The Engines of Large Airliners and the Costly Challenges Manufacturers Face

Rolls-Royce’s debacle for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. And China is learning it the hard way.

By MC01, a frequent commenter, for WOLF STREET:

During a scheduled engine inspection in April 2016, an All Nippon Airways (ANA) maintenance crew discovered early corrosion and fatigue cracks on several turbine blades of a Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 “Package C” installed on one of the company’s Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Despite Rolls-Royce’s spending over £30 million in 2017 to design and manufacture new and supposedly improved turbine blades for the affected engines, by April 2018 it was apparent the “Pack C,” as the engine is affectionately nicknamed, was in serious troubles.

Engine inspection intervals were reduced from 200 to 80 flights, and a while later the US FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the EASA (European Aircraft Safety Agency) jointly decided to cut ETOPS for Boeing 787 equipped with the Pack C engine from 330 to a crummy 140 minutes (Trent 1000 at the factory, image via Rolls-Royce).

ETOPS (Extended Twin OPerationS or rather more dramatically Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim) certifies how long a twin engine aircraft can fly on a single engine to reach a diversion airport with a reasonable degree of safety for passengers and crew. The higher the number (which indicates flight time in minutes), the more distant a twin-engined airliner can be from a diversion airport on a revenue-generating flight.

It doesn’t take a route planning specialist to understand this dramatic ETOPS reduction affected long range operations, especially over the Pacific, with several airlines deciding to ground their affected aircraft until Rolls-Royce could provide an effective fix.

In June 2018 similar problems were discovered on a Trent 1000 “Package B” engine as well, leading to an Airworthiness Directive by the EASA and the FAA mandating more frequent inspections and sending Rolls-Royce scrambling for a solution.

Rolls-Royce expects to spend an eye-watering £1.38 billion to solve the Trent 1000 troubles.  This estimate includes not just designing, manufacturing, and testing the new parts to the regulators’ satisfaction and installing them in the affected engines but also tentative cash settlements with airlines that suffered a financial hit because of these technical issues.

Because of this fiasco, Air New Zealand, one of the most affected airlines and traditionally a faithful Rolls-Royce customer, decided to switch their engine preference to the rival General Electric Aviation GEnx-1B for their latest order for eight Boeing 787-10 to replace their present Boeing 777-200ER fleet.

Without counting replacement engines, the financial loss for Rolls-Royce on this deal alone is estimated to run well over £500 million between the engines themselves, spare parts and support.

Rolls-Royce of Great Britain is one of the “Big Three” engine manufacturers that dominate the market for commercial aircraft engines. The other two are General Electric Aviation, a division of the GE, and Pratt & Whitney, part of the United Technologies conglomerate.

Safran of France (formerly Société nationale d’études et de construction de moteurs d’aviation, Snecma for short) and Aviadvigatel of Russia play minor but nonetheless critical roles. Other engine companies such as MTU Aero Engines of Germany and Kawasaki Gas Turbine of Japan effectively work as minority partners and vendors of the Big Three.

To put in prospective the sheer size of the Big Three, Rolls-Royce reported 2018 revenues of £15.1 billion of which an enormous £7.4 billion came from commercial aviation. Defense contributed a “mere” £3.1 billion to Rolls-Royce revenues in the same fiscal year.

Differently from the airliner sector that Airbus and Boeing dominate, this situation is not the result of long term consolidation nor of the modern trend towards mergers and acquisitions: While Rolls-Royce absorbed all other British engine manufacturers, from Bristol to de Havilland, this process had been completed by 1961. The Big Three were already firmly established and dominating the commercial engine market by the time the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC8 were changing air travel forever during the 1960s.

Despite the huge size and decades of dominance, life for the Big Three is anything but easy. R&D is time-consuming and immensely expensive, as is fixing any trouble a new engine will experience, while airlines are always ready to shift their preferences to a competitor if they think they may obtain even a minuscule financial or technical advantage.

For example, in 2001, Pratt & Whitney started the Geared Turbo Fan (GTF) project which later became the PW1000G family of engines, after 8 years of studies, prototypes and technical dead-ends into the core concepts of this engine. The first PW1000G was test-flown in 2008 and the first production engine was delivered to Lufthansa in 2016. The PW1000G program has cost so far $10 billion.

Then there are the costs to fix the inevitable teething problems. For example, fixing an issue with mechanical seals on just 98 PW1000G engines (43 already in service plus 55 delivered to Airbus for assembly and to maintenance centers as spares) cost Pratt & Whitney $50 million in 2018.

Put this way, one may believe building a successful modern engine is merely a matter of pouring billions of dollars, euro or pounds into it, but in reality designing and building even a modestly successful engine requires decades of accumulated knowledge in an enormous number of technical sectors, ranging from lubrication to fluid dynamics.

And China is learning this the hard way.

