Gliding and the Mysterious Ways China Affects the World

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By Michele Travierso

Gliding, by almost any definition, is not a popular sport. However, it could serve as good proxy to illustrate a larger point: that China's rise is affecting even the most unsuspecting industries in ways that are not immediately clear but with far-reaching consequences.

The debate on the value of these changes is, of course, still wide open. James Fallows is working on a book that will analyze those changes and, among other things, what China's rise in the aviation industry will mean for itself and the rest of the world; here's my humble contribution to the discourse.

Gliding, or soaring as it's better known in U.S., is the art of flying an aircraft without an engine, making the best use of vertical movements of the air. A glider is usually aero-towed in the sky by a small propeller aircraft and the proceed to soar, on an averagely good day, for hundreds of kilometers. To have an idea of the sheer beauty of it, do check this video filmed in the Italian Alps:

Why would a country want to promote gliding? There are several reasons, but mostly because it attracts, fosters and trains a generation of better pilots, whose value is becoming increasingly evident, especially in Asia and even more so in China. Aviation safety experts denounce the erosion of stick-and-rudder skills among airline pilots, but just like sailing shapes better seamen (who then become more in-tune with their environment), gliding provides unparalleled experiences to future professional pilots. Think "Miracle of the Hudson" for the latest example of how a pilot with gliding skills saved the day.*

What has China to do with any of this? Not much apparently. Gliding operations in the country are basically non-existent, to the best of my knowledge, as the one I knew, in northern China, folded. A study from 2005 claims there were 117 active pilots, a minuscule fraction of the global tally of 116.000. Only very basic glider designs have been manufactured here, often in a series of one.

Some gliders can autonomously take off using a propeller powered by a small thermic engine on a pylon that can fold back in the fuselage. But China is slowly becoming a player because these engines are becoming electric.

An entrepreneur called Tian Yu is leading the effort.

Mr. Tian, whom I wrote about in the New York Times last year, founded 10 years ago what now is a very successful model aircraft company called Helang. He later founded Yuneec, a venture into real-sized, light aircrafts. He designed his own airframe, a two-seater with V-tail called E430, and intends to sell it as an electric light aircraft in America soon.

Battery technology however, while improving constantly, still cannot provide the efficient electric engine with a range comparable to that of the thermic engine. Self-launching gliders, however, do not need range, but only a few minutes of power to reach the first thermals, bubbles of rising air that usually culminate into the fluffy, white clouds of a good spring day.

The production might and the purchasing power of a company like Helang, together with technology developments, are making the electric engine pack cheaper, lighter and more reliable. Now the trend is to use foldable smaller propellers, on the nose cone of the glider, rather than pylons that fold back in the fuselage behind the pilot with complex engines. Here are two of the latest examples: The Viva glider, whose German design and production lines were recently bought by Mr. Tian with a production line was set up in China, and the Silent FES, an Italian ultralight glider. Watch it take off in this short clip.

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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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