The View from Xi'an

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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…

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (7)

When will China get to where we are now?

China's enthusiastic military, commercial and private aviation expansion plans are in full effect. They are eager for knowledge and skills and some things or some bumps on their airways(?), just don't seem to matter to them. I am sure they are planning on achieving, at least, our level in aviation.

Let's see. They have 1.3+ billion people in the same real estate as in the USA. No problem.
Their per capita income is about $10,000, ours is over $50,000. No problem.
They have no NAS, no ground based navigational system, GNSS should take care of that. I few bucks here, a few bucks there. No problem.
They have 507 airports, we have over 13,000. No problem.
Their population has little Aeronautical experience we have a lot and it is for sale or rent, therefore, no problem.
They have no GA aircraft and no private flight schools, no flight instruction core. No problem.

We have a declining private and commercial aviation industry, with about 2,000 schools, about 587,000 active pilots and about 143,000 GA aircraft and 7,000 commercial aircraft. We have a problem, they have no problem.

When will they get to where we are now? The answer is, in 20 years.
And when will we get to where they are now? The answer is, in 20 years

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 30, 2013 10:49 AM    Report this comment

I had this very conversation with my niece, a thirty-something, burnt-out school teacher in southern West Virginia - but about education in America, although one could fill in the blank with just about any other American endeavor these days. We have everything we need to accomplish anything we want - except the will.

The Chinese have a sense of mission and purpose; they would never, for example, tolerate the outrageous lawsuit climate we have here; they would simply sweep it away, recognizing the energy and financial resources it drains from our Nation. They would never tolerate the kind of school system we have, put up with the behaviour of our children in schools, or that of their parents when their children predictably get in trouble. Criticise the Chinese however you wish, but the fact is, they have a sense of mission and purpose that we now lack, and while we wrestle with the low priorities, they tackle - head on - the high-priority ones.

I am not optimistic about our future - aviation or otherwise. My advice to young parents? Teach your children Mandarin.

Posted by: JAMES WILLS | October 31, 2013 5:08 AM    Report this comment

I find it scary that I am in total agreement with the comments of Rafael and James...and apparently we have the company of a very large percentage of America's citizens.

We have lost our way and our basically leaderless country is now on a seemingly unstoppable downhill slide to a future of second-string mediocrity. I suppose that is the inevitable fate of nations. Too bad, though. It was a fun ride.

Posted by: John Wilson | October 31, 2013 9:23 AM    Report this comment

While a large group of pilots (endlessly) lament about America, a larger, younger group of Americans invents the future.

It's amazing how self-fulfilling living in the past can be.

Posted by: Peter Kuhns | November 1, 2013 9:33 AM    Report this comment

Right on, Pete. Consider the tired whine coming from the current blog also.

Posted by: David Miller | November 1, 2013 12:40 PM    Report this comment

"Self-fullfilling living in the past". The past is the base for the present and the future. It is non-sense to diregard prior experience or to re-invent the wheel commiting the same mistakes. Why pay for the same real estate twice? China is a political and commercial competitor exerting real pressure - it is not a video game we are in. Our jobs and the stregth of the economy is affected. Crying or complaining does not do much but deliverate action to prevent damage is. Some choose to ignore the problem or are not aware or have fallen asleep or just don't care while self-fulfilling with fantasies of the future.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 11, 2013 9:05 AM    Report this comment

"We have everything to accomplish everything we want - except the will." I like it. Thanks James Wills.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 11, 2013 9:17 AM    Report this comment

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