As part of the ongoing efforts to build the COMAC C919, a wholly indigenous airliner comparable with the Airbus A320neo and Boeing 737MAX, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology instructed the state-owned Aero Engine Corporation of China (AECC) to develop a turbofan engine comparable to the CFM International LEAP engine used on both the Airbus A320neo and the Boeing 737MAX.

Originally this new engine, officially called CJ-1000A, was scheduled to start testing in 2016 and to be operative by 2020, with AECC enlisting the help of foreign contractors such as MTU Aero Engine and GKN Aerospace to speed up the process.

But recently, AECC admitted the CJ-1000A is running well behind schedule and expects the engine to be certified and start commercial operations in 2030.

The COMAC C919 airliner, for which the engine was meant, will be put into service with foreign-made engines. Both AECC and the Chinese government have refused to release any figure about the CJ-1000A development costs.

And in 2017, AECC also announced that work has started on a far larger and even more advanced commercial aircraft engine, tentatively named CJ-2000, which should power the highly ambitious CR929 widebody airliner, which Chinese authorities are aiming straight at the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787.

The CR929 is a Sino-Russian cooperation started in 2016 which has so far been marred by what can only be called absolute confusion and unrealistic targets, such as a first flight in 2025 and type certification (which allows aircraft to carry out revenue-generating flights) in 2027 — which makes it difficult to take this project seriously.

The widely publicized CR929 budget of $13 billion may seem huge, but it cost Boeing $32 billion (in 2011 dollars!) to develop the 787 Dreamliner, and that’s without engine development costs, which were borne by General Electric and Rolls-Royce. Even allowing for China’s lower costs in some fields and ultra-generous incentives, it’s very likely that designing a moderately successful widebody aircraft would cost the Chinese government at least $25 billion, plus a further $15 billion for the engines. This is assuming no dead-ends are met and that China can close its gap when it comes to fluid dynamics and material science and engineering on schedule and without any serious setback.

It’s very likely China is at least a decade away from introducing a wholly indigenous airliner, and the end product is not likely to overly impress airlines.

However it’s very likely before that date that Chinese companies will be able to directly compete with Western component vendors ranging from flight control systems to avionics: Already now many composite parts of the Airbus A350 are manufactured in China by the Harbin Aircraft Industry Company, which has been manufacturing Airbus (formerly Aérospatiale) helicopters under license since 1980. By MC01, a frequent commenter, for WOLF STREET

Aircraft manufacturing consolidates. Read…  Boeing, Airbus Carve up Embraer & Bombardier, Chinese Aircraft Makers Still Learning the Ropes

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  57 comments for “The Engines of Large Airliners and the Costly Challenges Manufacturers Face

  1. Javert Chip says:

    Let’s see, how does China develop a high-tech aircraft engine:

    ANSWER: 1,000 Chinese guys begin hacking every US & UK engine producer. Ok, Maybe 2,000 guys.

    • MC01 says:

      Why should they bother when they have hundreds of ultra-modern airliners in service with thousands more on order? Why not simply take a Boeing 787 and its engines apart and retro-engineer it?

      These new AECC designs have some features such as hollow fan blades and fuel nozzle which resemble those found on several Rolls-Royce designs but the similarities stops there: they appear to be wholly indigenous developments, albeit it remains to be seen what the finished article (if it will ever see the light of the day) will look like.

      • d says:

        Problem being the cpp still cant do that to their Russian fighter engines, with the Russian technicians holding their hands every step of the way.

        They still have to send those things back to Russia to have then adequately major serviced as they cant do it correctly in a ccp facility.

        This is the core of the problem.

        Untill they rectify it ten years is a gross underestimate for a safe reliable indigenous ccp aircraft with indigenous engines.


        I wonder if any of the Trent Turbine issues, are in any way related to core metals, not actually being what the paperwork that goes with them says they are??

        NASA has discovered issues with this, if it can happen to NASA, it can happen to Rolls.

      • Jack Lifton says:

        China is taking a very long view. It now has ownership of control of all of the technology metals and material’s raw materials it needs for its domestic economy. Chinese higher education is now entering its second generation of growth. The first generation went abroad and learned the necessary skills and how to train others in them to build a domestic Chinese technological society. The second generation is now in place training Chinese students at home.
        Deindustrialization in the West is robbing us of legacy skills. These skills are now being built in China.
        Short sighted greed is the cause of American deindustrialization. Congressional hearings and “conversations” led by Hollywood ” celebrities” won’t stop this. A good example of what’s wrong is the fact that we gave away the rare earth supply chain to China beginning in the early 1980s and ending in 2002 when Molycorp shut down its last in the USA rare earth refinery. I
        As we procrastinate and listen to the financiers and their political employees the deindustrialization of the West will insure the ultimate rise of the East.

