Flying Blind Through the Mountains of Hunan

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A harrowing air trip provides a memorable introduction to life in China.

mountains-top.jpgpfflynn/Flickr

[Note: This story is adapted from James Fallows's new book, China Airborne, and published as part of an Atlantic special report. He explains the background of this section, and shares pictures from the flight, here.]

In the fall of 2006, not long after I arrived in China, I was the copilot on a small-airplane journey from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province near the center of the country, to Zhuhai, a tropical settlement on the far southern coast just west of Hong Kong.

The plane was a sleek-looking, four-seat, propeller-driven model called the Cirrus SR22, manufactured by a then wildly successful start-up company in Duluth, Minnesota, called Cirrus Design. On the tarmac in Changshang as darkness fell, I sat in the Cirrus's right-hand front seat, traditionally the place for the copilot. In the left-hand seat, usually the place for the pilot-in-command, sat Peter Claeys, a Belgian citizen and linguistic whiz whose job, from his sales base in Shanghai, was to persuade newly flush Chinese business tycoons that they should spend half a million U.S. dollars or more to buy a Cirrus plane of their own -- even though there was as yet virtually no place in China where they would be allowed to fly it.

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I was there as a friend of Claeys's and because I was practically the only other person within a thousand miles who had experience as a pilot of the Cirrus. In one of the backseats was Walter Wang, a Chinese business journalist who, even more than Claeys and me, was happily innocent of the risks we were about to take.

We were headed to Zhuhai because every two years, in November, the vast military-scale runway and ramp areas of Zhuhai's Sanzao Airport become crammed with aircraft large and small that have flown in from around the world for the Zhuhai International Air Show, an Asian equivalent of the Paris Air Show. Zhuhai's main runway, commissioned by grand-thinking local officials without the blessing of the central government in Beijing, is more than 13,000 feet long -- longer than any at Heathrow or LAX. The rest of the facilities are on a similar scale, and during most of the year sit practically vacant. As long-term punishment by the Beijing authorities for the local government's ambitious overreach, the airport has been (as a local manager told me ruefully on a visit in 2011) "kept out of the aviation economy" that has brought booms to the surrounding airports in Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou.

But briefly every two years, every bit of its space is called into play. So many planes are present there's barely room to maneuver. Because nearly all of the 21st century's growth in the world's aviation market has been and is expected to be in Asia, with most of that in China, Zhuhai has become more and more important as the place for aerospace merchants and customers to meet. Boeing has booths there, and so does Airbus, and so do Russian and Brazilian and Israeli suppliers -- the Russians and Brazilians and others with squads of "booth babes" -- plus American and European architecture firms hoping to design the environmentally friendly new Chinese airports of the future, plus every military contractor from every part of the globe trying to sell fighters or attack helicopters to governments with extra cash.

The plane we sat in was the only demonstration model of the Cirrus then available in China, and Claeys was the company's only salesman and company pilot anywhere nearby. If he and the plane didn't get there by that Sunday evening, he would be embarrassingly absent for the next day's demo flights, sales talks, and other events he had been lining up for months. So Claeys was making the trip because he had to, and Walter Wang because he wanted a ride to Zhuhai to cover the show. I was there to help as Claeys's copilot. At the time I imagined that this would be the first of many small-plane flights I would be making in China.

However, our trip had begun poorly. I'd met Claeys in Changsha on a Friday evening, in plenty of time to make the three-hour flight to Zhuhai by Sunday night before the opening of the show on Monday. Piston-powered airplanes -- most of the small ones with propellers -- use a different sort of fuel from either jets or cars. Hour after hour we heard that the fuel was "on its way" or "almost here." Saturday afternoon, when we had planned to leave, turned into Saturday evening, and then into pitch dark. It's always easier and safer to fly during daylight, and since we had all of Sunday still ahead of us, we gave up and went to town, checked into the hotel we had previously checked out of, and decided to try again the next morning.

We got back to the airfield early. But Sunday morning passed, with no fuel. We were taken to the huge cafeteria for lunch, where we sat among the hundreds of blue-uniformed workers and ate our rice and stir-fried pork with peppers off aluminum trays, with metal chopsticks. Back out to the airfield, where still no one knew about any gas. Claeys kept looking down at his watch and up at the sky. You never want to "have to" make a trip in a small plane, but he felt he had to get to Zhuhai by dawn.

Five o'clock, still some remaining light -- and the first sign of hope! A delivery truck rolled up toward our airplane, with a large metal barrel in the rear. "Avgas!" the head of the Aviation Department said, in Chinese. Claeys asked him where it had come from. The story involved derelict ex-Soviet training planes that had been parked in a remote section of the airport. There was enough old gas left in their tanks to drain into the barrel. Claeys, who understood the description in Chinese (as I did not), blanched. A little later he let me know what they had said.

In pilot school, you're taught to be hyperconscious of the quality of the fuel going into the gas tank. Claeys and I rationalized that if the fuel was bad enough -- who knows how long it had been in those Soviet-airplane tanks, or where else it might have been -- the engine wouldn't start at all. And if it was good enough to get the plane through the engine start and the test runup, or trial revving of the propellers before takeoff, it would probably at least get us up to an altitude from which we could deploy the parachute if need be. This is not the way I had been taught to operate an airplane, and not what Claeys would have liked to do, but, I told myself, This is China. Meanwhile, Walter Wang was reading peacefully.

The most dangerous time in a small-plane flight is the first 30 or 40 seconds after the wheels leave the runway. If the engine fails then, because the fuel flow is obstructed or the engine hesitates when suddenly pushed to full power, you are in danger precisely because you're so close to the ground. The engine came up smoothly; the plane reached an air speed of 70 knots, at which point Claeys began easing its nose upward; at about the same time as we got a safe distance off the runway, we disappeared into the brown blear of the standard big-city Chinese pollution shroud. And we were off.  

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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