Behold! China’s rip-off… err… I mean, replica of the mighty Boeing 707, the Shanghai Y-10, the country’s first and, for a while, only commercial jet airliner, which ended being a long forgotten relic of the communist system.
Communist China, until recently, has never truly had an aviation industry, at least, not in the same respects as many other nations. Many of their constructs during the dark days of the Cold War were license built versions of Soviet models, such as the Xian H-6 bomber, the nation’s first jet powered aircraft that was a rebuild of the Tupolev Tu-16. The H-6, which flew in 1959, was also the largest aircraft China had built to that date, but was compromised by the fact that it wasn’t fitted with the same powerful Mikulin AM-3 M-500 turbojets, which made it sluggish and its performance damp. This was replicated in their fighter jet designs, which again took Soviet models which, by that time, were coming up on 10 to 15 years old and just giving them a few stylistic changes.
The main issue that the Chinese aviation industry faced was that due to the destruction reaped by the Japanese during their occupation in World War II, followed by years of bitter civil conflict during the rise of the communist party under Chairman Mao, they simply didn’t have the established craftsmen, tools and engineers that could help to design suitable aircraft. Civil aviation suffered especially due to this as the nation’s formative years were steeped in rapid military expansion with construction being solely based on license built fighters and bombers from the Soviet Union.
In 1959, the aviation world was changed forever with the launch of Boeing’s 707, a
narrow-body, four-engine jet airliner that became the face of the modern commercial aircraft. While the concept of jet airliners had been pioneered by the de Havilland Comet in 1949, the 707 perfected it, and thus took the world by storm with hundreds of these aircraft being sold during its lengthy production life. Chinese national carrier CAAC, in spite of bitter relations between China and the USA, even bought itself a few examples and operated them extensively on both regional and international operations, the reliability and efficiency of these aircraft proving themselves in spades over the Soviet equivalents.
While the rest of the world’s aviation manufacturers considered aircraft that could combat the 707, China too were eager to get in on this action…
…a mere 11 years later.
Yep, China’s attempt to build their own equivalent of the Boeing 707 wouldn’t surface until August 1970, during which time aviation technology and design had moved on substantially. The Shanghai Aircraft Research Institute officially unveiled the project in 1970, but had most likely been considering the idea of a narrow-bodied, four-engine jet airliner throughout the previous decade.
However, the start of the project was mired in political division and turmoil, largely caused by the isolationist faction of the Chinese government, the Gang of Four. The Gang of Four was formed by the Chairman Mao during what was known as the Cultural Revolution of 1966, the goal of which was to restore and preserve the true communist ideal by purging the nation of all remaining capitalist remnants. The Gang of Four believed that China should remain in an isolationist stance and should not rely on Western built products such as the Boeing 707. Though Chairman Mao had orchestrated the Cultural Revolution, even he could notice that China couldn’t exist without international assistance, which created a rift between himself and many isolationist factions of the government, culminating in the visit of US President Richard Nixon in 1972.
The Shanghai Y-10, as it was later named, is very similar to the Boeing 707 visually, but they are by no means identical. The main issues regarding the differences between the 707 and the Y-10 are due to its size. The Y-10’s length and profile fit more the dimensions of the short-range Boeing 720, while external appearances, which, at a glance, may make the Y-10 look like a carbon copy of the 707, are more likely derived from the Tu-154. The underlying design cues, however, are straight from the 707, specifically a PIA 707 which crashed in Hetian, Xinjiang, in 1970. Chinese engineers gathered the remains of the largely intact but written-off airliner and reverse engineered it to their needs.
The aircraft was originally to be powered by Shanghai WS-8 engines, an upcoming
turbojet design that would produce 18,000lbf thrust each, but this project overran and was eventually cancelled. Instead, the Shanghai company cannibalised a set of ex-CAAC Boeing 707’s and used their Pratt & Whitney JT3D-7 powerplants. The JT3D-7’s provided an individual 21,000lbf thrust, and could propel the aircraft to a cruising altitude of 39,000ft and a top speed of 399mph. The aircraft’s range was 5,188 miles, and the fuselage design meant it could carry a total of 178 passengers. These figures, unfortunately, do not stand up well against the Boeing 707-300 off which it is largely based, which could carry 189 passengers and fly at 610mph.
While the Y-10 could outdo the 707-300 in range, let’s not forget that the design was coming up on 25 years old. Essentially, the first Boeing 707 took the skies in 1954, while the first Y-10 made its first flight on September 26th, 1980. During this period, a myriad of advanced jet airliners had come and gone. While China’s first commercial jet airliner was essentially a 1950’s 707 dressed up in different clothes, the rest of the world was routinely using much younger and better performing airliners including the Boeing 747, the Lockheed Tristar and, to a point, the Douglas DC-10. In fact, by the time the Y-10 did take to the air, most Boeing 707’s had been retired from mainline service. Another major issue was the fact that the aircraft required 5 crew members to operate it; pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, navigator, and radio operator, while the 707 only required 3; pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer.
However, a commonly held belief is that the Y-10 was meant to be a world-beating mass-produced aircraft, this rumour is far from the truth. The Y-10 was a proof-of-concept more than anything else, a test to see whether or not the Chinese nation could build a
large commercial airliner with the possibility of creating a followup airliner for mass production based on the experience gathered in this project. Eventually, 3 of these aircraft were produced and following its first flight in 1980 the aircraft was taken on a tour of China to display its brilliance to the ‘eager’ people of this communist realm. In truth though the Y-10 barely did any flying, only clocking up 130 flights and 170 hours flying time before the project was scrapped and all aircraft retired in 1984. Though considerations were made for an AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) variant, complete with a large, roof-mounted dish which resembled the equivalent Boeing E-3 Sentry, all development based on the Y-10 platform was ceased, especially following the introduction of the Trunkliner project in collaboration with McDonnell Douglas which was to see a fleet of MD-80’s and MD-90’s built in China by the Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Company in the same factory as where the Y-10 was constructed.
Today, only one Y-10 has been preserved and now resides at Shanghai Dachang Airbase, home to a small aviation museum. As for the manufacture of commercial airliners in China, this wouldn’t return to the forefront of aviation news until the launch of the Comac ARJ21, which first flew in 2008 and, through its external appearance alone, owes much to the Trunkliner project due to its resemblance to the DC-9.
So, could the Y-10 have succeeded if a little more time and development had been put into it?
In short, probably not.
The main issue regarding the Y-10 came down to the fact that the aircraft was 25 years
out of date. The aircraft, in spite of its technical and stylistic differences, was still essentially another Boeing 707, an aircraft which, by 1980, was long past its first bloom of youth and on the road to retirement. Equivalent airliners, such as the then upcoming Boeing 757, were much more advanced in terms of their design, their technology and their flight capabilities. The problem is that the Chinese aviation industry was never able to expand on its ability to create commercial airliners because of constant turmoil within the central government, with no one really knowing what they wanted to build or willing to invest in it. This was compounded by the fact that when they needed to fill in any gaps, the technology and advice they received came from another dilapidated, bankrupt communist nation, the Soviet Union. If the Y-10, or a direct descendent of it, did enter commercial service, it would’ve ended up like most Soviet airliners did, only working within China, and maybe a few sold on to North Korea and the USSR. However, given that China was much more willing to accept western aviation designs, like the Boeing 747, than the USSR was, chances are its commercial life would’ve been very short.