      • MCH says:

        I think though that it isn’t that easy to wholly reverse engineer something like this. I would guess there is a lot of material science that goes into some of the components, and I bet some of it is quite challenging to manage.

        Just like the military stuff. But given enough time, those will get figured out, one way or the other.

        • whoyagonnacall says:

          If you go back and look at the press releases you may have to dig deep when Chyna made the last big boy and deal part of that agreement was is that they would build the planes in China. Most of the folks in the Puget Sound region overlooked this when they were negotiating their new labor contracts for which they gave up their pensions for part of the wall street casino.

      • Bone Idle says:

        Reverse engineer?

        See this

        Premier Li Keqiang recently made a shocking revelation about the industrial capabilities of China on national television: despite the fact that the country is widely known as the “world’s factory” and produces everything from iPhones, aircraft carriers, high-speed railways to spacecraft. Until now there is not a single manufacturer in China that is able to produce the tiny rotating ball fitted to the tip of a ball pen that disperses ink as you write.

        Each of these tiny metal balls has to be imported by Chinese pen manufacturers from overseas suppliers.

        Their steel and other alloys aren’t good enough; they can’t mill or shape them accurately enough. So, why is this so?

        The root cause of China’s backwardness in some of the key industrial technologies lies in the fact that state-run and private manufacturers are unwilling to invest in research and development because, in most cases, it won’t bring profits and extra market share, owing to the lack of protection for intellectual property and rampant plagiarism by other competitors.

        • MC01 says:

          In the 1980’s Clarence “Kelly” Johnson of Lockheed published his autobiography. Those expecting declassified tidbits about secret programs or juicy details about Kelly’s numerous marriages would have been rather disappointed as Johnson spent most of the book moaning on how the US metal industry lacked the ability to work titanium alloys.
          Whether this was still a “cover story” for the long declassified Project Oxcart (which had made large use of said titanium alloys) or a classic case of a corporate type playing victim to get even more out of the ever-suffering taxpayer it remains to be decided but suffice to say Johnson’s book is now mostly forgotten, and deservedly so.
          I could quote such stories for a while.

          Pretending to be in dire straits is a time-honored tradition to get more subsidies/tax breaks/whatever. Trust me on this: my grandfather owned a farm and by age 8 I had probably lived through more natural and man-made disasters and an octuagenarian. ;-)

  2. Paulo says:

    China will be doing just fine all by its own. I listened to a fairly long radio special today on Huawei. The company is definitely not State owned, in fact it is owned mostly by employees. Their R&D is far and above their western competitors in both scope and focus. Their factories are almost completely automated. They have their own training centre the size of a city. Their switching gear is able to be mounted on towers, outside, as opposed to requiring climate controlled buildings. This gives them a competitive advantage as they don’t need tech centres (overhead) in expensive cities. They just beat western phone designs at their own game and it appears that is the primary reason for all the attacks and threats on their 5G network designs. Protectionism, pure and simple.

    I remember back about 55 years ago driving into SF with my Dad. He was complaining about “those crappy Jap and German peanut cars” as he piloted his ’63 big finned caddy. I think caddys are now rated as one of the worst sedans out there. And, his son’s family now has two Toyotas in the carport and a Westie tucked away for holidays :-). The Westie is almost 40 years old, the Toy truck is 33 years old, and the Toy Yaris is 10 years old. I hear the same things these days about Chinese products. When they start building their own turbine engines that will most likely signal the end of the big three, or maybe just 2 of them. Current tariffs will only provide more incentive.

    MC01, I really enjoy your articles. Not only do they read ‘easy’, they are beyond informative. Thank you. (Do you also do articles on railroads and loccis?)

    • Escher says:

      Agreed, Paolo. The rise of China is unstoppable. They will encounter numerous setbacks and hiccups along the way, but those will be overcome eventually.

      • nicko2 says:

        Agreed. China is also not suspicious of investing in frontier markets. They may not care for democracy, but they do care about commerce, possess an adventurous spirit, and dare I say, embody the new capitalism.

      • Old Codger says:

        All very well doing the R & D etc and then actually building an aircraft and engines in one package.

        They they have to SELL them!

        To who?

        • char says:

          There is like a country who buys a third of all new planes. If only they could sell like 1/3 of all planes there

    • MCH says:

      You should consider Huawei’s genesis. The company is undoubtly the leading player in 5G, and no one should doubt their ability to innovate in that field mainly because there are no longer any competitors for them to copy from in the field of telecommunications. Huawei started out in telecom reselling stuff, and they did a great job reverse engineering a lot of technology. Anyone who was in the late 90s know that Huawei was at best an also-ran at that point. They managed to get to parity with the both the support of the Chinese government as well as the inability of western companies to comprehend why they were losing when they were taking all the “right” moves, reducing their cost by outsourcing manufacturing, and then engineering into China.

