General aviation in China has existed on a minimal scale for decades. Little interest has been shown in this niche sector by the ruling party and the aerospace sector, resulting in a limited indigenous aircraft manufacturing base, a small installed base of light aircraft – mainly serving the agricultural and pilot training markets – and around 200 airports, which are dominated by the country’s airlines and military.
Over the last five years, however, China’s attitude towards GA has undergone a transformation. This vast country is now seeking to become not only a major user of light aircraft but a key player in the manufacturing of GA types. So what has triggered this change in attitude?
According to Ed Smith, senior vice-president of international and environmental affairs for the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), the devastating earthquake in Sichuan province in 2008 marked the turning point for GA in China.
“It was one of the deadliest earthquakes in its history [claiming around 70,000 lives] and yet the government was helpless,” he says. “Unable to access the devastated towns and villages due to the poor roads and a shortage of suitable aircraft, China was forced, for the first time in recent memory, to ask for international assistance to help with the recovery effort,” Smith adds.
His view is supported by Roger Whyte, aviation expert and former senior executive with leading GA aircraft manufacturer Cessna. “China did not have enough resources of its own to cope with this situation. Once the rescue and relief effort was in full swing, however, China soon realised how versatile and indispensable GA aircraft could be. They then set about building their search and rescue [and medical evacuation] capability,” he says
In an effort to boost the fleet even further, the government began to offer financial incentives to encourage owners and operators to buy GA aircraft that could be used in a crisis, Whyte adds. This practice continues today.