The photo of a Chinese indigenous helicopter in flight test at Harbin Aviation Industry Group (HAIG) was posted on Chinese social media on 23 December.
The helicopter, reportedly designated Z-20 (Zhi-20), bears strong resemblance to the Sikorsky S-70C Blackhawk. The only difference is that the main rotor of the S-70C is four-bladed whereas that of the new Chinese helicopter is five-bladed. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) acquired 24 examples of the S-70C from the United States in the 1980s. Some of these helicopters are still in operational service today. The PLA urgently requires a medium-sized utility helicopter but has not been able to find a suitable candidate. As a result, it was forced to purchase Mi-17 helicopters from Russia as a stopgap.
It is not known whether the Z-20 is associated with the Chinese Medium Helicopter (CMH) programme initiated by HAIG in the late 1990s. AVIC, HAIG’s parent company, signed a US$70-80 million contract with Eurocopter France in May 1997 to develop an appropriate rotor system, including the main and tail rotor hubs and blades, which could be used on both CMH and the Z-10 attack helicopter developed by another Chinese helicopter manufacturer Changhe. In March 1999, Agusta announced that it had signed a US$30 million initial contract with AVIC to develop the gear box and transmission components for the CMH.
At the same time, several Western companies have been competing in providing the CMH with the powerplant. Pratt and Whitney Canada has delivered two of its 1,700hp (1,250kW) PT6C-67C turbo-shafts to China’s Helicopter Research and Development Institute (CHRDI) located at Jingdezhen, Jiangxi Province. However, investigations by federal agencies, United Technologies Corp., the parent company of Pratt and Whitney Canada, was fined $75 million for violating the Arms Export Control Act and making false statements in connection with the illegal export to China of U.S.-origin military software in June 2012. The shortage of a suitable powerplant may force Chinese helicopter manufactures to source the Z-20 powerplant from a domestic design, possibly an improved variant of the Wozhou-6 turbo-shaft (Chinese copy of Turboméca 3C III).
It may take another 5 years or more before the Z-20 is fully tested and ready to enter operational service with the PLA. Once commissioned, the Z-20 will bring a significant leap forward in PLA’s air-mobile capability.