      The funniest thing I heard those days from telco execs when queried about how they intend to deal with Chinese copycats were “we’ll always be a generation or two ahead of them in terms of technology.” It was not only the height of arrogance, but the height of stupidity to assume that companies like Huawei could only copy and never innovate. That and the fact that Huawei in fact did have significant market protection from the Chinese government, and capital support when needed ensured that they became the leader in the telecommunications world.

      The same thing is playing out in smartphones right now. Take a look at what Huawei was doing in smartphones in 2007 when Jobs announced the iPhone. Yep, nothing, they had no play at all. In fact, their previous phones were all knock offs, but anyone who is stupid enough to think they couldn’t innovate just don’t appreciate history. Today, Huawei has become #2 in terms of volumes in smartphone. And yes, Ren can claim he is independent from the government, because Huawei has gained a market position (thanks to state support over the last two decades) so that they are the leader now, and don’t need support to beat their in market competitors.

      If anything, Chinese companies typically knows how to play the long game, and state supported capitalism tend to work well when you have infinite amount of money to burn, and tons of companies willing to try, the weak ones will be allowed to die off. (just look at all the solar companies that have come and gone in China over the last decade, or as Wolf has reported, EV companies)

      Protectionism? I would agree, Paulo, but let’s be honest, that’s the game China has been playing all along, protecting their native developments while stringing along suckers who keep thinking China will embrace democracy as the internet gives them more choice and more information and markets will open up. The west was slow in waking up, and even now, they really don’t want to face facts. The day that Facebook and Google are freely allowed into China is the day that China has decided their native companies are strong enough to compete on their own.

      Going to MC01’s comments on jet engines. I’m very certain he is right that China might not be able to produce anything on par with what’s coming out of GE or PW right now, they probably can’t do it in 10 years either. But I would not want to wager money on it. They’ll continue to get state support until they are able to stand on their own. It might not happen in a decade, or even in our lifetime, but eventually (my guess is before 2050) there will be engine competitors from China that can rival the big three now.

      • OutLookingIn says:

        The Race Has Been Lost


        If were not for foreign, highly educated engineers, chemists, metallurgists, hydrologists, etc. That are in country on work visas, the US would drastically slow in its tech advance and lose the lead.
        Educational institutions in the US have slowly degraded the quality of graduates over the years. To the point now that the country is way behind and continues to fall ever deeper into stupidity.
        Over 50% of high school grads fail, entrance level university math and English and have to take remedial courses to attain acceptance. Either that, or have rich parents who can bribe corrupt education administration officials , to have their precious offspring admitted!

        In the words of George Carlin:
        “Pretty soon all you will need to get into college is a pencil”.

        • IdahoPotato says:

          From a November 2018 article in The Economist:

          “In 2013-16 Tsinghua University produced more of the top 1% most highly cited papers in maths and computing, and more of the 10% most highly cited papers in stem, than any other university in the world, reckons Simon Marginson of Oxford University.

          The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) still leads in the top 1% of stem papers, but Mr Marginson says Tsinghua is on track to be ‘number one in five years or less’.”

        • MCH says:

          I wouldn’t necessarily say the race has been lost per se. I would however suggest that when someone is in a hole, the first thing they should do to get themselves out is to stop digging. Not dig faster like the current crop is doing. Let’s create an atmosphere where immigrants aren’t feeling welcome. (forgetting that some of those – 1st or 2nd generations – managed to create small companies like Google, Apple, Yahoo, etc)

          The problem is very systematic though in terms of education, despite what has been tried, education in the US has gone down hill. I mean people talk about STEM, and it’s just talk, in the interim, the reality (especially in CA) is that schools are really interested in social justice issues, and getting sex educations in by early sixth grade, possibly even end of elementary. It is insane.

          Our culture also doesn’t do anything to raise up scientists or engineers, instead the US has gone down the road of worshipping pop stars, movie stars, and glorifying the likes of the Kardashians. No wonder we’re in such a state.

        • MCH says:


          It’s interesting, I have a friend that was doing some interesting physics world (atomic/molecular cooling and Bose Einsetein condensate), this was about 15 years ago. I had dinner with him once, and asked what he thought of those people who worked in China in similar fields, were they doing anything interesting or revolutionary that could at some point get the Nobel. His answer was somewhat dismissive, it came down to they are just taking existing papers, copying the work, and then writing their own papers with it. Nothing original or innovative.

          I am honestly not sure if he would say that today. China is improving very fast and is very focused on trying to reverse the brain drain that has happened over the last few decades. Trying to get the sea turtles to come home, so to speak. And of course, the US is not helping, situations like this one.

          While I don’t know the details, there has been a couple of similar situations like this already recently, and this is really reminiscent of this older situation, where this little unknown person by the name of Qian Xuesen was essentially told to get out and stay out of the US. Of course, he went home and then became the father of the Chinese nuke program, as well as their rocket programs. Thanks very much for nothing. The word idiotic did not really begin to describe the situation. Hell, they decided to confiscate his logarithmic tables because the guys looking at it had no clue what it was.

