The canopy of the new stealth fighter capable of transporting China is its most intriguing feature


China once again made headlines for its military technological advancements on October 29, 2021, when it became clear that the long-awaited version of its FC-31 medium-weight stealth fighter had flown. The war zone was among the first outlets to report this development, as well as give a preliminary analysis, which you can read here. Suffice it to say that this revelation was major for the Navy of the People’s Liberation Army (PLAN).

This jet will eventually equip the third aircraft carrier of the PLAN, as well as those which will follow, the first indigenous design of the country, which will include catapults and is well advanced in its construction. Yet the feature of this naval fighter adaptation of Shenyang Aircraft Corporation’s FC-31 – sometimes referred to as J-35, J-31, and J-21 – that is most intriguing is its canopy and cockpit configuration. Here’s why.

Prior to the emergence of this latest iteration of the FC-31, the prototype and the refined version that followed it, both land planes, featured a bubble-shaped canopy with decent rear visibility. Now, this new transportable variant has a completely revised canopy and cockpit that has no rear visibility. Instead, the top of the fuselage blends almost flush with the rear of the upper canopy. In fact, it is extremely similar to the configuration found on the F-35, and almost identical to that of the F-35B.

Chinese internet

The refined “V2” configuration of the FC-31, with its bubble canopy, from which the navalized variant is based. This new version capable of carrying would remove this feature and replace it with a configuration very similar to the F-35B.




Although the FC-31 is clearly “influenced”, at least to some extent, by the F-35, unlike this fighter design, it has no short take-off and vertical landing requirement (STOVL ). The inclusion of the STOVL requirement for the F-35B resulted in significant design penalties that will be “paid for‘by the other two non-STOVL variants throughout their service life. The main driver of these problems was the need to install a huge hoist fan motor behind the cockpit of the F-35B which is powered by the main motor via a shaft and clutch system.

So, compared to the F-35 program, one of the biggest opportunities with a new midweight stealth fighter design like the FC-31 is not hampered by the STOVL requirement. This should translate into a more efficient, cheaper and better overall design, at least compared to the manufacturing capabilities available in China. As such, it’s quite intriguing that China chose to avoid the bubble canopy on its transport-capable FC-31 derivative, thus eliminating rearward visibility. While the F-35’s Distributed Opening System (DAS) helps situational awareness of threats around the aircraft, not being able to physically look over your shoulder remains a complaint. major F-35 pilots. Of course, like anything else, this is a trade-off and is offset, at least to some extent, by the other high-tech advantages of the aircraft, as well as the advantages of having the F- 35B compatible STOVL in inventory.

Chinese internet

The navalized FC-31 with its revised canopy configuration.




What’s more interesting is that China has opted for a nearly identical canopy-cockpit configuration to the STOVL F-35B, which reduces rearward visibility even more than its F-35A and F-35C counterparts. In fact, when the images of the navalized FC-31 first appeared, my immediate reaction was to wonder if it was somehow a joint STOVL and CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery), which doesn’t make sense. It looked like they had adopted the F-35B’s layout for a lift fan behind the cockpit. Upon closer examination, it is clear that this is not the case. You only need to look at the location of the front landing gear for proof. So other factors are clearly at play.

Royal Air Force / Crown Copyright

The canopy-cockpit configuration of the FC-31 naval variant resembles very similar to the F-35B, much more than that found on the F-35C capable of carrying.




While images of the navalized FC-31 are limited in numbers and fidelity, this canopy change is likely for one main reason, as well as the possible result of a few other contributing aspects.

The most important factor would be the fuel. Maximizing the fuel load of a tactical jet is already a critical design factor, but for a type intended to operate at sea, possibly without another landing site at its disposal (blue water operations), this becomes a top priority. . This design change likely reflects this reality, with the visibility of the reward being traded for more fuel stored in an appropriate area in a dual-intake fighter like this, behind the cockpit in the central fuselage area.

The fact that stealth planes lose their primary advantage when equipped with drop tanks makes it even more important to find more room for internal fuel, as does the fact that this is a thirsty and relatively twin-engine aircraft. svelte that must also accommodate internal weapon bays, making the struggle to find room for additional fuel even more critical.

aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A promotional image showing the ground variant of Shenyang’s FC-31 with its weapon bay configuration fully visible.




Again, this is all compounded by the carrier’s operating environment. With that in mind, expanding the spine area behind the cockpit and eliminating the bubble canopy makes sense. There are also potential aerodynamic benefits with such a design fit.

The aircraft’s unobservable capabilities could be improved by this canopy arrangement. The canopy and the cockpit below are among the most difficult elements to make unobservable in terms of radar signature. Additionally, a camera system loosely similar to the DAS on the F-35 that could also provide missile approach warning as well as general situational awareness of what is going on around the jet could be part of the process. final design of the navalized FC-31. Even a more basic rear camera and warning system could help overcome this problem. This is in addition to a deeper sensor fusion and data connectivity that would be provided in an advanced fighter with the latest avionics like the FC-31.

USMC

The transportable F-35C still retains a canopy similar to the Model A which has a larger rear view.




But again, our analysis is that this was done, perhaps with other less egregious adjustments to the design, to maximize the jet’s internal fuel volume for naval operations. It is also possible that information about the canopy and cockpit configuration of the F-35B was obtained by china which would support an almost identical configuration to the F-35B.

Hopefully we’ll see some higher resolution photos of this new FC-31 spin-off so we can get a clearer look at the other improvements.

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