Zhuhai embarks on 27b yuan push to be aircraft manufacturing hub

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 May, 2010, 12:00am

Liao Yu, a construction supervisor in the general aircraft manufacturing plant of Aviation Industry Corp of China (Avic) in Zhuhai, has not taken a day off since the Lunar New Year in February. He and his 300 fellow workers are racing to get the plant ready by August, three months before a biennial air show is due to be held in the city.

Avic, the largest aircraft manufacturer on the mainland, began work on the 7.6 billion yuan (HK$8.6 billion) project in July last year after Beijing appointed Zhuhai as the manufacturing hub for light aircraft targeted for use in the agricultural sector, pilot training, rescues and recreational flying. Phase one of the project comprises an assembly line 180 metres long and 120 metres wide.

'A factory like this normally takes 1 1/2 years to finish, but we need to finish it in just a year,' Liao said.

The 'Haiou 300', a four to six-seater land and seaplane scheduled to get airworthiness certification next year, will be assembled on the new assembly line in time to be exhibited during the air show in November, he said.

Besides the manufacturing plant, there will also be a research and development base to support the construction of the 'Jiaolong 600', said to be the world's largest land and seaplane as big as an Airbus 320 aircraft.

Avic General Aircraft, which has earmarked a total investment of 27 billion yuan in Zhuhai, is the focal point of the Zhuhai Aviation Industry Park, which the Zhuhai government is promoting in a bid to establish the city as an aircraft production centre.

The total area of the Zhuhai aviation park is 97.16 square kilometres, including Zhuhai Airport, which covers 20 sq km. About 450,000 sq metres of land has been dedicated to Avic to build its production line, hangars, flight test and after-sales facilities.

'Aircraft manufacturing to Zhuhai is as important as the car industry is to Guangzhou,' said Li Congshan, the transport bureau director of the city's Jinwan district.

It was hard to imagine that the car industry would contribute about 200 billion yuan of gross domestic product to Guangzhou when Honda Motor was invited to invest in the city 10 years ago, he said.

Zhuhai hopes the general aircraft industry will bring 50 billion yuan to 80 billion yuan of GDP to the city by 2020, including direct sales from general aircraft and sales from the cluster of ancillary component producers.

Two companies, from the United States and the Netherlands, have signed letters of intent with the Zhuhai aviation park to set up a maintenance facility and a training centre for pilots and technicians, an official said.

Development of the general aircraft industry on the mainland is still at an infant stage. There are about 800 light aircraft on the mainland, compared with 224,000 in the US.

Stringent control for the low-altitude air space, or airspace up to 3,000 metres above sea level, is the major obstacle in the development of general aviation. The PLA Air Force has a long-established privilege to dominate the low-altitude airspace. Mainland individual general aircraft owners have to file a flight plan at least a day in advance to get a permit to fly so as to avoid clashing with military exercises.

In the US, airspace is divided into three zones: prohibited, restricted and non-restricted areas. Any aircraft may fly at any time in a non-restricted zone.

But some relaxation of airspace management may be in the offing as Beijing realises the market potential of general aircraft. In February, Du Qiang, an official at the People's Liberation Army operations department, said the central government had passed on a modification to low-attitude airspace management to the Central Military Commission and the State Council.

Under the proposal, airspace will be classified into three zones: restricted, monitored and non-restricted, each 1,000 metres apart. In the non-restricted area, aircraft could take off simply after notifying the air traffic control authority.

Northeast China and Guangdong province will implement a non-restricted flying zone on a pilot basis by the end of the year.

The demand for general aircraft is so robust in the Pearl River Delta that there are about 100 light aircraft in the region conducting non-authorised flying from time to time, an industry expert said. 'If you find a light sport aircraft taking off from a highway still under construction in southern China, don't be surprised,' he said.