China's first large military transport aircraft, the Y-20, which successfully made its maiden flight on Saturday, will significantly boost the country's capabilities in national defense, rescue work and humanitarian aid and eventually end Beijing's dependence on similar Russian planes, experts say.
Showing video footage of its maiden flight, China Central Television (CCTV) said Saturday that large transport aircraft are an indispensable asset for a strategic air force, citing the crucial role played by large transport aircraft operated by the US played in the Gulf war.
The Y-20 took off at about 2 pm in Yanliang, Shaanxi Province, and landed one hour later, making China the fourth country after the US, Russia and Ukraine to independently develop a 200-ton class transport aircraft, the Hong Kong-based Wen Wei Po said.
According to people.com.cn, the 47-meter-long, 45-meter-wide (including wingspan) aircraft has a maximum take-off weight of 220 tons and maximum payload of 66 tons. In comparison, the US C-17 and the Russian IL-76, the world's two mainstream large transport aircraft, can carry payloads of about 77 and 40 tons respectively.
China's air force needs at least 100 large transport aircraft of the Y-20 class to enhance its global power projection ability, said military expert.
Another 90 are expected to be modified into tanker aircraft, electronic warfare aircraft and early warning and control aircraft and to supplement the air force's current Russian-made IL-76 fleet, the Wen Wei Po said.
The US air force has more than 200 C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.
"China's aerial strategic delivery capability depends heavily on imported IL-76, which number is limited. If the Y-20 program goes well, it will lessen and eventually end this dependence," Daniel Tong, a defense observer and the founder of the well-known website Chinese Military Aviation, told the Global Times.
The 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan Province exposed the lack of capability of China's air force in providing large scale emergency aid, requiring Beijing to accept foreign aid, including assistance from two C-17 aircraft from the US, the US Joint Force Quarterly reported.
"Compared to fighter jets, transport aircraft do not require high maneuverability and combat capability. The Y-20's test flight scheme is relatively simple." Bai Wei, former vice editor-in-chief of the Aviation World Monthly and a Chinese aviation observer, told the Global Times, adding that the Y-20 might be delivered in four years or sooner, as the aviation industry has extensively studied the aircraft's core technologies even before the program was officially initiated in 2007.
The Chinese designers have studied other transport aircraft and put emphasis on the expanding cargo space to ensure the Y-20 could carry large items such as tanks, he said.
The engines of the aircraft tested on Saturday appeared to be from Russia, though a domestic engine is being developed. The Y-20 has four engines, making it easy to replace one or two of them with Chinese engines without compromising safety during engine tests, Bai said, suggesting that the maximum payload of 66 tons might only be achieved when the aircraft is fitted with four domestic engines with greater thrust.