China conducted the first flight test of a new helicopter that is widely seen as being modeled off the U.S.-made Sikorsky UH-60, which is usually called “Black Hawk.”
The Global Times, citing pictures from an online Chinese military forum, reported that the Z-20 medium-lift utility helicopter made its first flight in northeast China on Monday. The report said that the supposedly homemade design filled the People Liberation Army’s need for a medium utility helicopter. It added that the helicopter has a capacity of 10 tons and is similar in appearance to the U.S.-made Black Hawk helicopter.
In the 1980s, China purchased 24 S-70C-2s, a supposed civilian variant of the Black Hawk that had impressed Chinese leaders due to its ability to fly at high altitudes. However, it is widely believed that the 24 S-70 C-2s are operated by the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Moreover, Pakistan’s intelligence service gave Chinese engineers access to one of the highly-modified Black Hawks that was used by U.S. Marines in the operation that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011. The helicopter that Chinese engineers viewed and took samples from crashed during the course of the operation. Although the U.S. Marines detonated the downed helicopter the tail of it survived the explosion.
Thus, it seems quite possible that this latest “indigenous” creation from China was heavily inspired by foreign designs. There would be extensive precedent for this. Besides China’s general history of cloning foreign defense technology, last year it unveiled a new helicopter, the Z-10/WZ-10 attack helicopter, which it claimed was designed and built indigenously. Earlier this year, however, Sergei Mikheyev, General Designer of the Kamov Design Bureau, a Russian helicopter designer, revealed that his company had secretly provided China with the initial designs of the Z-10/WZ-10 in the mid-1990s. Some have speculated that China has also cloned Boeing’s AH-64D Apache.
Still, The Aviationist points out that there are some notable differences between America’s Black Hawk and the Z-20. Specifically, the Z-20 has a 5-blade rotor compared to the 4-blade rotor on the Black Hawk, a larger cabin and a different landing gear and tail. Based on the location of the flight test, Aviation Week suspects that it was built by Harbin Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation (HAMC).
As for usage, South China Morning Post quotes a Chinese military analyst as saying the Z-20 “fills a blank in the Chinese military arsenal.” Another military commentator who appeared on Chinese state TV reportedly said that the Z-20 should be categorized as something between agile attack helicopters and heavy transportation helicopters. SCMP views the helicopter as extremely versatile and able to perform a variety of missions including assault, transportation, electronic warfare and special operations. The Hong Kong-based newspaper also said Chinese media reports had speculated that it may be flown off certain Chinese ships, including the country’s only aircraft carrier. Another potential usage would be to use the Z-20 to deploy PLA troops to the mountainous, resistive region of Tibet.
The Aviationist predicts the Z-20 will eventually replace the PLA’s Mi-17 and Mi-171 helos.