    • MC01 says:

      Thanks for the compliments.

      I keep on being very skeptical about these commercial Chinese projects for no other reason their top priority is military gear and that’s what gets the best people, the most resources and the big money. From a strict technical point of view they have closed all gaps with foreign military equipment bar the engines in their aircraft (Soviet-vintage gear is designed for raw performances, not durability) and noise levels in their submarines.
      On top of this commercial technology is moving at a very fast pace: Rolls-Royce is moving ahead fast with the UltraFan which heralds the next generation of commercial engines. I don’t know if it will have the promised high content of composite materials (my take: no, at least not initially) but the fluid dynamics involved are simply mind-boggling.

      China is basically playing catch unless she can leapfrog these developments and put herself at the same level of accumulated knowledge as the competitors.

      My knowledge of locomotives stops with some cool technical stuff used over the decades, such as the Napier Deltic two-stroke diesel and the autonomous train (AutoHaul) Hitachi and GE set up for Rio Tinto in Pilbara. ;-)

      • illumined says:

        @MC01 – I’m very skeptical of claims China has closed the gaps in engine development and submarine noise levels and here’s why: Take for example the claims that the WS-10’s problems have been worked out, I found references to this all the way back in 2010 and yet the very next year they went back to ordering well over a hundred Russian fighter engines, and even last year there were still orders for 150 more. Indeed it is quite telling that even this year the new supposed wonder fighter, the J20, is still using the same old Russian engine.

        The best nuclear powered submarine they have is still no better than a 70’s Soviet Victor design in terms of noise, which in and of itself was far behind western designs of the same time period. Yes there are claims that it’s as good as the improved LA class, but real world experience is proving otherwise. Supposedly their diesel electrics are on par with everyone else’s, but a lot of that is because the diesel engines on their latest and greatest Yuan class are imported from Germany, not locally made. I also doubt it’s going to be as quiet as advertised because then the sterling engine is engaged even submerged it has a lot of moving parts which need to be silenced.

        The bottom line is while there’s a lot of comparisons being made with Germany and Japan in the 50’s when they were producing junk, the reality is that Germany and Japan in the 50’s were already developed countries. They both had the institutions in place for advanced R&D, in fact Germany had been the technological and scientific leader in many areas before World War 2. This was an important part of what allowed Japan to dominate industry after industry with high quality and genuinely innovative products. Since WW2 there have only been a handful of economies that managed to make the leap from under developed to developed and that’s South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. There’s also a long list of countries that got stuck in the middle income trap and never really achieved their theoretical potential. China is going to find out the hard way that you can’t just copy your way into the lead, there’s a lot more to it if it ever wants to be the center of innovation it keeps claiming it wants to be.

      • Lion says:

        Article how the Soviets got the most advanced Rolls Royce jet engine of its time. This engine went into the MIG15 and gave the Americans the tough time in Korea.

        So if you can get the top technology companies to give you their designs, that can close gaps in a hurry.

        So the real question is, how well do the Chinese play Pool ?

    • d says:

      “The company is definitely not State owned, in fact it is owned mostly by employees.”

      I got this bridge in Brooklyn I need to liquidate, great investment,Great price.


      ccp chinese entities that dont do, what they are told, when they are told, end up like HNA, and lucky celebrities only end up like fan bing simply as (Rumour says ) she dared to say things they didnt like and declined to “Invest” as where and when directed by Xi’s ccp extortionist.

      all the entertainers do the same but only she gets the big financial take down.

      The number of chinese private corporate owner administrators who have been detained since the last major chines stock market implosion and only released after they have “Invested” where instructed, and agreed to hold untill permission is given to sell, is horrendous and still growing. On paper they are still billionaires, in reality the state owns everything with their name on it. It will not flow to their children.

      The released public ownership structure of Hauwie, like various other ccp chinese entities, is what is know as “plausible deniability disinformation” for western consumption, its as accurate as the ccp Economic data.

      • char says:

        How is this much different from the American system, see for example Qwest

    • IdahoPotato says:

      Correct. I interact a lot with tech R&D folks and they have a lot of respect for Huawei and its innovative acumen.

      What Americas do like to produce in abundance these days is alternative reality.

    • Jack2 says:

      Paulo, I’m pretty certain that if you ask Microsoft or Apple ‘are your products “State owned” ‘ as in “are there any backdoors into Windows or the iOS systems,” I’m sure you’ll get the same answer.

      • char says:

        If you have something like Windows Update than you have a backdoor. Besides the real backdoor is Microsoft giving the NSA the bug that needs to be fixed by a security update the moment they discover the bug. That is enough time for the NSA to use it. Huawei and China would use the same method. No need to build in a real backdoor.

