The four-engine jet-powered Y-20 is China’s first indigenous large transport aircraft, comparable in size and performance to the Russian Ilyushin Il-76 and Boeing C-17 Globemaster III.
- Type: Jet transport
- Designer: AVIC 1st Aircraft Design Academy; Antonov ASTC
- Manufacturer: AVIC Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation (XAC)
- First flight: 26 January 2013
- Introduction: 6 July 2016
- Operators: PLA Air Force
- Crew: 3—4
- In-flight refuelling: No.
The PLAAF acquired 14 examples of the Russian Il-76MD transport aircraft in the 1990s to provide its first strategic transport capability. However, attempts to purchase additional airframes suffered a major setback in 2006, when the deal to buy 34 Il-76MD military transports and 4 Il-78M aerial refuelling tankers from Russian and Uzbek collapsed. As a result, China approached Antonov Aeronautical Scientific-Technical Complex (Antonov ASTC) for assistance to develop a new large military transport.
Antonov ASTC signed a cooperative agreement back in 2000 with Aviation Industry Corporation of China II (AVIC II, now AVIC) to upgrade Chinese transport aircraft. The company initially promoted its propfan-powered An-70 military transport, but the offered was rejected by the PLA. The aircraft could only carry 47 tonnes of cargo, while the combat weight of the ZTZ99 main battle tank was nearly 48 tonnes, raising to nearly 50 tonnes after addition of extra fuel tanks and reactive explosive armour. In addition, the PLA was not unsatisfied with the aircraft’s limited range (1,350 km with maximum payload) and highly unreliable D-27 propfan engine.
The Chinese side requested the new transport aircraft to be powered by the tried and tested Russian D-30KP-2 engine used on the Il-76MD. The Chinese aviation industry was already in the process of reverse-engineering under the designation WS-18. Antonov ASTC agreed to accommodate the request, and set up a VTL (Heavy Transport Aircraft) working group in early 2007 to start developing a transport based on its An-77 design, which was essentially a jet-powered An-70. The An-77 was originally to be powered by four CFM56-5A16 bypass turbofans, which the Chinese aviation industry was trying to copy under the project designated WS-20. However, this was replaced by four D-30KP-2 turbofans.
The airframe of the An-77 was stretched by 2 metres to increase its internal volume. The take-off weight of the aircraft was also increased from 132 tonnes to 187 tonnes, and its maximum payload went up from 47 to 50 tonnes. The design work on the new transport, codenamed Y-XX, continued for three years. The aircraft was later officially designated Y-20.
However, by 2010 it became clear that the original design based on the An-77 could no longer meet the PLA requirements, with the introduction of the 58-tonne ZTZ99A2 main battle tank into its service. As a result, Antonov ASTC switched the design to an entirely different underlying design, the An-170, which was first developed in the late 1980s to early 1990s in bid for the Russian Air Force’s contract for a successor to the Il-76. The An-170 is much larger and heavier than the An-70, with a take-off weight of 230 tonnes and a maximum payload of 60 tonnes. This design was accepted by the PLA, which eventually led to the maiden flight of the Y-20 in January 2013. The first two production examples, designated Y-20A, were delivered to the PLAAF in July 2016.
The Y-20 and other projects (e.g. Xi’an H-6K strategic bomber) also kept the production of the 30-year-old D-30KP engine going. China first signed a contract with Rosoboronexport in April 2009 for the delivery of 55 D-30KP-2 engines in five batches by 2012. This was followed by an even larger order for 184 new D-30KM-2 engines in late 2011, to be delivered over four years.
The Y-20 features a high-wing, four-engine, T-tailed layout, similar to the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III though slightly smaller in size. The max payload of the aircraft was said to be around 60—65 tonnes, and the max take-off weight 220 tonnes. The main landing gears consist of two six-wheel undercarriages, allowing the aircraft to operate from unpaved airfields. The fuselage of the Y-20 is shorter and bulkier than that of the Il-76MD, making it more suitable to carry heavy equipment such as main battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, heavy artillery, and missile TEL vehicles inside its cargo bay.
The Y-20 is expected to have been incorporated with some off-the-shelf commercial airline technologies. It features a glass cockpit with head-up displays (HDU) for the pilots. The aircraft may also be fitted with electronic warfare and countermeasures (EW/ECM) suite consisting jammers and flare dispensers for self-defence.
The aircraft is powered by four D-30KP-2 turbofans, each rated at 118 kN (12,000 kgf). The Chinese aviation industry is developing a reverse-engineered copy of the engine, designated WS-18, which is expected to be installed on future productions of the Y-20A. A more powerful WS-20 engine with a thrust of 157 kN (16,000 kgf) is also in development, and has been spotted undergoing testing onboard a Y-20A prototype.
Length (m): 49. Wingspan (m): 50. Wing surface (m2): 310. Height (m): 15. Empty weight (t): 100. Maximum payload (tonne): 60—65. Maximum speed (km/h): 750—800. Service ceiling (m): 13,000. Range (km): (with maximum payload) 4,400.