Finding Opportunity as an Expat Pilot in China

What do Chinese operators look for when hiring an expat pilot? “… in reality, they simply need people who are able to pass the medical, pass a sim ride and have the type ratings they want.” Sam Weigel

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 fast-paced, 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 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.”

“It’s very fast-paced, 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. Sam Weigel

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.

Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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