The idea of general aviation in China might still be new to many people, but, thanks to recent relaxations in government policy, there are currently a substantial number of organisations working hard to open up Chinese skies to the masses. Karl Drage attended the 3rd Shenyang Faku International Flight Convention and 2014 Shenyang Airshow as a crewman with the Twister Duo.
Contrary to popular belief outside of China, GA is not a recent arrival in the country. Indeed, the lineage of its modern GA industry can be traced back as far as 1951. Back then, the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China (CAAC) was using Curtiss C-46 Commando aircraft to perform pest-control duties.
However, some 30 years later, the country as a whole was only recording just over 40,000 flight hours within the GA banner each year – as near as damn it a quite remarkable 1,000 times lower than in the United States. That number actually decreased in the early 1990s, and it was this dip which prompted the CAAC to re-examine its policies in order to promote the growth in GA, which CAAC believes can make a significant economic contribution to China as well as generating sizeable employment opportunities.
Despite significant expansion being recorded since CAAC started to take action (GA flight hours more than doubling within a decade), there remained a number of key barriers to things really taking off. High rates of import tax (100% in some provinces), a lack of GA facilities and strict controls on airspace all made it difficult for GA in China to get off the ground.
It is said that one of the most significant events to lead to progress was the 2008 earthquake which devastated Sichuan province and claimed some 70,000 lives. With poor road infrastructure and not enough GA aircraft, the government was left hamstrung and unable to access many of the towns and villages worst hit, prompting a highly unusual request for international assistance. Recognising the worth of such assets, the government began to offer incentives to operators to buy aircraft that could be used in an emergency situation.
In 2012, it published a five-year plan to build a “popular and diversified” civil aviation industry. With the Chinese economy flourishing – at a time where much of the rest of the world was in crisis – it forecast “Civil aviation market demands will grow more vigorously. The independent innovation capabilities of China will be improved. There will be more high-tech products and products with high added value ‘made by China’”.
These words were not to be taken lightly, and Chinese investors – wealthy individuals, existing aviation companies and even provincial governments – buoyed by the belief that the government would back anyone investing in GA, have begun to look at investment opportunities within the aviation sector across the globe. Many world-leading manufacturers, such as Airbus, Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter), Cessna and Diamond now have Chinese production lines as a result, and some are even owned outright (Cirrus, Enstrom, Extra, Glasair & Mooney, to name just a few).
One of the most significant problems was to be addressed in November 2013. Airspace within China is controlled by the military – the People’s Liberation Army – and anybody wishing to fly in Chinese airspace is required to file a flight plan. However, prior to the new legislature plans needed to be submitted several days in advance for even the shortest of flights. The new ruling meant that approval could be received within just a few hours, though certain areas still make use of the previous system on account of their location close to borders or military operating areas. Whilst still not ideal, it represent a substantial improvement in the status quo for anyone wanting to operate GA aircraft in the country.
Investment has not just been in the manufacturing arena either. Whilst China has some 200 airports, most are either of a commercial or military nature. As such, for GA to really become viable there needs to be an expansion in the number of airfields available – particularly so when the country is as vast as it is. It has begun.
A perfect example of this is Caihu Airport. Built on the banks of Fortune Lake, a stone’s throw from the town of Faku and some 120kms north of Shenyang, Caihu Airport is a very modern facility. Substantial, brand new hangars continue to spring up – ultimately destined to be used for aircraft manufacture on site – a perfect 800m hard runway runs NW-SE and a sizeable concrete apron dominates the scene.
On the doors of one of the hangars lies an artist’s impression of what the completed facility could look like, complete with water runway and hangarage for the adjacent floatplane operation. Significantly, the image depicts brand new urban areas on all sides of the lake, complete with skyscrapers. While the picture is already out of date, it’s clear to see that the Chinese authorities have made the connection between GA and a thriving economy. And who can blame them? The General Aviation Manufacturers Association estimates that GA contributes a staggering $150bn to the US economy every year, as well as providing jobs for 1.2 million people. It’s not hard to see why the authorities are excited by the prospect of what GA could offer.
The 3rd Shenyang Faku International Flight Convention and 2014 Shenyang Airshow was held at the picturesque Caihu Airport and open to the public from 27 to 31 August after being formally opened a day earlier.
The show provided the first opportunity for the Red Bill China FireStars Aerobatic Team – based at the show site itself – to display with a full complement of four XtremeAir XA42s. They are the first civilian aerobatic team to be based in China and the only four-ship XA team in the world. Founded by Shenyang resident Zhao Wei in 2012, the team is led by leading South African competition aerobatic and airshow pilot Mark Hensman. Mark “Sammy” Samson and Leigh LeGonidec each flew in the #2 slot during the five days over which the show was held, with Jason Beamish #3 and Nigel Hopkins #4.
As one might expect, the display features a number of distinct elements, with four-ship rolling manoeuvres accompanied by smaller ensembles before the display is concluded with some rousing opposition passes, most notably Hensman’s rock solid, inverted, low-level pass and Hopkins’ breath-taking knife-edge work.
