Gen­eral Avi­a­tion in China

Flying - - We Fly - BY PIA BERGQVIST

How­ever, very lim­ited in­fra­struc­ture, strict airspace re­stric­tions and a gen­eral lack of un­der­stand­ing of avi­a­tion have hin­dered the po­ten­tial growth of GA within the coun­try it­self.

Be­fore my re­cent trip to China, I had the mis­con­cep­tion that gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions of gen­eral avi­a­tion were so re­stric­tive that GA flights were es­sen­tially nonex­is­tent in the vast Asian coun­try. And while the reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment makes fly­ing on any­thing but the air­lines oner­ous, such flights are not pro­hib­ited. I had a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence first­hand what kinds of fly­ing ac­tiv­i­ties are al­lowed to­day, and what the fu­ture might hold.

The main rea­son for my trip was an in­vi­ta­tion to speak about gen­eral avi­a­tion fly­ing in Amer­ica at the In­ter­na­tional Avi­a­tion In­dus­try Sum­mit Fo­rum 2017 at the Zhengzhou Uni­ver­sity of Aero­nau­tics in Zhengzhou — the cap­i­tal of the He­nan prov­ince, home to well over 9 mil­lion peo­ple. The fo­rum pre­ceded the third an­nual Zhengzhou Air­show at the Shangjie Air­port on the out­skirts of the city, which in­cluded the For­ma­tion Aer­o­bat­ics Chal­lenge (FAC) — an in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion put on by the Fédéra­tion Aéro­nau­tique In­ter­na­tionale (FAI) with teams from all over the world bat­tling it out in the skies in pur­suit of a per­fect per­for­mance.

The in­vi­ta­tion came through my long­time friend Dean Sira­cusa, who de­vel­oped Fly­ing Eyes sun­glasses, which are now pro­duced in China. This was my first trip to a coun­try where I couldn’t un­der­stand a sin­gle word, whether spo­ken or writ­ten (with the ex­cep­tion of the oc­ca­sional English signs). For­tu­nately, Dean’s busi­ness part­ner in China, Steven Chen, who is very well-con­nected in the avi­a­tion in­dus­try there, came along as our in­ter­preter.

The morn­ing after Dean and I ar­rived in Beijing, I learned about one big threat to the suc­cess of GA: the high-speed rail sys­tem. An aero­dy­nam­i­cally shaped silver snake that looked like some­thing out of a sci-fi movie whisked us from the cen­tral sta­tion in Beijing to Zhengzhou, a dis­tance of ap­prox­i­mately 385 miles. This was a direct high-speed train, mak­ing the jour­ney in about two and a half hours with speeds of 305 kph dis­played in the cabin, which con­verts to 165 knots — faster than many light GA air­planes. Chen said the same trip would have taken eight to 10 hours a decade ago.

He ex­plained that the train network was de­vel­oped through gov­ern­ment in­vest­ments. It be­came ev­i­dent that when the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment makes plans for pub­lic trans­porta­tion, it plans big. The train sta­tions we went to were mas­sive, mod­ern and very clean, much like in­ter­na­tional air­ports.

Chen also said the trains are very reli­able, and there are sta­tions in pretty much ev­ery small town in the coun­try, mak­ing the sys­tem a highly suc­cess­ful trans­porta­tion form whether trav­el­ing for busi­ness or plea­sure. At 309 yuan (about $45) per per­son for the Beijing to Zhengzhou trip, it is quite af­ford­able too. For those on a tighter bud­get, the reg­u­lar train for the same jour­ney costs about $14 but takes nearly six hours.

Once at our des­ti­na­tion, we spent a cou­ple of days in meet­ings with school of­fi­cials and sev­eral dig­ni­taries from Chi­nese gen­eral avi­a­tion or­ga­ni­za­tions. The con­ver­sa­tions fo­cused on col­lab­o­ra­tions and re­la­tion­ships, which were words we heard many times through­out our visit as peo­ple are try­ing to make sense of this bud­ding in­dus­try.

The Zhengzhou Uni­ver­sity of Aero­nau­tics was es­tab­lished in 1949. How­ever, there is no flight train­ing di­rectly associated with the school. It of­fers un­der­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate stud­ies in sub­jects such as en­gi­neer­ing, fi­nance and man­age­ment, as well as many non-avi­a­tion-re­lated sub­jects. The school does, how­ever, col­lab­o­rate with schools that con­duct flight train­ing in other cities.

Dur­ing the fo­rum, I was pleas­antly sur­prised to see that about half of the avi­a­tion dig­ni­taries were women, a marked con­trast to the avi­a­tion in­dus­try in the United States. The dis­cus­sions in­cluded the need for open airspace, which ap­peared to con­firm some of my pre­con­ceived ideas.

