The PLAAF currently relies on two ageing ex-Soviet designs for providing its strategic airlift capability: the jet-powered Il-76MD ‘Candid-B’ and the turboprop-powered Shaanxi Y-8 (Chinese copy of the An-12 ‘Cub’).  The Chinese aviation industry is developing two new indigenous designs: the jet-powered Xi’an Y-20 and the turboprop-powered Shaanxi Y-9. Once commissioned in considerable numbers, these aircraft will significantly improve the PLA’s capability to rapid move troops and equipment to locations beyond the country’s borders.

Xi’an Y-20

The Y-20 is a four-engine jet-powered transport aircraft designed and developed by the 603 Aircraft Design Institute and the Xi’an Aircraft Corporation (XAC). The Russian Antonov Design Bureau also provided some assistance in the aircraft development. The aircraft is in the same class as the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and the Russian Il-76MD. The maiden flight of the aircraft took place on 26 January 2013. At least four prototypes powered by Russian-supplied D-30KP-2 turbofans have been built for flight test and evaluation.

In March 2007, the Chinese government officially approved the long waited plan to develop the country’s own large passenger jets. On 4 April 2007, Hong- Kong-based newspaper Wenweipo disclosed that China’s future large transport jets will include both civil passenger and military transport versions. The passenger jet was to be built in Shanghai and the military transport version at XAC. A photo of a scaled model of the military transport aircraft was circulated on the Chinese Internet in January 2007. No further details were revealed until January 2013, when Chinese state-run media announced the successful taxiing test of the aircraft at the China Flight Test Establishment (CFTE) airfield.

The Y-20 features a high-wing, four-engine, T-tailed layout, similar to the Boeing C-17 though slightly smaller in size. The max payload of the aircraft was said to be around 50-60 tonnes, and the max take-off weight 180-200 tonnes. The main landing gears consist of two six-wheel undercarriages, allowing the aircraft to operate from unpaved airfields. The fuselage of the Y-20 appears to be shorter and bulkier than that of the IL-76, making it possible to carry heavy equipment such as main battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, and heavy artillery inside its cargo bay.

The Y-20 is expected to have been incorporated with some off-the-shelf commercial airline technologies. It features a glass cockpit with head-up displays (HDU) for the pilots. The aircraft may also be fitted with electronic warfare and countermeasures (EW/ECM) suite consisting jammers and flare dispensers for self-defence.

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Ilyushin Il-76MD ‘Candid-B’

The Ilyushin IL-76MD (NATO codename: Candid-B) is the most capable military transport aircraft currently developed by the PLAAF. Between 1990 and 1998, China acquired 14 examples of the Il-76MD from Russia. Carrying the four-digit civilian aircraft register numbers (B-4xxx) as camouflage, these aircraft were operated by the PLAAF 13th Air Division from its Danyang Airbase in Hubei Province.

The Il-76MD provided the PLAAF with significant improvement to its airlift capacity. Each Il-76MD could carry 190 troops, or three armoured vehicles, over a distance of 6,100 km, and drop them directly to enemy zone. The aircraft’s airdrop and cargo handing equipment allows it to load, unload and air drop paratroopers, materiel and cargo quickly. The onboard avionics is intended to execute airlift and airdrop missions by day and at night, in VFR (visual flight rules) and IFR (instrument flight rules) weather conditions, as well as under hostile air defence conditions.

The Il-76 has a set of well-designed airdrop and cargo handing equipment, which enable the aircraft to load, unload and airdrop paratroopers, vehicle and cargo in a short period of time. The equipment comprises a telpher (an overhead cargo system where the cargo can be suspended from an electrically powered rail), a roller conveyer, mooring/rigging, auxiliary parachute and ambulance equipment.

Although the Il-76 could be fitted with a twin-barrel 23 mm cannon in its tail turret, the IL-76MDs in service with the PLAAF are not fitted with fixed weapon. For self-defence purpose, the aircraft is equipped with a defensive aids suite, which comprises a radar warning receiver (RWR), jammer, infrared flare cartridges and chaff dispenser. In time of emergency, aerial bombs or radio beacons could be suspended from external bomb racks on detachable pylons.

The integrated flight control and aiming-navigation system includes a compass system, ground surveillance radar, a central digital computer, automatic monitoring system, automatic flight control system, short-range radio navigation and landing system, IFF transponder, optical/infrared aiming sight, and a ground collision warning system.

In September 2005 news reports confirmed that China and Russia had signed a contract worth US$1.045 billion for the sale of 30 examples of the Il-76MD as well as 4 examples of the Il-78 ‘Midas’ aerial refuelling tankers. However, none of the aircraft was delivered and by 2008 the deal had collapsed due to Russia’s decision to move the Il-76 production line from Uzbekistan to Russia and the increased unit price as a result. In 2011, China purchased three second-hand Il-76MD/MT aircraft from the Ukrainian MoD surplus.