    • yerfej says:

      Huawei is state owned. Once again we see the Chinese doing stupid silly dance steps to fool the western progressives. Listen to this cast and it is well explained how the Huawei ownership works to hide the Xi man. The Chinese are FAR from as great as the western haters portray, maybe all of you should go live there.

      • curiouscat says:

        This is the type of attitude that will get us our a** handed to us. Unbridled arrogance is not a winning strategy.

  3. illumined says:

    It’s not just in civilian engines where China has this problem. The WS-10, the indigenous power plant for military fighter planes, has been in development hell for almost 30 years and still they find themselves relying on imported Soviet designed engines from the 80’s because of serious performance and reliability problems. Not like those were state of the art even for their time.

    Supposedly these issues were sorted out by now but I’ll have to see it to believe it.

    • MC01 says:

      The WS-10 was actually an attempt ro retro-engineer the General Electric F101 turbofan (the engine used on the Rockwell B1 Lancer heavy bomber) by a circuitous way: the CFM-56 commercial engine (used among others on the ubiquitous Boeing 737) and the F101 share the same “core” and during the 80’s China obtained a license to manufacture the CFM-56.
      This shouldn’t come as a surprise: since the 70’s the Chinese government had successfully negotiated a number of licenses for advanced Western technology, such as the Rolls-Royce Spey turbofan and the Aérospatiale Dauphin helicopter, and US firms wanted a slice of the pie.

      While the CFM-56 contained sensitive technology whose transfer required government approval, it was nothing compared to what Chinese authorities were negotiating with their US counterparts at the time: licenses for several weapon systems which included the well known TOW anti-tank missile and Bell AH-1 attack helicopter.
      Then Tienanmen happened and these deals fell through, but it didn’t stop work on the CFM-56 “cloning” process, as China had already obtained several working engines and some literature as part of the failed deal.

      Why and how work on what then became the WS-10 took so long is an interesting question, but it’s very likely politics played a big part: the project had been personally patronized by Deng Xiaoping and following his retirement from politics in 1992 the whole program effectively ground to a halt and apparently remained in a state of chaos for almost a decade during which very little work was done.

      • John Taylor says:

        I don’t think China’s ultimate success will necessarily sink the big 3. I also don’t think China will give up on it’s goal even as costs increase and schedules are delayed.
        The technological capability involved is very likely to be considered strategically important for defense purposes. The economic war raging against Iran combined with the tightening of US trade policy will really get Europe and China thinking about what industries they are reliant on foreign powers for.
        I think the UK would bail out Rolls Royce and look to the European sphere for protection while the US would likely bail out and protect GE and Pratt.

        • Dan says:

          The UK government doesn’t really do bailouts anymore (excepting the banks in 2008/09) – the legacy of failed nationalisations in the 60s and 70s. This may change if a hard-left Labour party gets into power though.

        • MC01 says:

          Rolls-Royce is under no need to be bailed out.
          Their profits took a massive hit in FY2018 and will be impacted to FY2021 (according to the company) but the financial viability of the company is not in question.

          What is in question is the sanity of stock market jockeys who, after being warned multiple times by the company about the costs of fixing the Trent 1000 and the pending one-time write-off tied to the end of the Airbus A380 production, propelled RR shares to over £1,000 before realizing the big dividends they somehow expected had evaporated. Those who bought at the top have lost 25% of their money so far.
          These must be the same people who regularly fail to read Tesla SEC filings but who take their investment hints from that comany’s CEO on Twitter… “funding secured”,

        • John Taylor says:

          We’re not talking about saving an ordinary replaceable company. This is an industry that takes decades to build up with large pools of technical expertise.
          A country wouldn’t give that up that capability just because the Chinese are selling cheaper engines for a while.

      • Max Power says:

        This brings to mind of what is perhaps the most notorious example of copying by a communist nation… The Rolls-Royce Nene which the Brits foolishly exported to to the Russians and which practically jumpstarted the entire Soviet jet engine program. NATO nations would come to gravely regret that I’ll-fated deal, as did many western pilots during the Korean War.

        • MC01 says:

          Like France the Soviet Union obtained access to German designs at the end of WWII. That alone would have been enough to start any domestic engine production: the highly successful Snecma Atar series was based upon the BMW 003 design which was also available to the Soviets, which directly copied it as the VK-20.

