These strong and lightweight materials were formerly only available from Western suppliers. China expects most of the Y-20 components to come from China. While the engines are Russian made, these will eventually be replaced by Chinese made ones.
The American C-17 entered service 17 years ago, two years after its first flight, and each one has a useful life of 30,000 flight hours. China has yet to reveal similar performance data for the Y-20. The 290 ton C-17 can carry up to 100 tons (including one M-1 tank) anywhere in the world because of in-air refueling. The C-17 costs about $250 million each. Britain, with eight, is the largest foreign user of the C-17. Australia and the UAE each have six, while Canada and Qatar each have four. India has ordered ten. The U.S. Air Force operates 203. China does not need that many Y-20s, but it does want to get away from depending on Russia for heavy transports. Dealing with Russia can be difficult.
For example, last year China revived, in part, a 2005 deal to buy Il-76 transports from Russia. The new arrangement only involved China buying ten refurbished Il-76s. Back in 2005, China placed a $1.5 billion order for 38 Il-76 transport planes and Il-78s (tanker versions of the Il-76). A year later China cancelled the deal when Russia tried to up the price 27 percent. China went looking elsewhere, including urging its domestic aircraft manufacturers to come up with something. That process eventually led to the Y-20, but in the meantime China needs some more jet powered military transports. At this point it appears that China will not be buying a lot of Il-76s and by the end of the decade will be using Y-20s and competing with the Il-76 and C-17 for export sales.