Written by George Colclough
The Chinese aviation industry has expanded significantly in recent years, in terms of both quality and quantity: The Comac C919, a twin engined narrow-body designed to compete with the Boeing 737 has 305 firm orders, and entered service with China Eastern Airlines in 2021. The Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation has been successfully marketing Turboprop airliners since the turn of the millenium, with 110 MA60’s having been delivered, and over 600 MA60’s and MA600’s currently ordered. The Comac ARJ21 regional jet has been serving Chengdu Airlines well since 2016.
Certainly, the contemporary Chinese aviation industry is significantly advanced and developed than many of us in the west would first imagine. What’s more, with the Chinese Communist Party always keen to encourage domestic production of goods wherever possible, and Russia recently having been cut off from spare parts and technical support from overseas manufacturers, it may not be long until the long impenetrable duopoly of the former Boeing and Airbus, becomes a triopoly with Comac filling the third seat.
This promising and well deserved potential was not always the case in the Chinese aviation industry however, and with military aviation production taking priority in Mao’s China historically China only ever produced one indigenous civil airliner, the Shanghai Y-10. Ultimately, the Shanghai Y-10 would be a failure, never passing the prototype stage and Chinese airlines would remain dependent upon imported European and American airliners for decades to come. As a symbol however, the Shanghai Y-10 was fantastically important, and served as an icon of an increasingly advanced, and rapidly growing China.
The Shanghai Y-10 was a four engined commercial airliner developed by the Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Factory (now the Shanghai Aviation Industrial Company). Its designation stands for Yunshuji (transport) 10. The Y-10 carried 178 passengers in a high-density layout, 149 in an all economy layout, or 124 in a mixed class layout. The flight deck had five positions: a pilot, co-pilot, navigator, flight engineer, and a radio operator. The Y-10 specifications demanded an airliner with a range of 7,000 kilometers, to be able to fly non-stop from Beijing to Tirana, as in this period Mao’s China had very warm relations with Hoxha’s Albania.
The Genesis of the Shanghai Y-10 began with Wang Hongwen, a senior figure within the Chinese Communist Party who had a dual interest in both expanding China’s civil aviation industry, and traditional Maoist isolationist economics. With his support the National Planning Commission and the Military Commission of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China approved in principle the Report on the Transport Trial Production in Shanghai on August 21st 1970. The project was then handed to the Civil Aviation Administration of China as Project 708. The following two years were spent in debilitation as decisions were made about what shape the aircraft should take, and on June 27th 1973 the State Council and Central Committee of the Communist Party finally approved a proposition to develop a large four engined airliner and development began in earnest in Shanghai. As a result of the government officials involved in the project, at this point the development became a co-operative effort between the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the Shanghai Municipal Government, and the National Planning Commission.
During this early design period the Y-10 was being produced by an exceptionally small team, and the Civil Aviation Administration of China had only 300 people working on Project 708. This number swelled to 800 by 1973, when the project and its staff were assigned to the newly established Aircraft Design Institute under director Ma Fengshan, which itself was later renamed the Shanghai Aircraft Design and Research Institute in 1978.
The blueprints and technical drawings of the Y-10 were completed in June 1975, and following the approval of the National Planning Commission production on the first prototype immediately began at the Shanghai Aircraft Factory. Static testing began on a skeletonised and stripped airframe in September 1976, which was followed by an airframe destructive test on an 80% completed airframe on November 23rd 1978. In this period a wing stress test was also performed, in which the wings met 100.02% of the then Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) standard before failure.
The first airframe never flew, and remained grounded to be used in further static testing, including 1,400 hours of wind tunnel testing. The second Y-10 was completed and submitted for flight testing in 1980. The first flight occurred on September 26th 1980, flown by Captain Wang Jinda. This airframe went on to perform a relay around China, with a cohort of officials onboard to test flight characteristics, handling, and passenger comfort. This Y-10 is recorded as having flown to Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hardbin, Hefei, Kunming, Lhasa, and Urumqi. Notable flights include an endurance flight that lasted 4hrs 49mins, a distance test of 2,236 miles (3,600 km), and a flight over the peak of Mount Everest. This airframe carried out 130 flights before it was retired only 3 years later in 1983. The third and final airframe also never flew, and was reserved for fatigue testing.
The Y-10 had consistent problems with its engines throughout its design life. Initially designers attempted to copy the Rolls Royce Spey engine, but could not produce a sufficiently powerful or reliable engine due to the lack of sufficiently expertised engineers. They then went on to attempt to copy the Pratt & Whitney JT3D, at this point engineers were significantly more optimistic about their prospects as the Y-10 had grown to become a herculean national project with more than 5 million Yuan’s worth of labour, facilities, and capital invested into it. Once again however, the lack of Chinese expertise in this period proved fatal, the copied JT3D engines (dubbed WS-8’s) developed serious oil leaks that could not be fixed by the engineers, so these engines were abandoned. Initially this reverse engineering of the JT3D used engines recovered from a crashed Pakistan International Airlines 707-340 that crashed in Urumqi on December 19th 1971. In 1972 however, after a visit from American President Richard Nixon, and the beginning of a period of cooling off of Sino-American relations, China was allowed to purchase 10 Boeing 707’s, which began to be delivered in 1973. From this period on these engines were simply used to reverse engineer. After still having no luck in producing a functional, indiginous jet engine however, new JT3D’s were simply imported from America and used on the Y-10.