          The story behind the Rolls-Royce engines exported to the USSR (the Derwent and the Nene) is actually rather more convoluted than mere bureaucratic oversight or political stupidity. Suffice to say the RR engineers at Derby were sure the Soviets wouldn’t have been able to copy the engine, at least not without their assistance: British engines featured rather exotic metal alloys, at least for the times, which were vital to prevent “creep”, a slow but permanent distortion affecting most materials near their melting point which dramatically affected the first operational turbojets. Soviet metallurgists took a couple of years to come up with their own solution.
          After it transpired both the Derwent and the Nene had been not merely copied but improved upon RR attempted, and apparently they were very serious about it, to obtain from the USSR millions of pound (in 1950 money) in license fees.
          It doesn’t take a genius to understand what the Soviet reply was. ;-)

  4. Neilo Roberts says:

    Both China and Russia are developing various indigenous platforms in preparation for the (inevitable) day the US sanctions the sale of critical technologies for. Lesson: the wing composites for the Russian MC21 aircraft.
    No matter how expensive, lengthy and difficult, these nations will continue the quest for independence from a fractious, untrustworthy West.

  5. Azesus says:

    Global Times is a tabloid newspaper, more useful if I want to know more about Chinese Kardashian behind, just sayin, nothing wrong if you strive be a behind-ologist, I am a board member of behind studies alliance

    • Wolf Richter says:


      Yeah, well, it was an announcement by a Chinese state-owned firm (AECC) in a Chinese state-owned paper (Global Times). Where else would AECC announce its grandiose plans? In the New York Times? If it could, it would. But the New York Times is loath to carry this type of Chinese hype.

    • MC01 says:

      I like grandiose announcements, for no other reason what follows next is invariably far less grandiose. ;-)

      Rest assured had I found an even more enthusiastic source I would have used without hesitation, just to highlight the absurdity of the situation.

  6. Old dog says:

    MC01, thanks for this excellent piece.

    I’ve worked in R&D for 30 years and I’ve experienced many times the exponential cost & difficulty one faces when working on extremely complex projects.

    From your description it seems that engine design and manufacturing are way past the exponential elbow.

    If that’s indeed the case, the Chinese don’t have to outperform the big three. As long as they underperform by, say, 30%, the Chinese will be able to make substantial progress spending much less in R&D. That’s how Microsoft managed to work around IBM’s global domination and eventually contain it into a lucrative but small niche.

    • MC01 says:

      If only it were that simple… if these days you proposed airlines a cheap engine that underperforms the CFM LEAP or the GEnx by 30% you would be treated like a laughing stock.
      Fuel efficiency, reliability and maintenance costs are all absolutely vital and for many customers, such as airlines operating in South Asia, high levels of thrust in “hot and high” conditions are eminently desirable.

      What backs up these Chinese projects for the time being is a captive domestic market which, as it often happens, has a certain penchant for shenanigans.
      To stay on topic, the Comac C919 has been ordered only by Chinese customers (including the local arm of GECAS) and one of the biggest orders, with 20 firm orders and 20 options, has been placed by the China Nuclear E&C Group (CNEC), which is exactly what it seems.
      Why would a company that builds nuclear power plants need so many airliners we are not told, but we weren’t told either why HNA Group needed a majority stake in Deutsche Bank…

  7. JFP says:

    This is nothing new for Rolls-Royce. My father worked there in the early 70s, when they went bankrupt due to engine development costs.

    • MC01 says:

      The problem is not that RR will become insolvent (if I remember correctly only individuals can go bankrupt in England). The company is doing fine and is not a financial black hole like Uber, Delivery Hero or Netflix.
      The problem is their profits are taking the proverbial bludgeoning: RR was profitable up to FY2017, when it reported over £360 million in profit but it lost over £1 billion in FY2018, of which £790 million are due to the Trent 1000 and £190 million in a one-time writeoff due to the end of the Airbus A380 program.
      Despite RR issuing several official warnings, stock market jockeys shrugged them off and instead of the big fat dividends they expected they got hit by a heavy loss. RR stocks are presently down about £200 from last year peak, over 25%.
      These must be the same people who regularly fail to read Tesla SEC filings.

  8. kk says:

    An Indian company bought a unprofitable oil refinery locally about 5 or so years ago. When asked why they had bought something that would never make money, they said they had done it to learn how a western refinery works. Every role in the business had an Indian national attached as a trainee. It seems that they had learned that a good deal of technical skills are about integrating complex systems and implicit knowledge- oh they were much better employers than the previous US one!

  9. Ravi Uppal says:

    MC 01 .As usual an enlightening article . Top quality . Not exactly related but my question is related to 737 max . +/-375 planes are grounded .This is 375x$100 million worth of stranded assets . Who is paying for all this mess ? Since most of the planes are leased, is Boeing getting the lease rent ? What about those aircraft that were purchased on cash basis ? Are the airlines taking Boeing to court for losses they are incurring ? What is it doing to the balance sheet of Boeing ? What if insurers refuse to insure in the future ?

    • OutLookingIn says:

      Boeing dropped the ball on the 737 MAX big time.

