The View from Xi'an
Sure it’s a little smoggy in this bustling central Chinese city, and the high-rise apartment blocks shooting into the sky often blot out an infrequent sunshine fighting to burn through the mist. Construction is rampant, and locals quip the new Chinese national bird is “the crane.”
You could say my feelings were also a little smoggy when I boarded our 13-hour non-stop Air China flight from JFK to Beijing, China’s gateway. I came to this vast country not knowing what to expect, and quite comfortable in my assumptions. That is: China’s relatively sudden thrust forward in general aviation is long on hope and short on reality. I came believing China’s effort at putting on an air show and aviation conference would never rival Oshkosh or NBAA.
My prejudices were naïve and incorrect. The energy at the third annual Chinese International General Aviation Convention was palpable. And I came away believing that China has all the essentials to build and fly world-class airplanes, to train pilots for its business, commercial and even civilian sectors, and to create from scratch an entire industry to support its aeronautical ambitions. They quite actively discuss a Chinese Moon shot, certainly within the Chinese space program’s reach, and building an aviation infrastructure will be just as challenging—but just as do-able.
Still, the things we take for granted in the States don’t exist here, or are in limited supply: City-convenient airports, fuel tankering and delivery, air-route structures and nav-aids, most importantly a free and unfettered air traffic control system. Our ability to decide on any given morning to file a flight plan, enter IMC and fly in congested airspace, receive vectors and radar advisories, then safely let down precisely on an ILS are things that don’t happen routinely in this country. But success is often written in identifying the unmet need: so American aviation leaders take note…As the City of Wichita and Cessna Aircraft Company have learned, there is opportunity where industries start small, and have a long view.
The Chinese have a driving national will, hoardes of yuan to invest, and smart leadership. China’s acquisition of leading brands and technologies like Cirrus, Mooney and Continental Motors attest to a knack for buying well those things they can’t make. There is substantial industry-government cooperation in the development of Chinese aviation, largely because in many instances the industry IS the government.
But that’s not enough. There has to be a national will to accomplish large national goals in any society. Judging from the huge crowds at the Peucheng air show—who evinced an Oshkosh-esque enthusiasm-- China’s population at all levels is simply fascinated by airplanes.
As Cessna’s Shijiazhuang-based general manager David Howard told me: “They have such tremendous enthusiasm. That’s where you start.” Their excitement suggests a significant national drive to make aviation happen in China. In America we had a century of building to establish our aerospace system. First NDBs, then VORs, now a ubiquitous GPS system. And we have heroes—the Wrights, Glenn Curtiss, Chuck Yeager, Burt Rutan—larger-than-life personalities who took us all forward. China’s sheer mass of money and talent, and the aviation sector’s vibrant energy evident in abundance in Xi’An, will in my judgment be enough to carry Chinese aviation forward.
The question is when. How long will it take? It took the Chinese thousands of years to build The Great Wall, stretching 1500 miles east to west. Thirty-feet high and festooned with massive watch towers, each brick weighs 24 pounds and they are stacked 30 feet high. The builders of the Great Wall simply had a different concept of time than you and me…
Time, to them, was irrelevant. That’s why questions of “when” as it pertains to Chinese aviation don’t really matter. They are already solving the “if,” and the “why.” And they are well on the way to resolving the “how.” For now, these are simply details. The big picture is written on the faces of all those aviation enthusiasts in Peucheng. It’s in the smile of the little Chinese kids when they look up in the sky and see an airplane…