Chinese Aviation: A Brief History

China is renowned for its long history that  stretches back thousands of years and includes the rise and fall of dynasties, the development of a nation, and the emergence of a world power.  As China continues to grow and develop, the country is working to expand the legacy of relatively new aspect of its history, flight.

When considering the timeline of global development, the age of flight occupies a comparatively short portion.   However, in this brief space of time aviation has developed at a breathtaking pace.  Within mere decades, the concept of flight went from a dream to a reality as the first fabric-covered airplanes gave way to supersonic and space travel, and eventually evolving into the advanced and continually developing state of aviation we enjoy today.  In the historical scope of aviation, China’s COMAC has existed for a very short amount of time. However, prior to COMAC, China did not simply remain a passive bystander of the flying era. Rather, history shows that through the work of key individuals, China was already a player in aviation at the very dawn of powered flight. Moreover, air travel continued to play a critical role in China’s affairs throughout the 20th century. Today, it is impossible to  take stock of the international aviation market without considering China’s effect. With the world’s second-largest aviation economy and COMAC’s bold civil aircraft endeavors, China will continue to be an active and important member of the global aviation community.

When reflecting on China’s aviation history, there’s no better place to start than with the story of China’s own founding father of aviation, Feng Ru. Born in 1883 in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, Feng Ru  eventually emigrated to the United States at the age of 12. In 1909, he set up his first aircraft workshop in Oakland, California. There, just a few years after the Wright Brothers’ first powered fight, he designed his first aircraft, the Feng Ru 1. His work captured the attention of the revolutionary Sun Yat-Sen, who later became the president of China. Sun Yat-Sen encouraged Feng Ru to return to China and build the nation’s aviation industry after touring his workshop. In 1911, Feng Ru made the journey home to embark on the mission of bringing aviation to his native country.  Unfortunately, his efforts were cut short in August of 1912 when he was killed performing aerial demonstrations in a plane of his own design.  It is reported that moments before he succumbed to his injuries he told his aides “Your faith in the progress of your cause is by no means to be affected by my death”.   Following Feng Ru’s untimely demise, Sun Yat-Sen himself insisted that he be buried with the title “China’s Aviation Pioneer.”[1]


Feng Ru in his Second Aircraft, Feng Ru 2

The story of Feng Ru illustrates that from the very beginning of the age of flight, individuals from China like Feng Ru carried a pioneering spirit and actively contributed to the industry’s technological development. Moreover, China’s own founding father took a great interest in the pursuit, and recognized early on the importance aviation would have for his country’s development.

In the following years, China would continue to produce designs during the early era of powered flight, such as the Rosemonde Biplane, an aerial observation aircraft, and the Schoettler I, the work of a German designer, but otherwise designed and built in China. [2]

Sun Yat-Sen and his wife Soong Ching-Ling in front of the Rosamonde, possible the first aircraft designed and built in China.

Throughout the tumultuous 20th Century, civil aviation would continue to play an important role in China’s economy. During the 20’s and 30’s, flying boats connected China by air with the United States and the West. During the Second World War, the national airline China National Aviation Corporation provided a crucial lifeline to China by flying supplies from India over the Himalayas on the perilous “Hump” route.[3] By this time, it was obvious that aviation was absolutely critical for the development of a country as large and geographically diverse as China.

A CNAC C-47 in flight. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of the US Air Force.

By the mid-twentieth century until the 1970s, China’s indigenous aircraft efforts mainly focused on military projects. However, in 1970, China’s aviation industry reached a turning point when the nation resolved to design and build its first indigenous jetliner. In 1980, the Shanghai Y-10 took its first flight and marked a major accomplishment for the nation. Although the aircraft itself was based on outdated and inefficient technology, resulting in its project’s early cancellation, the Y-10 was nonetheless solidified the resolve of China to develop its own large passenger jet program. You can read more about the Y-10 in a previous COMAC America blog.


The Shanghai Y-10

Much has changed in Chinese aviation since the days of the Y-10. Following China’s Reform and Opening Up period, the introduction of newer aircraft and safety standards from the west propelled the country’s aviation industry on a massive scale. Today, China is the world’s 2nd largest aviation economy, surpassed only by the United States. As more Chinese people are lifted out of poverty, they are taking advantage of the miracle of air travel. It is now predicted that by 2030[4], China will have become the world’s largest aviation economy.

Because of programs like the ARJ21, C919 and CR929, China is becoming much more than just a huge market for aviation; it is once again becoming an active contributor of original aircraft designs. These aircraft will be pioneers in the ever unfurling legacy of Chinese aviation.