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Shaanxi Y-9

The Y-9 is a medium-sized, medium-range turboprop multi-purpose transport aircraft designed and manufactured by Shaanxi Aircraft Corporation. Derived from the Y-8 (Chinese copy of An-12 ‘Cub’) transport aircraft, the Y-9 features improved engines and modern avionics including a ‘glass’ cockpit, and is believed to be comparable to the U.S. Lockheed Martin C-130J in general performance.

Shaanxi began to develop a new military transport designated Y-8X in 2001 to meet the PLA’s requirement for an advanced medium transport aircraft to replace its ageing Y-8 fleet. The aircraft later received a new designation Y-9. The Ukraine-based Antonov Aeronautical Scientific-technical Complex (ASTC) aircraft company provided some assistance to the Y-9 development, including the design of the airframe and wind tunnel testing.

The Y-9 has a similar aerodynamic layout to the Y-8, with high-mounted wings and four turboprop engines mounted under the wing’s leading edge. The rear cargo door also serves as a ramp to allow quick load/unload of cargoes. The tail flats and fin are mounted high. Additional small vertical stabilisers are installed on the tailplanes.

The aircraft has a two-wheeled nose landing gear and two four-wheeled main landing gears. The aircraft has a four-man crew, including two pilots, a flight engineer and a loadmaster.

The Y-9’s cargo bay is 16.2 m in length, 3.2 m in width, and 2.3 m in height, with an internal volume of 155 cubic metres. The payload requirement includes a range of military vehicles, cargo containers, pallets, and paratroopers. With a maximum payload capacity of 20 tonnes, the aircraft is capable of carrying 98 paratroopers, or nine international standard pallets of 108” x 88”, or eight 125” x 96” pallets. The cargo bay is also equipped with cargo handling rollers and tie-down rings.

In addition to radio communication and navigation systems, the Y-9 features a ‘glass’ cockpit and modern avionics including ground proximity warning and collision avoidance systems. An electro-optical turret containing forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and TV sensors is mounted under the fuselage for day/night, all-weather operation.

The Y-9 is powered by four WJ-6C (Wojian-6C) turboprop engines each rated 5.100hp. The engine features a six-bladed JL-4 propeller.


Y-9 model

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Shaanxi Y-8 ‘Cub’

The Y-8 is the four-engine turboprop transport in service with all three service branches of the PLA: air force (both aviation and airborne corps), ground forces (army aviation), and navy (naval aviation). First launched in 1974, over 100 examples of the Y-8 have been produced in over 30 variants for a whole range of roles, including transport, helicopter carrier, maritime patrol, surveillance, AEW, UAV carrier, communications relay, electronic intelligence, and electronic warfare.

In 1968, the Chinese Ministry of Aeronautics was asked to produce a copy of the Soviet Antonov An-12 (NATO designation: ‘Cub’) turboprop transport. The reverse-engineering of the An-12 was initially carried out by the Xi’an-based 603 Aircraft Design Institute and Xi’an Aircraft Factory. The maiden flight of the aircraft took place on 25 December 1974. Later the project was transferred to the nearby 012 Base (now Shaanxi Aircraft Industry) in Hanzhong. The aircraft was certified for design finalisation in February 1980.

The Y-8 has high-mounted wings with drooping outer wing panels, back-tapered leading edges, straight trailing edges, and blunt tips. Four Zhuzhou WJ-6 turboprop engines are mounted under the wings’ leading edges. The round, slender body features a stepped cockpit and glassed-in nose, with landing gear pods which bulge at lower body midsection. The tail flats are unequally tapered with blunt tips and mounted high on the fuselage. The fin is tapered with a blunt tip and a step in the leading edge.

The Y-8’s cargo compartment that can rapidly be reconfigured for the carriage of passengers, paratroopers, or stretchers. The size of the cargo compartment is 13.5 x 3 x 2.4 metres, which can accommodate 96 armed soldiers; or 82 paratroopers; or 60 stretchers plus 23 lightly wounded patients and 3 medics; or 16t containers; or 20t cargo. The aircraft can be committed for high- and low-altitude airdrops of troops, vehicles and cargo. The basic variant Y-8 can air drop pallets of 1 m, 2 m, 4 m and 6 m size. A single maximum airdrop is 7.4 tonnes. A pallet can be air dropped within 6 seconds. The aircraft can take off and land on dirt runways (grass, snow, and muddy).

The Y-8 is fitted with radio communications and navigations, Doppler navigation radar, autopilot, radio compass, altitude radio altimeter, maker beacon receiver, rear warning receiver, and identification friend or foe (IFF). The aircraft is capable of all-weather, day/night flight.

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