Has China flown its new turboprop airliner in secret? The answer is anything but clear.
Details on the new Chinese aircraft’s progress have been scarce since the start of the pandemic. On October 7, a single image of the Xian MA700, China’s all new 70-seat turboprop aircraft, surfaced on Western social media, traced to a 2-minute and 27-second video clip that had been previously undiscovered outside of China. The video, posted to Chinese social video site Bilibili on April 21, 2021, shows the aircraft on a test stand in simulated driving rain. Notably missing from the aircraft in the video are its two Pratt & Whitney Canada PW150C engines, which are caught in limbo as Global Affairs Canada has denied an export license.
Yet, over the past week, chatter across a cadre of Chinese aviation watchers and social media postings inside China suggested that the prototype MA700 had made its maiden flight around Sept. 23 or 24 from the Aviation Industry Corporation of China’s (Avic) manufacturing plant at Yanliang Air Base in Xian, where China produces many of its military aircraft. The new April 2021 footage was the first public appearance of any MA700 progress since March 2020 when Avic and Xian rolled-out the first static test airframe. Chinese state media had reported in early 2020 that MA700 was slated to fly before the end of that year.
Regardless, the opaqueness in itself is an important signal in an industry that has long prided itself on its public openness for major milestones like first flights. In May 2017, Comac had live footage from the cockpit as the first C919 got airborne — China’s direct competitor to Boeing’s 737 and Airbus A320 — a mere four years later all we have are rumors about the status of the MA700.
While the Comac C919 has received much of the global attention with the competition with the jetliner duopoly, the MA700 turboprop may end up being a more influential economic tool for China around the world.
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