      It put the balance sheet ahead of safety, with disastrous consequences.
      Now its time to pay the price. Just settlement of the forth coming lawsuits, from the families of those who lost their lives in the two MCAS related crashes, will be highly punitive for Boeing.
      An old aviation saw – “If want to get going fly Boeing”.
      The only way Boeing will survive this fiasco, is their military contracts. Which means much more tax dollars from ‘Joe & Jill’ taxpayer.

    • MC01 says:

      The 737MAX grounding is costing airlines and leasing companies anything between $4 million and $6 million per week. That’s a lot of money.
      And you’ll be surprised to learn who’s footing the bill.

      Typically an aircraft or engine sale contract doesn’t include provisions for the loss of the FAA/EASA airworthiness certificate and business interruption provisions. This is exactly what happened.
      And again typically contract details remain confidential. Usually not even shareholders have access to them.
      But as Rolls-Royce shareholders are learning the hard way to win sales both airframe and engine manufacturers increasingly turn to offer some form of compensation in case things go sour.
      For example it’s known Norwegian Air Shuttle has one such agreement with Boeing, just like they had with Rolls-Royce for their 787 engines. They have already reached a settlement with Rolls-Royce (which didn’t stop the company from presenting the usual sea of red ink for FY2018) and announced they’ll “send the bill” as soon as they’ll learn how long their aircraft will be grounded.

      But many airlines and leasing companies prefer either an instant cash rebate or faster deliveries to a business interruption provision.
      These companies can take out a business interruption insurance for their aircraft, but these are expensive and usually come with a lot of strings attached.
      All the others… they’ll have to eat their losses, as simple as that.

      • fajensen says:

        I believe that it is worth watching SAS. Right about this level (10-14 SEK), a smallish probe investment is sensible, IMO.

        The stock is really getting into the down part of its “seasonal tanking cycle” (visible on 10 year graph from 2011), this time it’s allegedly because Norwegian is in trouble (Uh-huh!?).

        What it look like to me is that it is heavily shorted, then “released”, then shorted again. Right Now, the robots are all “Shorts On”.

        Once the SAS cabin crews has had their strike to get the deal that the pilots just had, it will probably surge a good 20 – 50% on the next short covering cycle. OTOH, on technical stuff, If it does go under 10 SEK, well, … probably next stop is 5-6 SEK.

  10. raxadian says:

    Unfortunately, companies tend to cut corners, if they tried every reasonable test instead of waiting to see if problems show up, and if they used materials resistant to erotion and corrosion, making a new engine wouldn’t take decades.

  11. Sinbad says:

    The stresses endured by jet engines are truly staggering, and as the size increases so does the stress. Apart from the design aspects there is the metals that are used.
    Metallurgy is still as much a black art as it is a science, and like the perfect cake recipe how good it is can only be determined by the eating.

    • raxadian says:

      They cut corners, everyone knew for years and they didn’t care until things got so bad they couldn’t ignore it anymore.

      See that date? 2013.

      What year we are now? 2019.

      This isn’t Rolls-Royce making a honest mistake, this is the result of what might be over a decade of cutting corners and now it looks like they are finally paying for it.

      • MC01 says:

        Such allegations are stock items for both the scandal-hungry press and former employees out for vengeance. The public loves a good scare story and politicians love making a name for themselves as “troubleshooters”.
        I remember back when I was studying in Scotland the usual “leaked dossier” accused HM Government to hide the extent of the damages wrought upon the country’s fishing stocks by seals. The usual MP who lived according to McLaren’s Law (“It doesn’t matter how people talk about you but that they talk about you”) proposed immediate funding to come up with contraceptives to “humanely” reduce seal populations.
        I’d like to say this was all a bit of a laugh, a bit of a joke, but it wasn’t.

        Material science is evolving as I type this. We learn something every day. To stay in the field a problem the very early turbojet engines suffered all kinds of structural problems, the chief among which was “creep” a slow but constant and permanent deformation of materials operating near their melting point.
        It took decades to properly understand creep and we still learn a thing or two about it these days.

        • raxadian says:

          Cutting corners to save costs is sadly a common practice in the Aviation business, then tragedy strikes, everyone gets scared and they stop for a short while, rinse and repeat.

          I have seen is so many times is ridiculous.

          This wasn’t fear mongering or the press wanting to earn a few extra bucks, otherwise the company would have shown the numbers to prove they weren’t cutting costs.

          The cut cutting race has got to the point that dirigible balloons have made a comeback… to transport goods.

          Honesty with all the plane crashes is not like dirigible balloons are less safer than planes.

          It would be nice to see them back transporting people.

  12. Lion says:

    Interesting story how the Soviets gained the advanced Jet Engine of its time, a Rolls Royce. This was used in the MIG15 which ended up causing American Fighters problems in Korea.

    Great video below explaining the story (the engine was won based on a game of Billiards).

    Which makes me somewhat concerned if Trump plays golf in China.

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