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Cheng Bushi: My Life on the Wing
Text by Yang Yunqian Photographs courtesy of Cheng Bushi unless otherwise credited


Cheng stood in front of a Y-10 jet in 2004. It used to be a sore point for Cheng, who served as deputy chief designer of the jet, that the Y-10 project was terminated in the 1980s.  Cheng Bushi, already in his late eighties, leads a life which has been closely tied to the development of the country’s aircraft industry. by Lai Xinlin   28-year-old Cheng (third from right) stood in front of a Shenyang JJ-1, the first jet independently developed and manufactured by China in 1958.

During the celebration on the afternoon of May 5, 2017, after the successful maiden flight of the C919, one senior in the crowd was particularly emotional. “China isn’t behind global leaders in aviation by much,” cried Cheng Bushi, a member of the C919 expert team. “We gained experience and built our own team from the Y-10 project, which eventually formed the powerful core we needed to build the C919. In the future, we are bound to face more challenges and overcome more difficulties, but our confidence will only grow.”

One of the first-generation Chinese aircraft designers, Cheng Bushi served as deputy chief designer of the Y-10, China’s first commercial jet airliner developed in the 1970s. In 2007, the C919 project, a plan to develop a domestically-built large passenger jet, was officially approved. In 2008, the Shanghai-based Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd. (COMAC), a state-owned aerospace manufacturer devoted to implementing major national projects related to large and medium-sized passenger planes, was established. Cheng was invited to join the C919’s expert team. During the C919’s design and research phase, Cheng oversaw the program from a wider angle and provided consultation on various parts of the plane, including the head, body, wings, and engines, as well as various experiments on things like system integration, static testing and trial flights.

The successful maiden flight of the C919 drew heavy attention to China’s large passenger planes. “I have been involved in China’s aviation industry for more than six decades and designed small as well as supersonic aircraft,” asserts Cheng. “It used to be a sore point that we didn’t have our own jumbo jets. But this makes up for it. I have no regrets now.”

Cheng was born in 1930 in Liling, Hunan Province. After graduating from high school in 1947, Cheng was determined to “build aircraft for the motherland.” “Earlier, I attended a middle school in Guilin, Guangxi, where I saw the Flying Tigers battling the invading Japanese air force with my own eyes,” recalls Cheng. During the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, Guilin served as an air base for the First American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force, nicknamed the Flying Tigers. “I wanted to design aircraft like that to take down Japanese warplanes.” In 1947, with great aspirations for the aviation industry, Cheng was admitted by the Beijing-based Tsinghua University. Tsinghua was the first university in China to launch a department of aeronautical engineering, which opened in 1938. With its wealth of brilliant professors including renowned aerodynamicist and aeronautical engineer Shen Yuan and fluid mechanics expert Lu Shijia, the department became independent in the 1950s and eventually became Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. When Cheng entered the university, China’s aviation industry was quite nascent. While many of his 40-plus classmates eventually decided to change majors, Cheng stuck it out with aviation to the end.

In 1956, China decided to organize its own aircraft design. Cheng, who was appointed director of the overall design team of the No. 1 Aircraft Design Office, took part in the design of Shenyang JJ-1, the first jet independently developed and manufactured by China, which he considered his first chance to live out his dream. 

After World War II, global aviation development gradually shifted focus from military to civilian use. From the flying machine developed by the Wright brothers to modern long-range airliners capable of carrying heavy cargo, the two major breakthroughs in air technology in the 20th Century remain the jet engine and large planes. Cheng has participated in the realization of both breakthroughs in China.



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