TAK­ING WING

FIND­ING OP­POR­TU­NITY AS AN EX­PAT PI­LOT IN CHINA

Flying - - DEPARTMENTS - By Sam Weigel

A good friend finds op­por­tu­nity as an ex­pat pi­lot in China

If there’s one con­tin­u­ous strand that winds through the mot­ley ta­pes­try of my life, one sin­gle word that sums up who I am and what makes me tick, it’s wan­der­lust. My fam­ily, youth, ca­reer, mar­riage and pas­sions for mo­tor­cy­cling, sail­ing and fly­ing are all tied to­gether by a con­stant, in­vet­er­ate urge to head over the near­est hori­zon and see what­ever’s worth see­ing. Most of my friends, par­tic­u­larly those to whom I’m clos­est, are equally af­flicted by the com­pul­sion to roam. Given that, it’s not sur­pris­ing that Ed­ward Kraus and I be­came friends, or that his fly­ing ca­reer took him to the other side of the world, or that he has thrived there as a trans­planted stranger in a strange land.

I first met Ed in the sum­mer of 2001, when I was flight in­struct­ing in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Then a burnt-out soft­ware de­vel­oper with a pri­vate pi­lot li­cense and hopes of build­ing an avi­a­tion ca­reer, Ed wanted to get some prac­ti­cal IFR cross-coun­try time un­der his belt be­fore earn­ing his in­stru­ment ticket. It turned out that we had the same sort of des­ti­na­tions in mind, and over the next week we hit it off. Later that year, I re­turned to SoCal for a few days of ex­plor­ing the Pa­cific coast with Ed; we shared a nar­row scrape when our rented Piper Ar­row suf­fered a nearly si­mul­ta­ne­ous fail­ure of both at­ti­tude in­di­ca­tor and turn co­or­di­na­tor while we were in hard IFR over the rugged moun­tains of Big Sur. Shortly there­after, Ed ran out of money and moved back to his home­town in

South Florida, where he built time flight in­struct­ing. Our re­spec­tive ca­reers con­tin­ued to par­al­lel as Ed sub­se­quently flew cargo for sev­eral Part 135 com­pa­nies and then hired on with a re­gional air­line on the East Coast.

I was floored when Ed an­nounced he was mov­ing to China, with­out so much as a job of­fer. It shouldn’t have sur­prised me; as a re­gional first of­fi­cer, Ed spent so much of his time off ex­plor­ing the far-flung cor­ners of the earth that he didn’t bother main­tain­ing a home res­i­dence, and his trav­els had re­cently taken him to China a lot. I knew he was learn­ing Man­darin. But leave a fly­ing ca­reer mid­stream? “Fly­ing to La Guardia, Philadel­phia and Bos­ton, af­ter a few years it seemed re­ally rou­tine, not so ex­cit­ing,” he says now. “Af­ter vis­it­ing China a few times, and see­ing the sea of cranes build­ing new cities and new air­ports, and read­ing the news ar­ti­cles about star­tups with air­frame or­ders to the moon, it seemed like you couldn’t go wrong ex­plor­ing this path.”

I must ad­mit, Ed had great in­stincts. Shortly af­ter he de­cided to move, a fledg­ling Chi­nese re­gional air­line hired him as a di­rect-en­try CRJ cap­tain, de­spite his lack of tur­bine PIC time. The Chi­nese air­line in­dus­try was ex­plod­ing at the time, and China’s lack of do­mes­tic GA in­fra­struc­ture meant it was des­per­ately de­pen­dent on lur­ing ex­pat pi­lots to its shores. At a time when U.S. air­lines were suf­fer­ing bankruptcies, cut­ting pay, ditch­ing pen­sions and fur­lough­ing pi­lots by the thou­sands, Ed com­manded a salary 50 per­cent higher than U.S. re­gion­als were pay­ing their CRJ cap­tains, much of it tax-free, while en­joy­ing a high stan­dard of liv­ing at re­mark­ably low cost in the in­te­rior city of Xian. His am­bi­tious air­line went bust af­ter only two years, but as a now-ex­pe­ri­enced pi­lot with a Chi­nese li­cense and med­i­cal, Ed could ba­si­cally write his own meal ticket. He sub­se­quently got hired by one of the first busi­ness jet man­age­ment com­pa­nies in China, be­com­ing one of the coun­try’s first two Lear­jet 60-rated pi­lots! He now flies the Gulf­stream G650 on mis­sions span­ning the globe. Mean­while, he has em­braced life in China, be­com­ing flu­ent in Man­darin and mar­ry­ing a Chi­nese na­tional. Ed and Coco now have three adorable chil­dren, and split their time be­tween Shang­hai and their hobby farm on the banks of the Columbia River in Wash­ing­ton state.