Ac­cord­ing to Wang Xia, sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Gen­eral Avi­a­tion Com­mit­tee of the China Air Trans­porta­tion As­so­ci­a­tion (CATAGA), gen­eral avi­a­tion flights have never been pro­hib­ited in China. How­ever, the fly­ing that takes place there is nearly as dif­fer­ent from that in the United States as the cul­ture, food and lan­guage. For ex­am­ple, it is im­pos­si­ble to­day, and highly un­likely in the fu­ture, for a Chi­nese pilot to de­cide one morn­ing to take a buddy to an­other air­port for a 1,000yuan Pek­ing duck, as we do with our $100-ham­burger plea­sure flights.

Flights can be con­ducted quite freely be­low 1,000 me­ters (about 3,280 feet), as long as the air­craft stays within a de­fined area and lands at the place where the flight orig­i­nated. How­ever, in or­der to fly to an­other air­port, a pilot or

There has been a lot of talk about the po­ten­tial for gen­eral avi­a­tion in China, and it ap­pears that Chi­nese en­trepreneurs are hun­gry for Amer­i­can avi­a­tion com­pa­nies. In the past decade, es­tab­lished Amer­i­can GA busi­nesses such as Cir­rus, Mooney, Gla­sair and Con­ti­nen­tal Mo­tors have be­come sub­sidiaries of Chi­nese com­pa­nies.

op­er­a­tor must ap­ply to fly a cer­tain time and day. Ver­i­fi­ca­tion must be made at the de­part­ing air­port, with the op­er­a­tors of the airspace in be­tween, and at the des­ti­na­tion air­port that there are no con­flicts and to en­sure there are ser­vices avail­able. Cur­rently, it can take any­where from three to seven days to get ap­proval, said Zhi­jun Wu, chief mar­ket­ing of­fi­cer of the Badal­ing FBO in Yan­qing, so ad­vanced plan­ning is crit­i­cal.

With the open­ness to flights in the vicin­ity of the air­port of de­par­ture, air­shows are al­lowed. Air­show Zhengzhou 2017 was in many ways sim­i­lar to big U.S. air­shows, with air­planes per­form­ing in the sky, ven­dors galore, static dis­plays and thou­sands of peo­ple cran­ing their heads to the skies. There were, how­ever, some glar­ing dif­fer­ences. At the en­trance, iden­ti­fi­ca­tion was re­quired, and there were metal de­tec­tors to walk through and se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in black jump­suits pat­ting down ev­ery­one who walked through the gates to en­sure a safe en­vi­ron­ment.

An­other dif­fer­ence was the many sky­div­ing per­for­mances, with fire­works si­mul­ta­ne­ously shoot­ing away from the teams once their para­chutes were de­ployed. And un­like air­shows in the United States, where ven­dors sell tools, hard­ware and soft­ware de­signed for air­craft own­ers, there were mostly drone­like toys, T-shirts and trin­kets for sale. Some gen­eral avi­a­tion air­planes were on dis­play, but there were more drones than manned air­planes. From what I heard, the show planes were shipped in and as­sem­bled on-site. Sur­pris­ingly, there were at least two in­ter­na­tional gen­eral avi­a­tion air­planes that man­aged to fly in: a Piper PA-46 Jet­prop from Thai­land and a Mooney M20M from Switzer­land. Their com­plex flights were planned with help from AOPA UK.

One stand that caught my eye at the show was AOPA China’s. The or­ga­ni­za­tion is a sub­sidiary of the In­ter­na­tional Coun­cil of Air­craft Owner and Pilot As­so­ci­a­tions (IAOPA) with about 2,000 mem­bers. AOPA here in the United States claims it has hosted about 200 Chi­nese dig­ni­taries in the past eight years in an ef­fort to help them bet­ter un­der­stand GA and to fos­ter growth in the Chi­nese GA mar­ket.

While I knew Mooney had a fa­cil­ity

in China, it came as a com­plete sur­prise to see two mas­sive hangars adorned with Mooney lo­gos at Shangjie Air­port. The hangars were full of air­show ven­dors, but a Mooney rep told me the com­pany is work­ing on the Chi­nese pro­duc­tion cer­tifi­cate for the Ac­claim to en­able pro­duc­tion for the Chi­nese mar­ket. It also hopes to start build­ing the M10 once Mooney fi­nal­izes the con­fig­u­ra­tion and achieves the TC for the new en­try-level air­plane.

