Plateau-operable Z-20 helicopters enter service in PLA Tibet Military Command
Published: Dec 14, 2020 06:25 PM

A Z-20 utility helicopter is on display prior to the 5th China Helicopter Exposition in Tianjin on October 9, 2019. Photo: Xu Luming/GT

China's latest and fully home-manufactured utility helicopter, the Z-20, which is designed to operate in plateau regions, recently made its long-expected first public appearance under the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Tibet Military Command. Analysts said on Monday that the new chopper is likely to be commissioned in large numbers.

Several Z-20s were seen in the background of a video and photos released by the PLA Tibet Military Command on Saturday in a statement on the retirement of a group of special grade aircraft machinists from an Army aviation unit. Z-10 attack helicopters and Mi-17 transport helicopters were also spotted.

This shows for the first time that the Z-20 has entered service with a PLA Tibet Military Command Army aviation unit,, a Shanghai-based news website, reported on Sunday, adding that this unit is only the second PLA Army aviation unit known to the general public that operates the advanced helicopter, with the first being an Army aviation brigade under the 75th Group Army, according to a recent report by China Central Television (CCTV).

The Tibet Military Command statement and the CCTV report both indicate the Z-20 is likely to be commissioned into the PLA in large numbers, a military expert who asked for anonymity told the Global Times on Monday.

China used to rely on Black Hawk helicopters imported from the US for plateau operations because China's own helicopters could not complete tasks there due to low oxygen levels at high altitudes and technical issues involving the helicopters' engines, said the expert, who flew with the Black Hawk in the late 1980s in several missions in Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region.

It soon became impossible to import more US helicopters, and domestically developed ones like the Z-20 were urgently needed for missions like aerial transport, aerial assault and emergency response, the expert said. 

The Global Times learned from the Aviation Industry Corp of China (AVIC), the developer of the Z-20, that the helicopter has domestically made engines powerful enough to operate in high elevation regions, and it was a main development goal to have the Z-20 able to operate in plateau regions.

At the 2019 China Helicopter Development Forum held in North China's Tianjin Municipality, Wang Xibao, chief engineer at AVIC Harbin Aircraft Industry Group, told the Global Times that the craft uses many of the world's most advanced technologies, including active vibration controls, fly-by-wire, low-noise rotor designs and high-performance aerodynamic designs for the rotor.

It is also the first Chinese helicopter to use domestically developed anti-icing and deicing technology for rotors, which makes China the fourth country in the world to possess such technology, CCTV reported in November.

Deng Jinghui, the chief designer at the China Helicopter Research and Development Institute under AVIC, said in the November CCTV report that the Z-20 will be developed into a series and serve in the PLA Army, as well as in the Air Force, the Navy and the People's Armed Police Force, and it may even be exported overseas.

Deng said that he hopes the Z-20 will become the most-delivered type of helicopter in China and remain in service for a long time.