The wings of the Y-10 were copied from a Hawker Siddeley Trident. Initially engineers attempted to copy the wings of the Boeing 707 from photographs, then as seen with their attempts to copy the Pratt & Whitney JT3D then attempted to reverse engineer the wings from fragments recovered from the Urumqi crash of 1971, before finally moving onto copy them outright from the Boeing 707’s purchased in 1972. This then took a significant deviation from the 707 playbook from which the Y-10 was designed, and instead reverse engineered wings from a Trident purchased in 1975 were incorporated. Sadly, the rationale behind this choice remains unclear, as it is not explained in any surviving testimony. It does, however, serve as an interesting rebuttal to the notion that the Y-10 was simply a reverse engineered 707.
The problem of quality engineers previously discussed was caused primarily by the brain drain caused by Mao’s dogmatic marxist ideology. In 1957 Mao launched the Hundred Schools of Thought campaign, intended to create a greater understanding of China’s economic problems by allowing a limited critique of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) economic policy, and rally the intellectual class behind Mao as the person to fix them. This did not happen, and instead Mao, the CCP, and Marxism itself were highlighted as the factors perceived to be holding back the growth and development of an advanced China. Just under a million intellectuals were arrested and relocated to rural penal camps as forced labourers in a resulting purge. This caused a significant brain drain both in the short and long term, as in addition to the immediate loss of intellectuals, Chinese students were discouraged from entering the fields Mao clamped down on. This was of course even further compounded by the well documented destruction unleashed on China’s intellectuals by the Cultural Revolution. Naturally, this had a significant impact upon the development of Y-10, in manners already highlighted.
In addition to a lack of skilled engineers, the emphasis on domestic, indigenous production also caused development problems for the Y-10. Chinese engineers attempted to replicate western manufacturing techniques from the resources available to them, and these efforts simply were not successful. For example, the production of the Y-10 to the desired standard required the use of 2.2 metre sheets of an advanced aluminium alloy; Chinese industry in this period could only produce 0.8 metre sheets. The Chinese alloy was also much thicker than its western equivalents causing the Y-10 to weigh 128,133lb (58,120kg) empty compared to 122,533lb (55,580kg) for an empty Boeing 707-120, it was consequently also extremely fuel inefficient.
The Y-10 was cancelled in 1985. Like most aerospace project cancellations, the termination of the Y-10 is multifaceted. State documents from the period mostly blame the Civil Aviation Administration of China. In the 1980’s, under the new leadership of Deng Xiaoping this body had the power to procure and distribute aircraft to China’s various state airlines, and in 1981 made a statement proclaiming it had absolutely no intention to buy the Y-10. This in itself was the death of the Y-10, as what foreign customer was going to buy this very flawed aircraft? The Civil Aviation Administration of China claimed it already had a sufficient inventory, and did not need to procure new aircraft for the foreseeable future. This however was clearly bureaucratic politeness, as from 1981-1985 the Civil Aviation Administration of China purchased many aircraft from Boeing, including 10 Boeing 737’s in December 1982. In later interviews with historians, senior figures from the Civil Aviation Administration of China went to admit that they believed the Y-10 to be an unsafe aircraft, and refused to order it for this reason. They believed this primarily due to the lack of sufficient testing of the Y-10, and to a general perception that all aircraft to emerge from China in this period were dangerously unsafe.
Politics also helped to kill the Y-10. Deng Xiaoping, the new premier of China after Mao’s death in 1976 was a victim of the Cultural Revolution purges, and behind closed doors within his cabinet the Cultural Revolution and projects tied to them were regarded with disdain, if not outright hatred. The Y-10 was still the pet project of Wang Hongwen, who even after Mao’s death remained a true believer, and advocate of the Cultural Revolution. In a bureaucracy scrambling to distance itself from the Cultural Revolution, Wang, and by extension the Y-10 were political poison. No government officials attended the launch ceremony of the Y-10, or any other formal occasion related to it.
The Y-10 ultimately had a far greater legacy as a political icon than it ever had as a practical, useful airliner. In recent years the legacy of the Y-10 has been recrafted from a shameful, embarrassing metaphor for the pit-falls of planned economics into a symbol of nationalistic pride for a China that was casting off the shackles of colonial humiliation and finding its place as a great power. This is best exemplified by a memorial plaque erected to the aircraft at the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China’s Shanghai factory:
“The research and manufacturing of Y10 is a great practice and meaningful exploration in our aviation industry. The spirit of patriotism, selfless dedication of those people in Y10 research & manufacturing encourage all people who work in the aviation industry to strive for the cause courageously and make more achievements in the great journey of building the first class international aviation industry.”
Whatever interpretation of the Y-10’s failure one chooses to take, it remains an exceptionally interesting relic of China’s aviation past. It also begs the question: if within 40 years China has advanced from producing obsolescent airliners such as the Y-10, to modern airliners such as the Comac C919, as the sleeping dragon of China continues to awaken, will it come to pose a threat to the duopoly of Boeing and Airbus?
This article is of course only a fleeting inspection of the fascinating history of the Shanghai Y-10. For those interested further I would recommend Derek A. Levine’s The Dragon’s Clipped Wings: The Chinese State’s Failed Attempt at Developing Y-10 Commercial Aircraft during the Mao Zedong Era published in the American Journal of Chinese Studies, and Chinese Aircraft: History of China’s Aviation Industry 1951-2007 by Yefim Gordon and Dmitrii Komissarov. Mandarin speakers can enjoy a further wealth of information, and I can recommend Aviation Economics Series: Research on the Development of Shanghai’s Civil Aviation Industry by Xiao Gang, Wang Ke, and Jing Zhongliang.