Chinese fans

A powerful European turbofan, still at the test stage, is exciting interest from plane makers in the US and China. George Paloczi-Horvath tracks the take-off of the BR715

The first full-power run of the latest BMW Rolls-Royce turbofan at the Dahlewitz plant near Berlin last month marked the start of a new phase to sell the engine – with China as a key potential customer.

The Chinese want a turbofan to power their AE100 regional airliner, a joint project with Airbus Industrie, while McDonnellDouglas in the US has ordered the BR715 version for its own MD-95 regional airliner.

Richard Smallwood, BMW Rolls-Royce’s business vice-president, is confident that Boeing – about to merge with McDonnellDouglas -will back the MD-95 programme, thereby securing a major portion of BMW Rolls-Royce’s future business.

BMW Rolls-Royce was set up as a standalone company in July 1990. Its remit is to build turbofans in the BR700 series in the 12,000-23,000lb thrust range to power business jets and regional airliners. The BR710 has been bought by Gulfstream to power its GulfstreamV business jet. It has also been chosen for the RAF’s Nimrod 2000 maritime patrol aircraft. The first production BR715s will be delivered to McDonnell Douglas in June 1999 for installation in MD-95s on order for Valujet.

Just which turbofan will be chosen by the Chinese is a matter of debate. Aviation Industries of China (AVIC) and Airbus disagree on how large the AE100 airliner might become. Airbus and AVIC have tentatively agreed on developing 100-seat and 125-seat versions. But China also wants a 135-140 seater. This could threaten Airbus’s hopes of selling China more of its larger A320s.

There are two engines BMW Rolls-Royce might offer for the AE100, which Airbus also calls the A318. These are the BR710-56, a turbofan best suited for a true 100-seater, and the BR715-56 for the larger aircraft.

Airbus is expected to resist the Chinese drive for the larger airliner. The PW6000 from Pratt & Whitney of the US and a US-French CFM engine are also chasing the contract.

BMW Rolls-Royce says talks on the AE100 continue with Airbus and the Chinese. Engineers from China have been working on secondment at Dahlewitz, on a rota with replacements every six months. But BMW Rolls-Royce intends to guard its most sensitive technology. Worries about Chinese intentions are based on the suspicion that they simply want to `cherry pick’ the best technology and modify it, which would pose a major commercial threat to Western aerospace companies. It is also feared the Chinese might want to modify civil aerospace production technology for military purposes.

The journal Aviation Week & Space Technology revealed a Pentagon report on the Chinese diverting machine tools used to bend and shape parts of McDonnell Douglas airliners (built under licence) to military uses. The equipment may be used now for China’s F-10 fighter and indigenous cruise missiles.

Sensitive technologies for BMW Rolls-Royce are turbine nozzle guide vanes, low pressure blades and high pressure compressors. BMW Rolls-Royce and its US rival General Electric are concerned to protect casting technologies used in high pressureturbines.

Although China is a lucrative long-term customer to be courted (and watched), BMW Rolls-Royce has its hands full developing the BR715 for its MD-95 application.

The work going on between now and June will concentrate on a survey of the low-pressure turbine, and then the front-end booster which provides the BR715 with higher thrust than the smaller BR710.

Fan vibration and flutter testing, plus checks on booster and high pressure compressor stability, will complete this phase of the work. The second of nine test engines will join the programme in June.

Next comes crosswind and thrust reverser testing at Rolls-Royce’s facility in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire; these tests will be finished by the end of July.

After this, the first test engine will be stripped and examined, while the second engine goes for altitude and icing testing at the Defence Evaluation Research Agency near Farnborough, Hampshire. This will continue until August; bird-strike tests will be done by November. With the first flight on an MD-95 due in spring 1998, and certification in September, this is a very tight schedule.

Albert Schneider, chairman of BMWRolls-Royce, says a `conservative’ hope is that the company can sell more than 3,000 turbofans in the BR700 range between 1996 and 2010, representing about a third of the global market for this category. Some 72 engines will be built this year, increasing to 120 in 1998 and then to an annual 200.

Future marketing, apart from the MD-95 application for the BR715 and the Chinese hopes, is being directed towards Russia and re-engined Boeings.

At BMW Rolls-Royce, Smallwood says the BR710 will be offered for Russia’s Tupolev Tu-334 airliner, but it is not yet clear how Tupolev can finance development.

BMW Rolls-Royce has also joined US aircraft maintenance and modification company Dee Howard to consider how noisy Boeing 727s could be re-engined with hush-kitted BR710s or BR715s.

All eyes are obviously on the Chinese and the AE100 programme. Chinese sources say it may take until the end of the year to resolve the dispute with Airbus, but a provisional agreement has been pencilled in for this month.