13 Ways of Looking at an Airplane

By James Fallows

Or at least two:

A week ago, I mentioned that the Cirrus Aircraft corporation, maker of the leading small-plane model in the world, had been sold to a branch of China's state-run airplane-producing consortium. This is actually part of the book I've been working on.

Today the Washington Times reported the same sale, which has been in the works for well over a year (and was publicly reported this spring), in these breathless terms, emphasis added:

>>Air Force buys Chinese planes

The Air Force Academy recently purchased 25 advanced trainers from Cirrus Aircraft for its powered-flight program, an integral part of the cadets pilot training.

After Cessna, the Minnesota-based Cirrus Aircraft is the worlds second- largest manufacturer of single-engine general aviation aircraft. The new planes, known as T-53A trainers, come with sophisticated avionics and the most advanced flight safety and recovery design and systems. They are custom-designed for the Air Force based on Cirrus SR20 model....

One problem is that Cirrus Industries Inc., the aircraft maker's parent company, is 100 percent owned by the Chinese communist government. It was purchased by the Chinese in March 2011 for a reported $210 million.

The sale was not blocked for national security concerns by Congress or the Obama administration, even with opposition from Rep. Chip Cravaack, Minnesota Republican, who stated in a letter to the Treasury Department in March that the sale could compromise U.S. national security. Despite alarms coming from several sides, the sale was finalized by the end of June.

Only days after the purchase was completed, the new Chinese owners received the aircraft order from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece newspaper Peoples Daily on Tuesday called the transaction "revolutionary" because it marked the first time the U.S. Air Force ordered an entire set of aircraft from China for military training equipment.<<

I think the technical response here is: Give me a break! The airplanes the Air Force is ordering "from China" actually spend the entirety of their production cycle in Duluth, Minnesota and Grand Forks, North Dakota. And what the Air Force is getting "from the Chinese" is a less sophisticated model of the kind of airplane that I flew earlier this week to Louisville, KY, and back (from DC), and that over the past decade has been sold all around the world to eager customers, including in China. It's a great plane, and I feel so lucky to fly one. But it poses exactly as much threat to national security as if Audis were suddenly being made and sold in China (oops, wait a minute - they are!). It's fine to be upset about China's achievements -- when there's a reason. This story, as I'll explain at greater length elsewhere, says something about the pressures the U.S. finance system puts on entrepreneurs. It has nothing to do with "national security."

For reference, you can see pictures of an (ominously) Chinese-registered Cirrus, in which I've flown. Or here. Meta point: if you get upset at things that don't matter, what do you have left over for things that make a difference? And while the Wash Times obviously has a niche identity, what does this show us about the way we discuss the evolving US-Chinese interactions?

Chinese-registered Cirrus, with two Western pilots*, during a stop in Japan a while ago:

CirrusJapanA.jpg

* Me, far right; my friend Peter Claeys, fourth from right.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/07/13-ways-of-looking-at-an-airplane/241926/