Region VII: Middle East/Asia (MID)

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China Hosts Its First General Aviation Fly-In

August 22, 2011

Do you remember your first fly-in? Remember the roar of engines, the smell of avgas, and the excitement of being so close to so many aircraft? A lot of aviation professionals will tell you they made their career choices then and there.

Yinsei Jason Zhang hopes to instill that feeling in millions of his countrymen. Zhang is on the board of the Aircraft Owners & Pilots Association (AOPA)-China, which is sponsoring his country's first-ever general aviation fly-in late next month; an event he believes will fan a growing interest in flying.

"In general, people aren't very well aware of the concept of general aviation," Zhang explained. "We want to let them see it in action."

During the fly-in September 25th and 26th, almost two dozen aircraft will participate in yet another first – an aerial migration from an airport approximately 150 kilometers (90 miles) east of Beijing, to another facility approximately 60 kilometers (36 miles) from the capital. Because that airspace remains closed to civilian traffic, Zhang said the Chinese Air Force has given his group unique permission for the gaggle.

Approximately 500 people will attend the event, which Zhang said is restricted to rotor-wing aircraft only.

"These two airports that we have access to for this event are really very small airports," Zhang continued. "The infrastructure is more suited to helicopter operations at this point. Also, there is a great interest in helicopters among Chinese people. I would say it's even greater than in the United States or Europe."

Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at the Teal Group in Washington, DC, said he thinks that makes sense for China right now.

"China could be a fantastic market for all of general aviation," he explained. But the government's total control of its airspace, which it is just now beginning to open to general aviation, and the lack of GA infrastructure nationwide, make helicopters a logical first step for development of the aviation industry in China.

To develop that infrastructure, Jason Liao, NBAA's chief representative in Asia, believes it will take a huge culture shift.

"Because of the rigid restrictions of the airspace, in China there is not that much of an aviation culture," Liao said from his office in Beijing. "Aviation is something far away from people's daily lives. I think this fly-in will spur lots of interest."

To facilitate that cultural awakening, Zhang and other members of the AOPA China board of directors spent a lot of time in the US. Melissa Rudinger, head of government affairs at AOPA, plans to attend the first China fly-in and has been working with AOPA-China members visiting the United States as they research similar events here.

"It's exciting to be part of this first event," Rudinger said. "I'll be interested to see first-hand how it's actually conducted. The Chinese had a large contingent at EAA's AirVenture [the Experimental Aircraft Association's annual AirVenture Oshkosh event] the past couple of years. They also participated in AOPA's Aviation Summit last year. They came with the expressed purpose of seeing how these fly-ins are conducted, with an eye toward establishing similar events in China," Rudinger said.

Zhang predicted the fly-in would also bring his countrymen to the realization that they need help establishing and growing a general aviation industry in China. That, he suggested, could mean vast opportunity for NBAA members.

In a recent conversation with a Chinese business aviation operator executive, Zhan said he asked what the industry's biggest need is. "People," came the reply. "We need experienced people who know how to do things on all levels and in all positions."

Zhang said there are opportunities for NBAA companies, but suggested they require a measure of forward planning.

"Have a three-year or five-year strategy to bring your brand name [to China]," he suggested. Aviation manufacturers and operators hoping to capitalize on China's burgeoning GA market should invest in branding first, Zhang offered. "If you don't do that in China, when the sales really start to pick up, you'll find yourself in the back of the line."