General aircraft hit low-altitude turbulence
Private operators and flight schools await the opening up of airspace controlled by the military
Buying a general aircraft - planes not used by commercial airlines - is easy on the mainland, but getting it into the air is a huge task.
That's because a long-awaited liberalisation of low-altitude airspace, where general aircraft usually fly, has yet to take place.
"The low-altitude airspace is totally controlled by the air force, so our helicopters can't operate wherever there is a military operation," said Ji Wenhua, operations manager of Zhuhai Helicopter, a subsidiary of China Southern Airlines which operates the largest helicopter fleet in the nation.
A three-seat Enstrom helicopter can be bought for as low as US$541,200, while a Glasair sea-land aircraft costs US$279,000 - much cheaper than a private jet.
With more than 10 helicopters based in six mainland cities, there were conflicts between military and civil aviation daily, Ji said. One of the firm's major activities is transporting workers and resources to and from offshore oil rigs on the Bohai Economic Rim and across the South China Sea.
"Our operations to the South China Sea are disturbed by military operations more often these days," he said. The tension between China and Japan over the disputed islands in the region has made military operations more frequent in the region.
For Guangxi and the Bohai Economic Rim, the restrictions on low-altitude flying would be more stringent, as air force bases were in those areas, an industry veteran said.
"China is a defended country, which means all civil aviation activity is subject to the approval of the military," said Zhao Guoqing, head of flight operations at the central and southern regional office of the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). "The United States, on the contrary, is a defenceless country."
General aviation on the mainland is still in its infancy. There are about 130 such companies, including flight training schools and commercial operators.
"However, the flight time for individual or commercial activities in China is next to nothing if you exclude flight training," said Wang Yin, director of flight standards at the Henan safety oversight office of CAAC. Total flying hours for general aviation amounted to 248,000 last year.
"The demand for general aviation could be enormous," Ji said. "It could be used to fly banners for property projects or in a charter service to bring people home and visit friends and relatives."
Two years ago, Beijing set up pilot schemes in the Changchun (Jilin), Guangzhou and Hainan reporting regions under the management of the Air Traffic Control Bureau.
The airspace falls under three categories: restricted, monitored and reported. In reported districts, flight plans are required by 4pm the day before flying for approval. In practice, approval in these districts is automatic.
However, pilots, even in Zhuhai, in the Guangzhou reporting region, still have to go through a lengthy application. A flying club member said he had to file a flight plan a week in advance and was given only a few hours in the air.
The support facilities to ensure the safety of general aircraft also lag behind demand.
The first flying service station, which provides flying information to general aircraft, has just been established in Zhuhai. Zhao said four to five flying service stations would be set up in the six provinces in his region by the end of the year.
In the next five years, 100 stations would be built nationwide, said Ma Xin, deputy director of the National Air Traffic Management Committee. Based on the number of stations that are set up, the lead time for flight plan applications will decrease from 15 hours to four hours.
"Within 10 years, we will see the liberalisation of low-altitude airspace nationwide," Ma said.