Air China

Vallon's flight now a distant memory

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 March, 2011, 12:00am

Like many other industries on the mainland, the aviation sector has come a long way since French aviator Rene Vallon took off from a Shanghai racecourse on February 21, 1911 in a Sommer biplane and buzzed around the skies for about 10 minutes, marking the first powered flight in China.

Impressed by the Frenchman's aircraft-handling skills, a reporter working for the English-language North China News at the time wrote that Sommer's 50 horsepower engine 'cackled like a Maxim' gun and that the 12-metre-long craft performed a figure-eight manoeuvre. The reporter also described the landing as being 'like a fastidious butterfly approaching a flower'.

With the assistance of three Americans contracted to work with the Chinese government, within 12 years of the first mainland flight, China could claim the first plane designed and built in the country, a small biplane, fittingly referred to as China Airplane No 1.

'China's aviation history slightly predates Hong Kong's and includes an interesting evolution,' says Martin Craigs, Hong Kong-based president of the Aerospace Forum Asia, who was in Shanghai to celebrate the mainland's 100th anniversary of powered flight.

Following the initial enthusiasm for aviation, for several years the mainland's aviation industry took a back seat to other developments. When the People's Republic of China was founded in 1949, there were less than 40 airports in the entire country. At the time, the mainland had only one airline, the Civil Aviation Administration of China, and airports and airspace were controlled by the military.

Adding to the limitations, most airports were unable to accommodate large commercial aircraft. This began to change during the era of Deng Xiaoping, when he encouraged business links with the international community. During the 1980s and 1990s, the mainland's aviation industry started to expand rapidly.

Shanghai Airlines, established in 1985, became the mainland's first commercial airline responsible for its own operational profits and losses. Air China, the national flag carrier founded in 1988, has become one of the nation's largest commercial airlines in terms of traffic volume and company assets.

Founded in 1993, Hainan Airlines, which includes financial guru George Soros as an investor, is the largest privately owned air transport company and the fourth-largest airline in terms of fleet size.

In 2005, the mainland took a major step in helping to promote the domestic aviation industry by ending the state monopoly in the airline sector. The country is now set on boosting aircraft manufacturing through companies such as COMAC and Xi'an Aircraft Industry Group, which has made its mark as a builder of short and medium-range aircraft.

The mainland has become one of the world's most important markets in terms of aircraft sales and passengers. Last November, a Goldman Sachs aviation report forecast that the mainland could have a billion air travellers by 2022 and acquire about 4,000 commercial aircraft from 2010 to 2030.

In February, the Civil Aviation Administration of China announced a HK$1.77 trillion budget to be spent on aircraft and upgrading airports to meet an expected surge in passenger numbers and demand for airfreight. Part of the funding will be used to build 45 new commercial airports in addition to the existing 175 commercial airports.

Like many others, Trung Ngo, Bombardier Commercial Aircraft's vice-president for Asia-Pacific sales, believes the mainland's aviation industry has a promising future. 'We are partners with mainland companies, and key to that co-operation is Bombardier's partnership with Shenyang Aircraft Corporation and its commitment to our CSeries,' Ngo says. '[This] gives us confidence in its ability to deliver [and] remains an integral part of our commitment to expand our business in China.'