A Chinese firm’s new bid to buy shares in a failing plane-maker which started in the Soviet-era has aviation analysts wondering if the world’s largest plane will soon have siblings.
The lesser-known Beijing Tianjiao Aviation Industry Investment Company is awaiting regulatory approval from Ukraine’s anti-monopoly watchdog for its undisclosed offer for a stake in aero-engine giant Antonov Serial Production Plant.
The Antonov plant produced the An-225 Mriya – a six-engine strategic airlifter that is the world’s largest plane by weight, length and wingspan.
The ill-fated An-225 program was grounded following the collapse of the Soviet Union not too long after the series’ first and only cargo transporter, sporting six turbofan engines hooked on a plump airframe with an oversized twin tail, took to the air in 1988.
The colossal air transporter dubbed “monster of the skies” was subsequently mothballed for years, until it was given a new lease of life as a commercial cargo workhorse with a maximum takeoff weight of 640 tonnes to haul bulky payloads like airframe parts and even space shuttles. Its size comfortably dwarfs more recognized double-deck jumbo jets like the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380.
Previous reports since 2016 reveal that Antonov had agreed to complete a second An-225 airframe for China’s Aerospace Industry Corp as a prelude for the latter starting production of a localized series.
Rumors were rife then that the state-owned giant would resurrect the An-225 program with a Chinese touch, including improvements to its landing gear and avionics to serve the Chinese military, as well as an air-launch platform for commercial satellites.
But some Chinese papers including the Global Times say the Beijing firm has a keener interest in acquiring more than half the shares of Ukraine’s Motor Sich, an aero-engine manufacturer of the Ivchenko Progress D-18 turbofans that propel the An-225.
The latter deal, if it goes ahead, would give a lift to China’s indigenous aero-engine industry. Ukrainian engineers are reportedly already packing up their drawings and luggage for China.
A formal announcement can be expected as early as in next week according to a filing on the Shanghai Stock Exchange website. It said the Chinese Air Force and commercial carriers already have 13 types and more than 1,200 aircraft engines built by Ukrainian companies like Motor Sich.
The ailing engine-maker lost Russian clients when Kiev’s relations with Moscow soured and is now sitting on a stockpile of turbofans and turboprops. Ukraine’s aviation industry is in a dire need of orders to stay afloat, so it is an opportune time for Chinese investors to scoop up bargains, as well as a transfer of talent and technology.
China is still playing catching up in aerospace and aviation sectors, as it launches a slew of projects, from developing more powerful engines for its fifth-generation fighters to flying homemade wide-body passenger jets.
Both Beijing and Kiev laud their amicable money-for-technology cooperation. In the late 1990s, China bought the carcass of the Soviet-made heavy cruiser, the Varyag, before repurposing and re-christening it the Liaoning – the first aircraft carrier of the Chinese Navy.