Additionally, on a number of show days, Zhao Wei, who is China’s first pilot of unlimited aerobatics, treated the crowds to his own performance of solo aerobatics.
As stated in the introduction, my own reason for being in Faku was to act as a crewman for the British Twister Duo of Pete Wells and Guy Westgate, who were present to perform both regular daytime and pyro shows each day. Along with the FireStars, they were the only aerobatic teams present at the show. Unfortunately, each day’s display programme concluded long before sunset, so the pyro display had severely limited impact for those on the ground, save for a couple of occasions where the sky was sufficiently blue to allow the glowing fireworks to be visible to the naked eye.
One of the nicest surprises for me was the pair of Swan Airlines Beriev Be-103 “Bekas” floatplanes, B-3659 and B-3660. The routine performed varied from day-to-day and sometimes featured just one aircraft. The formation flypasts – particularly through a long-lens, compressing the view – were great to watch, but the landings on the lake, from the point of view of the airshow goer, were completely wasted, as the lie of the land meant that the aircraft simply disappeared out of sight before touching down… It was therefore somewhat perplexing why this was repeated on more than one occasion each day…
The last (and only other) time I’d seen a Be-103 was at the Gelendzhik Gidroaviasalon in Russia back in 2006, at which time I had the opportunity to experience a water take-off and landing in the type.
A new type for me altogether was provided courtesy of the Harbin Y12-II jump platform used by two teams of parachutists and flown twice each day. The international component was made up of ten jumpers from various countries, whilst the second comprised a four-strong Chinese team. The first jump each day was a straight freefall, with the following one featuring just the international element, who positioned themselves into an impressive looking diamond-shaped stack.
The Y12, B-3829, is operated by Sanjin General Aviation and is not entirely dissimilar looking to a Twin Otter.
Without doubt the most innovative type to perform at the show was the Ruixiang RX1E electric powered aircraft, with B-988L (001) and B-755L (002) flying a non-dynamic two-ship demonstration. The aircraft are made of a carbon fibre composite material and powered by a lithium battery capable of producing powered flight for 40 minutes. The battery takes 90 minutes to recharge at a cost of a mere 50 pence, according to Liaoning General Aviation Academy, which manufactures the aircraft in Shenyang.
Another pair to take to the skies was that of the Shi-Jia-Zhuang City produced Kitty Hawk -500, B-9247 and B-9248, a type which bears an uncanny resemblance to the SOCATA TB20.
Completing the line-up was a triumvirate of paramotors.
On the ground, a range of aircraft manufacturers were present, each eager to show off their wares to any would-be purchasers. Multiple examples of the Cessna 162 Skycatcher – manufactured locally by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation – could be found amongst light sport types, whilst Tecnam was in evidence with P2002H and P2006T models and additional Kitty Hawk 500s.
In the VLA (Very Light Aircraft) category were several Ikarus C42s (including B-9537, which tragically crashed in the town on 26 September with the loss of the two crew on board), a Zenith STOL CH 750 and a Nynja, amongst others.
Of the more unusual looking types on display was VH-SZS, a Seabird Seeker (SB7L-360 Seeker 2), which is being manufactured in Australia and Jordan as a light observation aircraft. It is capable of operating in a variety of roles including pipeline inspection, aerial photography and surveillance. Interestingly, the type is being operated by the new Iraqi Air Force.
Another rather different machine was the Progressive Aerodyne SeaRey, owned intriguingly by the “Seven-spotted Ladybug Flying Club”. Over 500 examples have been built (600 kits sold), and the manufacturer has opened a Shanghai office, from where it hopes to gain Chinese certification.
The Hiller Aircraft Manufacturing Company began work on a production facility in Zhangjiakou City in 2009 and is conducting the low-rate manufacture of UH-12 parts and sub-assemblies. I was rather surprised to find a UH-12 on static display, complete with crop-spraying equipment.
Other rotary types present included a pair of locally produced Airbus Helicopters EC130s and a very smart looking indigenous Avicopter AC311 light utility helicopter.
The land-locked flying machines were supplemented by a smattering of high-end cars, a fashion show and a skydiving simulator.
The event concluded on the Sunday in what this Westerner could only describe as rather unusual fashion. After a substantially shortened flying display programme, a number of aircraft were lined up on the runway facing one another. Not for the first time on the trip, we were left somewhat bemused by the prospect of what was going to happen next.
First, fire crackers were set off, then the aircraft started to taxi towards one another, coming to a halt a matter of 15 or 20 metres apart. The aircraft were the transportation for four brides and grooms who had decided to get married at the show!
Amidst much media interest, the couples all came together for some pictures, and, for all I know, the whole event could easily have been for some television programme or other. There were a few occasions at Faku where things just passed us by….
It had been a busy and enjoyable show for a number of reasons. In all honesty, the GA scene doesn’t really get my juices flowing, however, I can very definitely see why it’s getting the Chinese excited. As the barriers continue to shrink, there’s every chance that GA could take off in a huge way in China, and that likely means good news for jobs and the country’s economy. At last it seems like some momentum is finally being built on that score, and it’ll be interesting to see how things progress over the next few years.