* Eurocopter CEO sees breakthrough in China helicopters soon
* China expected to unveil big orders for new passenger jet
* Canada’s Bombardier touts for new Chinese business
(Adds details, background)
By Tim Hepher and Alison Leung
ZHUHAI, China, Nov 15 (Reuters) - China could be ready to build its own civil helicopter from scratch by the end of the decade, a top Western industry official said on Monday, a move likely to strengthen its bid to become a new aviation power.
The prediction by the head of the world’s largest civil helicopter maker, Europe’s Eurocopter, came on the eve of the Zhuhai air show where China is expected to flaunt its strategic ambitions by announcing big orders for its first passenger jet.
Despite a fast-growing economy and vast geographical area, commercially operated helicopters are a rare sight in China because of military restrictions on low-level flight. Just 200 are in service compared with 12,000 in the United States.
But the aviation industry expects those rules to change in the next two or three years. And once opened up, the market could grow at a furious pace and not only attract foreigners but spark local production, Eurocopter Chief Executive Lutz Bertling said.
“I expect China to be building new helicopters in the 2020s ... and I see a fully China-developed helicopter by the end of this decade,” Bertling said in a joint interview with a selection of journalists attending China’s largest air show.
Most existing Chinese models incorporate outside designs or are produced under licence. EADS EAD.PA subsidiary Eurocopter has two such partnerships dating back to 2006 and 1992.
Bertling said China would need 500 new helicopters in the next five years and 1,000 within a decade.
Eurocopter has a 41 percent share of the small Chinese civil market ahead of nearest rival Sikorsky UTX.N, Bertling said. Asia is already growing fast and could outstrip the United States as a source of new orders this year, he added.
China’s mooted ambitions in helicopters fit a pattern well under way in passenger jets, albeit so far with mixed results. As a source of wealth and national prestige, aerospace has been awarded strategic status in China’s five-year plan.
Executives gathering for the show near Hong Kong from Nov. 17 said state-controlled aircraft maker Comac would announce the first orders for the C919, due to enter service in 2016.
Leading national airlines are likely to be the buyers and one supplier said it was “not a question of whether but how many” planes, barring a surprise glitch in the negotiations.
The C919 poses a direct threat to the most popular planes made by Boeing and Airbus, the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 families of jets, but with a shorter range.
Analysts say foreign airlines will be sceptical about buying until the plane and its maintenance network prove themselves.
But any apparent pressure on Chinese airlines to support the project could remind investors of the long-term difficulties Airbus and Boeing will face in protecting their shared throne from pretenders in China, Japan, Canada, Brazil and Russia.
Airbus sealed a 102-plane order from China during a state visit to Paris by President Hu Jintao last week but fine print revealed the new part of the order was for 66 planes.
Airbus is mulling plans to upgrade the A320 family with new engines to leapfrog the C919 and Bombardier BBDb.TO C-Series from Canada, which is already nibbling at its market share.
Bombardier will be in Zhuhai in the hope of grabbing orders.
China has had less success with a 78-seat regional jet, the ARJ21, which is due to be delivered next year. The Zhuhai air show will be a chance for Chinese officials to update buyers on the plane, which industry critics have described as overweight. (Editing by James Regan)