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.
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 1,000-yuan 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 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 drone-like 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, 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 1,000-yuan 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.