That’s a more interesting flight than I ever want to take.

China AirborneChina Airborne by James Fallows

Opportunity or threat? That’s what this book boils down to, an examination of just what the government-driven and -financed economic boom in China means to the West. I warn you, there is no pat answer to the question by the end of the book, but your bewilderment will be much better informed.

Fallows writes for the Atlantic Monthly and spent six years in China “not” reporting on it (they wouldn’t give him a journalist’s visa so he just said he was there as a consultant). He’s a private pilot and has written a lot about aviation, including a book called Free Flight, about an American aviation company that built a better plane and were then bought out by the Chinese. Here, he examines the Chinese economy through the lens of China’s nascent aviation industry.

The introduction will raise the hair right up off your head, as he climbs into an airplane prefatory to flying from one Chinese town to an air show in another and serially suffers through pretty much all the problems heir to aviators in China. First no government permission to take off, then there is no fuel available, when it’s found it’s old Soviet fuel, which is very possibly bad fuel. Fallows writes

In pilot school, you’re taught to be hyperconscious of the quality of the fuel going into the gas tank…Claeys and I rationalized that if the fuel was bad enough–who knows how long it had been in those Soviet-airplane tanks, or where else it might have been–the engine wouldn’t start at all.

It does and they take off. Then their air controllers disappear on descent into their destination. And in weather, too. Yeah. That’s a more interesting flight than I ever want to take, but it’s pretty much the norm for private flights in China.

Because in China the PLA or People’s Liberation Army has dominion over the air, with only narrow, torturous, sidewindery exceptions carved into air lanes for commercial carriers. I visited China in 2005 and I remember one approach to an airport (it might have been Turfan) (maybe) where we corkscrewed into a landing bad enough to give me a crick in my neck. The topography was flat as a pancake, mountains only a distant presence on the horizon and it was clear and calm and broad daylight, but there was no long, straight approach for us. When we flew into Beijing it was night and the approach was absolutely dark right up until we touched down, no long strips of motels and chain restaurants and car parks. Nothing like Seatac, that’s for sure, and it has to be deliberate. If anyone attacks, China is hoping they get lost on the way there.

This military domination over the air has all the attendant problems one might expect (imagine if the Pentagon ruled American air space), but that’s only one of the many problems Chinese aviation faces.

…building a certified commercial aircraft is much more difficult than going to the moon,” [Tedjarati] said. “A moon shot is a single mission. You’re sending four or five people. If the people die they become national heroes. This is so much more complicated, because you’re making something for the public that they’re going to be using around the world, and nothing can go wrong.”

“Perhaps,” Fallows writes

…the strongest and most important of these general trends in China is the sense that things are possible.

But, like building a certified commercial aircraft, it ain’t gonna be easy.

[China] has yet to show comparable sophistication with the “soft” ingredients necessary for a full functioning, world-leading aerospace establishment. These include standards that apply consistently across the country, rather than depending on the whim and favor of local potentates. Or smooth, quick coordination among civil, military, and commercial organizations. Or sustaining the conditions–intellectual-property protection, reliable contract enforcement and rule of law, freedom in inquiry and expression–that allow first-rate research-and-developments institutions to thrive and to attract talent from around the world…If China can succeed fully in aerospace, then in principle there is very little it cannot do.

There are many, very well-informed doubts that it will be able to do so. But that air of possibility is infectious, and you understand why Fallows found Western pilots and mechanics crowding every airfield in China, convinced that China was the place to go to make their fortune. Everyone alive to the possibility of doing future business in China, Boeing, Airbus, the FAA, the American Chamber of Commerce, they’re all in China going full throttle, doing their best to bring China into the world’s aviation community.

My favorite story is of course the one about the Alaska Airlines pilot who invented required navigation performance (RNP), a GPS-generated waypoint method of landing in bad weather in rough terrain. He proved it worked in Juneau, Alaska (anyone who has ever suffered through the dogleg on approach to Juneau can relate) and then sold his company. To the Chinese, of course. In China, Naverus (Navigation R Us?) plotted an approach into Linzhi, Tibet, where no other airliner or cargo plane had ever landed before. Here’s the video You should watch it.

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