Cur­rent ac­tiv­i­ties at the mas­sive air­port in­clude sky­div­ing and avi­a­tion sports, us­ing a Pilatus PC-6 Porter and a Nan­chang Y-5; pilot train­ing for fixed-wing and he­li­copter li­censes, us­ing var­i­ous air­planes and he­li­copters; and other avi­a­tion support op­er­a­tions. It ap­peared that there were im­mense fa­cil­i­ties just wait­ing for more fa­vor­able GA poli­cies.

The good news is that, in the past few years, the cen­tral Chi­nese gov­ern­ment has put a heavy em­pha­sis on grow­ing the GA mar­ket, as it did with the train sys­tem years ago. State Coun­cil Doc (2016) No. 38, named “Guid­ing Opin­ions to Pro­mote the De­vel­op­ment of the Gen­eral Avi­a­tion In­dus­try,” was re­leased last year, with the ul­ti­mate goal of hav­ing a gen­eral avi­a­tion air­port in each of China’s 2,800 coun­ties, ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­pre­ta­tion by Fran­cis Chao, the man­ag­ing direc­tor and pub­lisher of the China Civil Avi­a­tion Re­port. There is also guid­ance in the doc­u­ment to re­lax low-alti­tude airspace re­stric­tions, build 500 new air­ports by 2020 and in­crease the num­ber of GA air­craft from 1,874 (when the doc­u­ment was cre­ated last year) to 5,000 by 2020. That may sound like a lot, but the more than 210,000 ac­tive gen­eral avi­a­tion air­craft in the United States (per AOPA’S sur­vey in 2015) put the dif­fer­ences in per­spec­tive.

GA flight ac­tiv­i­ties that have been in op­er­a­tion for decades in­clude agri­cul­tural flights, forestry ser­vice, fire­fight­ing and aeromed­i­cal trans­port. An­other use that ap­pears fairly well es­tab­lished is sight­see­ing flights. We saw he­li­copter op­er­a­tors out­side the Shaolin Tem­ple, tak­ing tourists on aerial tours of this spectacular Bud­dhist monastery and kung fu train­ing cen­ter, which was es­tab­lished in A.D. 477 and spans acres of gar­dens and build­ings in­tri­cately dec­o­rated with sculp­tures and de­tailed painted art­work.

The cen­tral gov­ern­ment al­lows prov­inces to build their own in­fra­struc­ture and cre­ate their own poli­cies,

Gen­eral avi­a­tion flights have never been pro­hib­ited in China. How­ever, the fly­ing that takes place there is nearly as dif­fer­ent from that in the United States as the cul­ture, food and lan­guage.

and Xia said some prov­inces al­low cer­tain flight ac­tiv­i­ties be­tween cities quite freely. She said there are about 30 char­ter op­er­a­tors in China, but they are not very suc­cess­ful be­cause the cost is very high, mak­ing the mar­ket de­mand low.

But isn’t there a lot of money in China? An­other bar­rier to suc­cess is the pub­lic per­cep­tion of pri­vate avi­a­tion. Xia said wealthy peo­ple used to have jets, but pri­vate avi­a­tion is seen by the pub­lic as too lux­u­ri­ous. And with the cur­rent fo­cus on anti-cor­rup­tion, high-rank­ing ex­ec­u­tives in gov­ern­ment po­si­tions pre­fer other means of trans­porta­tion. This gen­eral at­ti­tude to­ward avi­a­tion, sim­i­lar to the neg­a­tive per­cep­tion of flight de­part­ments in the United States that re­sulted after the Big Three car man­u­fac­tur­ers’ visit to Wash­ing­ton dur­ing the mar­ket crash nearly a decade ago, could be the big­gest ob­sta­cle to the fu­ture of 1,000yuan Pek­ing duck flights.

What will be dif­fi­cult for peo­ple in China to see is that GA can be for ev­ery­one and there are many peo­ple in the United States with a mid­dle-class in­come who can af­ford to fly for fun or to trans­port them­selves to des­ti­na­tions near and far. Also, a large ben­e­fit that busi­ness avi­a­tion holds over the ef­fi­cient train sys­tem is the pri­vacy an air­craft cabin pro­vides busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives. The abil­ity to quickly travel be­tween cities sep­a­rated by great dis­tances for meet­ings is an­other great ad­van­tage that must be high­lighted.

After our ex­pe­ri­ences in the He­nan prov­ince, we re­turned to Beijing for an avi­a­tion treat of a life­time. A scenic drive took us through the moun­tains north­west of Beijing, where we saw sev­eral sec­tions of the Great Wall, to a lit­tle town called Yan­qing, near a popular view­ing area called Badal­ing. We drove through the gates of the Yan­qing Air­port, which has been there since 1998 and cov­ers an area greater than the Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port. The ma­jor­ity owner of the air­port is Hainan Air­lines, of China. How­ever, there doesn’t ap­pear to be any com­mer­cial traf­fic, and the sin­gle Runway 13-31 is only 2,700 feet long.

