The Chinese tactical helicopter that debuted at the National Day parade on October 1 is the first in China to use fly-by-wire controls that make the aircraft easier and safer to fly in complicated battlefield situations, military experts said.

“The handling of the Z-20 is more sensitive, as it is China’s first domestically made helicopter to use a fly-by-wire control system,” Z-20 pilot Song Xinning told China Central Television (CCTV).

Unlike traditional flight control systems that use a series of mechanical linkages to directly pass on the pilot’s control inputs to the aircraft, fly-by-wire processes the inputs through a computer which tells the aircraft to perform what is required, an anonymous military expert told the Global Times.

Thanks to the computer that can do extra calculations, the pilot can maneuver the aircraft more easily and stably, the expert said, noting the technology is common on fixed wing aircraft, but less common with helicopters due to complexity and cost.

The computer is also lighter than mechanical linkages, meaning the aircraft can use the spare weight capacity for other purposes, the expert said. Song did not mention if a traditional flight control system is still installed as a backup on the Z-20, the report said.

The Black Hawk, a US utility helicopter with which the 10-ton Z-20 is often compared (some even call the Z-20 “the Copy Hawk”), also saw an experimental fly-by-wire retrofit in June, which enabled the chopper to become optionally piloted, according to a statement released in June on the website of Lockheed Martin, parent company of Black Hawk maker Sikorsky.

According to Popular Science, the flight marked the first time that Sikorsky had tested the precursor for this Black Hawk autonomy system in the air.

The backbone of the PLA ground force’s air transport team is believed to be Russian-made Mil Mi-17s, purchased from Russia in the 1990s. Credit: Chinese Military Aviation.

The set-up was a simpler version of an autonomous flight system called Matrix that the company has already been testing in another helicopter, known as the Sikorsky Autonomy Research Aircraft, or SARA.

It can already do futuristic things, like fly itself from one point to another after a pilot tells it to using an input device as simple as a tablet. And like a self-driving car, it has sensors on the outside to perceive its environment.

Zhang Qiqi, another Z-20 pilot, told CCTV that as pilots of the army air assault force they need to not only fly helicopters, but also play the role of a commander, coordinating air and ground forces, giving proper guidance and making them cooperate.

The easy-control fly-by-wire factor enables pilots to better take that role, the anonymous expert said.

The Z-20 is a medium-lift utility helicopter that can adapt to different terrains and weather and can be used in missions including personnel and cargo transport, search and rescue, reconnaissance and anti-submarine operations, experts said.

“The Z-20 is supposed to fill a long-time void in the helicopter fleet of the People’s Liberation Army. Hopefully, it will fulfill the requirements of the PLA’s ground force and navy,” Wang Ya’nan, deputy editor-in-chief at Aerospace Knowledge magazine, told globalsecurity.org.

“Though we now have the advanced WZ-10 and WZ-19 attack helicopters in the army, the absence of a suitable, Chinese-made utility helicopter hampers the army’s ability to transport strike forces and carry out support missions.”

The situation will change if the Z-20 enters into service soon, he said.

The backbone of the PLA ground force’s air transport team is believed to be Russian-made Mil Mi-17s, purchased from Russia in the 1990s and a variation of the Mil Mi-8, which was imported by China in the 1970s, globalsecurity.org reported.

China also bought 24 Sikorsky S-70 series medium-lift helicopters from the United States in the 1980s and assigned them to transportation tasks in high-altitude, mountainous regions of the Tibet and Xinjiang Uygur autonomous regions.