The first clear image has emerged of a ‘wide body’ variant of China’s Z-8 helicopter. According to AFM correspondent and China aerospace observer Andreas Rupprecht, the Z-8L is a further development of the Z-8G, which entered People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Army Aviation Corps service in late 2017 or January 2018.
The new Z-8L version first flew at the end of 2017 and compared to all previous Z-8s features a wider internal cargo bay and a pair of large sponsons (perhaps for external fuel tanks) on both sides of the fuselage.
The Z-8G – also often called Z-18A – is a dedicated army transport derivative of the better-known naval Z-18s.
The Z-18 has its roots in the Z-8F-100 project that first flew in 2010 as the civilian Avicopter AC313, China’s largest helicopter to date. This is a further update based on the Harbin Z-8 workhorse – itself a development of France’s original Aérospatiale Super Frelon.
The basic Z-8 family has been in service since the early 1980s, and it was expected that a military successor would follow in due course. The new variant entered development at the No 602 Institute and with Changhe as the Z-18. As noted, it is based on the AC313 design and features a redesigned fuselage providing a larger internal cabin, and improved WZ-6C turboshaft engines (developing around 1,300kW each) for improved hot and high performance. Additionally, it makes extensive use of composite materials and has a new glass cockpit for its two pilots.
The first version of the new helicopter to enter service was the standard Z-18 White Heron, which serves as a VIP transport on board the aircraft carrier Liaoning. Later, three more naval versions were noted under test and/or in low-rate production. These included the anti-submarine/anti-ship Z-18F Sea Eagle, the Z-18J Bat airborne early warning variant, and a search and rescue variant for the China Coast Guard.
The Army Aviation Corps was only established in January 1988 and for years it was a low priority behind even the PLA Naval Air Force (PLANAF), let alone the PLA Air Force (PLAAF). However, in the years that followed it has been expanded through the creation of several operational regiments. Currently the most widely used types are the Z-8 and Mi-17/171 for transport, Z-9 for liaison and reconnaissance, and the Z-10 and Z-19 combat helicopters.