Ed has been liv­ing and work­ing in China for over a decade now. I re­cently asked him what he likes and dis­likes about life “over there.” “It’s very fast­paced, and lots of new tech­nol­ogy is be­ing uti­lized in main­stream life — things like ride shar­ing, bike shar­ing, group buy­ing and shar­ing com­mu­ni­ties are very com­mon ev­ery­where,” Ed says. “When com­ing back to the U.S., I en­joy the quiet and less busy pace of life for the first week or two, but af­ter a while I do miss the buzz a bit. The poor air qual­ity is some­thing I dis­like — it’s not con­sis­tently ter­ri­ble, but home air fil­tra­tion sys­tems and air qual­ity mon­i­tor­ing sys­tems are part of life. Food safety is al­ways a con­sid­er­a­tion, but it’s fun eat­ing out with the lo­cals and try­ing new things. Home food de­liv­ery works great. You can get any­thing the next day — even or­ganic kale or av­o­ca­dos. It’s eco­nom­i­cal to have a do­mes­tic helper to cook, clean, do laun­dry and run er­rands for you. Taxis, metro, high-speed rail and Didi [the Chi­nese ver­sion of Uber] re­place all

“AF­TER VIS­IT­ING CHINA AND SEE­ING THE SEA OF CRANES BUILD­ING NEW CITIES AND NEW AIR­PORTS, AND READ­ING THE NEWS AR­TI­CLES ABOUT STAR­TUPS WITH AIR­FRAME OR­DERS TO THE MOON, IT SEEMED LIKE YOU COULDN’T GO WRONG EX­PLOR­ING THIS PATH.”

the has­sle of own­ing a car. There can be a lot of traf­fic, on the roads and on foot. I do miss quiet walks with­out a crowd.”

I fre­quently get emails from Ed with pho­tos of the in­ter­est­ing projects he’s been do­ing with the kids around their Shang­hai town­house and Wash­ing­ton farm. “I like in­vent­ing things,” Ed notes. “We’ve built a wood shop and an elec­tron­ics work­shop, and tree­house-like pods with slides for the kids through­out the house. I or­dered cus­tom stain­less-steel brack­ets on­line, plasma-cut to spec, and they ar­rived in a few days. For brack­ets, con­nec­tors, adapters, gad­gets — any­thing you can think of — you can or­der it on TaoBao and have it de­liv­ered to your house in no time. We or­dered a 100-watt CNC laser cut­ter and it came in a wooden crate a few days later. For pro­to­typ­ing gad­gets and ro­bot­ics, the parts are cheap, highly avail­able and the sup­ply chain is awe­some. I’ve de­signed cus­tom-printed cir­cuit boards; they ar­rive in three days.”

China’s airspace in­fra­struc­ture, on the other hand, is not quite so in­no­va­tive. “Every­thing is mi­cro­man­aged here,” he tells me. “You need a clear­ance for every­thing, even en­gine start. When as­signed a STAR, you of­ten get radar vec­tored in­stead. De­lays we don’t un­der­stand are com­mon due to ‘re­stric­tion.’ You are of­ten asked to de­scend from your cruise al­ti­tude 500 miles from your des­ti­na­tion — and ex­pe­dite while you are at it!” English is the of­fi­cial lan­guage of Chi­nese air traf­fic con­trol, but flu­ency tends to be ba­sic, Ed says. How­ever, many Chi­nese air­lines use lo­cal first of­fi­cers who can trans­late if needed. The main­te­nance is gen­er­ally com­pa­ra­ble to what he saw in the United States, with the added bonus that me­chan­ics in­spect the air­craft af­ter each leg and fix dis­crep­an­cies on the spot in­stead of de­fer­ring them via MEL/CDL as is com­mon here.

