SHENZHEN: Thin and bespectacled, Xiao Zixuan, 17, dreams of flying a helicopter. This weekend, the boy from China’s southern metropolis of Shenzhen, visited an international flight training exhibition and is convinced that his dream is near at hand. He foresees a successful career as a general aviation pilot.
General aviation refers to more or less all civil aviation operations other than scheduled passenger services and charters. General aviation includes flight schools, agricultural use, manufacture and maintenance of aircraft, stunt flying and airshows. The majority of the world’s air traffic falls into this category, but it is seriously underdeveloped in China. Lack of human resources is widely considered the biggest problem for general aviation development. The shortage of pilots being the most obvious and urgent of many such problems.
The exhibition hosted by China’s Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA), was attended by over half of China’s 40-odd flight schools exhibitors, optimistic about prospects of China’s flight training industry, an optimism shared by overseas counterparts such as the Sierra Academy of Aeronautics from the U.S. and Antipodean Aviation of Australia.
China had around 35,000 certificated pilots at the end of 2013, the majority of whom work for airlines. The U.S. has nearly 600,000 pilots in service and only a quarter of them are airline pilots. The others are student pilots, sports pilots, recreational pilots, private pilots or other commercial pilots.
There are less that 2,000 private flying license holders in China, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). The figure for the U.S. is 200,000.
“People keep asking me how many pilots China needs.” Chen Guangcheng, head of pilot certification with the CAAC, was talking with Xinhua at the exhibition.
“Our projection is that 20 years from now, aviation in China will be much the same as that in the U.S. today. If that’s the case, we’ll need 80,000 more airline pilots, and 400,000 to 500,000 general aviation pilots.”
Martin Robinson, a senior vice president of the International Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, thinks the number could be even bigger.
These half a million new pilots, Chen believes, should include both professionals and people who simply fly for fun and interest rather than occupational reasons. The CAAC supports and encourages ordinary people pursuing their flying dreams. “New administrative rules for pilots are expected soon,” Chen said. “We will bring in a new category of sports licenses and make it easier than ever for amateurs to fly.”
“It’s like 20 years ago when Chinese people started to learn to drive. They did not drive for a living but for their own convenience or interest,” Chen explained. “Their current demands for flying need to be answered quickly by flight schools.” AVIClub under China’s state-owned Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC) received many inquiries about its private license program at the exhibition, according to Gao Qiang, its vice general manager.
“The club was founded 6 months ago in Zhuhai City and we have more than 40 registered members,” said Gao. “AVIClub plans 50 branches across China, providing services such as private license training, flying activities, aircraft sales and hangars.” International agencies are showing plenty of interest in China’s flight training industry. Sierra Academy of Aeronautics, with 48 years of flight training experience, is looking for more Chinese students.
“I’ve seen a jump of 50 percent in the number of Chinese students in the past few years. Now we have 241 students and 80 percent of them are from China.”