Lo­cated at the air­port is Badal­ing FBO, which con­ducts pri­vate and com­mer­cial flight train­ing, air­craft main­te­nance, FBO ser­vices and the as­sem­bly of air­craft after ship­ping. To date, the com­pany has re­assem­bled more than 30 air­planes, and it owns a to­tal of about 60 air­planes of var­i­ous types. It also pro­vides sight­see­ing flights.

Like at all pub­lic air­ports in China, the se­cu­rity at the Badal­ing FBO was tight. Walk­ing out on the tar­mac, I had no idea what to ex­pect from this flight, other than that we would fly over the Great Wall. The thought of that ex­cited me, but my ex­cite­ment level was ex­po­nen­tially elevated, first by the fact that we were get­ting into a Cir­rus SR20 adorned with Chi­nese let­ters on the wings, and sec­ond be­cause our pilot was a fe­male Chi­nese na­tional, Dong Liu, who had been con­duct­ing sight­see­ing flights at Badal­ing FBO for about a year and re­cently re­ceived her in­struc­tor cer­tifi­cate in China.

Speak­ing through Chen as the in­ter­preter, Liu told me she grew up near the Beijing Cap­i­tal In­ter­na­tional Air­port, which spurred her in­ter­est in avi­a­tion. But be­com­ing a pilot was atyp­i­cal, and Liu de­cided to study com­put­ers in­stead. Then fate in­ter­vened. After grad­u­at­ing, she got a job work­ing for Hainan Air­lines. One day, the com­pany of­fered se­lect can­di­dates the op­por­tu­nity to go to Canada to learn to fly. She jumped at the chance.

Dur­ing our short dis­cus­sion be­fore Liu had to bring her next group of tourists up in the Cir­rus, her eyes lit up when she spoke of the free­dom of flight she ex­pe­ri­enced in Canada. When I asked what she hoped for the fu­ture of avi­a­tion in China, her answer was clear: more open airspace and the abil­ity to ap­ply and fly the same day, just what the whole in­dus­try hopes for.

Chao said he be­lieves the growth of GA in China is crit­i­cal to the na­tion for nat­u­ral-dis­as­ter re­lief and to help pro­mote de­vel­op­ment west of what is re­ferred to as the “Hu Line,” an imag­i­nary bor­der through China that Chi­nese ge­og­ra­pher Hu

Huany­ong drew in the mid-1930s. He found that about 95 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lived east of the line, an area that rep­re­sents only 43 per­cent of the coun­try’s ter­ri­tory.

Xia said the lack of in­fra­struc­ture, over-reg­u­lated airspace and pub­lic per­cep­tion are not the only ob­sta­cles to suc­cess. The dearth of re­sources with re­gard to airspace man­age­ment, air traf­fic con­trol, FBO ser­vices and other GA support must also be reme­died. All of this trans­lates into a lot of new jobs, some­thing the GA in­dus­try in the United States has seen. The Na­tional Busi­ness Avi­a­tion As­so­ci­a­tion claims that gen­eral avi­a­tion in the United States sup­ports 1.1 mil­lion jobs and $219 bil­lion in eco­nomic im­pact. In a coun­try with a much broader pop­u­la­tion base, these num­bers in China could be much greater.

If the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment does as well with its plans to grow the gen­eral avi­a­tion in­dus­try as it did in im­ple­ment­ing the coun­try’s train sys­tem, the GA in­dus­try in China could very well be a story of great suc­cess.

Run­ning at about 305 kph (165 knots), high-speed trains are a threat to GA in China. The rea­son for my visit to China was to speak to stu­dents at a uni­ver­sity in Zhengzhou. When the Chi­nese build, they build big, as ev­i­denced by Mooney's fa­cil­ity there (pre­vi­ous page).

Air­shows could help in­spire the next gen­er­a­tion, like this young boy, to con­sider gen­eral avi­a­tion ca­reers. About 60,000 peo­ple came to see the ac­tion at the Zhengzhou Air­show this year. Along with the aer­o­bat­ics com­pe­ti­tion, parachute per­form­ers were a crowd fa­vorite.

Sight­see­ing flights over ma­jor his­tor­i­cal land­marks, such as the Great Wall, are wellestab­lished. Fly­ing in a Cir­rus in China with a fe­male pilot was an un­ex­pected and mem­o­rable ex­pe­ri­ence.

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