Ed says the pi­lot short­age in China has changed in the time he’s been there: “It seems that the large, state-owned air­lines are catch­ing up. The big­gest short­age, right now, is the star­tups and low-cost car­ri­ers that don’t have the cadet pipe­line and train­ing sys­tem in place.” To at­tract and re­tain ex­pat pi­lots, many of these air­lines now of­fer “ro­ta­tion con­tracts,” which al­low one to com­mute from their home coun­try. The most de­sir­able op­tion, in which one works for one month fol­lowed by a month off, with air­line tick­ets each way cov­ered by the em­ployer, “is some­thing that ex­ists, but it’s hard to find.” More com­mon is a six-weeks-on, three-weeks-off sched­ule, or two months on, one month off. These ro­ta­tion con­tracts typ­i­cally pay $12,000 to $16,000 per month for both nar­row-body air­line and cor­po­rate op­er­a­tors, Ed says, com­pared to $16,000 to $26,000 per month for full-time pi­lots. An­other change is that many air­lines are now choos­ing to con­tract di­rectly with crew in­stead of us­ing an em­ploy­ment agency as an in­ter­me­di­ary. “To be hon­est, agen­cies don’t al­ways help,” Ed says, not­ing that he no longer uses one. “They don’t have con­trol over many as­pects of the con­tract and HR-type stuff, and of­ten re­fer you to the air­line or op­er­a­tor di­rectly for ques­tions once you are hired.” Be­fore con­tract­ing with an air­line or go­ing through an agency, Ed sug­gests find­ing other pi­lots who have real-world ex­pe­ri­ence with that air­line or agency and get­ting a re­port on their ex­pe­ri­ence.

When Ed first came to China, Amer­i­cans made up a large por­tion of the ex­pat pi­lot pop­u­la­tion due to the in­dus­try dis­tress back home. Now that things have im­proved in the U.S. air­line in­dus­try he says that ra­tio has de­creased. “There are many Euro­peans, quite a few Aus­tralians, and I know sev­eral South Africans as well,” he says. Ed ad­mits that it is pretty un­com­mon to “go na­tive” quite to the ex­tent he has; the ma­jor­ity of for­eign pi­lots “tend to group

to­gether in neigh­bor­hoods that of­fer ser­vices catered to ex­pats. Some­times this feels like liv­ing in a bub­ble, iso­lated from the real world, but some­times it cre­ates a re­ally ex­cit­ing in­ter­na­tional en­vi­ron­ment where you meet peo­ple from all over the world.”

I asked Ed what Chi­nese op­er­a­tors look for when hir­ing an ex­pat pi­lot, and his hon­est an­swer made me chuckle. “They should be look­ing for a will­ing­ness to live in China, the abil­ity to get along with peo­ple from dif­fer­ent cul­tures and back­grounds, and be­ing able to put up with sit­u­a­tions that are way dif­fer­ent than the way you are used to. But in re­al­ity, they sim­ply need peo­ple who are able to pass the med­i­cal, pass a sim ride and have the type rat­ings they want.” As al­ways, de­mand drives hir­ing, and de­mand re­mains strong in the still-ex­pand­ing Chi­nese avi­a­tion in­dus­try. And the re­quire­ments that Ed men­tioned aren’t ex­actly gim­mies ei­ther. The Chi­nese med­i­cal is no­to­ri­ously tough, though Ed says it has at least be­come more stan­dard­ized, with a cen­tral com­puter sys­tem that records and tracks all re­sults. “The most com­mon fail­ures I hear about are things like mild col­or­blind­ness, kid­ney stones, gall­stones or other con­di­tions the pi­lot wasn’t aware of back home. If you have some­thing that’s slightly ab­nor­mal, they some­times don’t know how to as­sess it.” The process of con­vert­ing one’s li­cense and com­plet­ing ini­tial train­ing can be quite long and ar­du­ous as well. “It can eas­ily add up to six to nine months, and there’s usu­ally no in­cen­tive to ac­cel­er­ate it,” Ed says, not­ing that ro­ta­tion con­tracts won’t typ­i­cally al­low you to go home un­til you have some time on the line.

There’s no ques­tion in my mind that Ed made the right choice to go to China, con­sid­er­ing where the U.S. avi­a­tion in­dus­try was in 2007 and the life he’s built abroad. “Some­times,” he says, “I look at my air­line friends back home who have a good sched­ule and a rou­tine, and that ap­peals to me. Some­times I think I’d be bored. The grass is al­ways greener on the other side. I think the key is to iden­tify op­por­tu­nity around you, make the most of where you are, ap­pre­ci­ate life and en­joy the jour­ney.” I agree whole­heart­edly. The funny thing is that but for a slight change in cir­cum­stances, Ed’s jour­ney to the other side of the world is one I might well have fol­lowed. In 2008, it looked like my then-em­ployer would be fur­lough­ing, and I made con­tacts for a job fly­ing Em­braer 190s in China and pre­pared Dawn and my­self for a move there. The in­dus­try here at home has im­proved since then, but his­tor­i­cally it’s been a cycli­cal busi­ness; I sus­pect most younger pi­lots to­day will see tough times at some point in their ca­reer. Con­sid­er­ing that pos­si­bil­ity, I think Ed’s point about iden­ti­fy­ing op­por­tu­nity around you — or even on the other side of the world — is ad­vice ev­ery as­pir­ing pro­fes­sional pi­lot should take to heart.

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