Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


IF IMITATION IS the most sincere form of flattery, entrepreneurs of the People’s Republic of China are the world’s greatest sycophants. Back in 2012 at SimanaitisSays, I wrote “Software Pirating—Big Time.” Today, here’s a brief rundown of Chinese flattery in aircraft design. Automobile knockoffs (and not just the wheel nuts) will be highlighted here another time.

Cribbing aircraft design is nothing new. Back in 1944, the Soviets took advantage of four Boeing B-29s stranded in Siberia to reverse-engineer the design and produce the Tupolev Tu-4. First flown in 1947, this Russian bomber was built in quantity, 847 in total. Twenty of them ended up in the Chinese Air Force, some of these active until the 1990s. The Tu-4’s capabilities approached, but were inferior to, the genuine B-29’s. Lost in translation, I guess.

In 2013, Flying magazine ran an article “50 Years of Chinese Aviation Knockoffs” by Stephen Pope. Pope credits aviation enthusiast Bernardo Malfitano with assembling photos of Chinese aircraft juxtaposed with Western or Soviet designs on which they were based. Here are several of my favorites.

Above, the 2013 Xian Y-20. Below it, the 1991 Boeing/McDonald Douglas C-17.

The Boeing/McDonald Douglas C-17 Globemaster III has been the standard U.S. military transporter since its introduction in 1995. It’s also flown by air forces of Australia, Britain, Canada, India, Kuwait, NATO, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The Xian Y-20 lost 100,000 lb. of the C-17’s 585,000-lb. takeoff-weight capability in the translation.

Above, the 2012 Shenyang J-31. Below it, a 2000 prototype of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II.

Flying magazine notes that development of the Shenyang J-31 “is prompting China’s neighbors to again consider buying Lockheed Martin’s F-35s.” Based on what I gleaned in assembling “Lockheed Martin F-35—The Final Generation?” I wonder if the J-31’s specs, once revealed, will display capabilities again misplaced in translation.

You wanna drone? We’ll give you a drone. Above, the 2012 Yi Long UAV. Below it, the 2001 General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper/Predator B UAV.

According to Flying, the Chinese UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) “is purported to be a less costly alternative to the U.S.-made MQ-9 Reaper.” Aha, for once, a beneficial tradeoff of cloning. The Reaper serves in the U.S. Air Force, Navy, C.I.A., Customs and Border Protection, NASA, the British RAF and several other militaries. It’s expected to remain in service into the 2030s.

Last, if something is really good, there’s no reason why it can’t be ripped off more than once. The 1960 Chinese Yunshuji-6 bears a remarkable resemblance to the 1945 Soviet Ilyushin Il-12.

Above, the Chinese 1960 Yunshuji-6. Below it, the 1945 Soviet Ilyushin Il-12.

Both are more than evocative of the Douglas DC-3, which first flew in 1935. And, indeed, the Ilyushin Il-12 was a trike-gear redesign of the Lisonov Li-2, which was built by the Russians under license from Douglas between 1939 and 1952.

A Lisonov Li-2 photographed in Budaörs, Hungary, 2008. It was then the only airworthy Li-2 known. Image by VargaA.

It’s hard to keep a good design down. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. skip cusack
    May 4, 2017

    Too bad they didn’t copy the de Havilland DH 106 Comet.

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