[See update below.] The planning behind, and consequences of, China's expansion of its Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, in the East China Sea remain obscure. Of the various attempts to explain it, for now I like Robert Kelly's on Asian Security Blog best. It emphasizes the contradictory possibilities -- expansionism, miscalculation, domestic posturing -- that might all simultaneously be true. Previous coverage here, here, and here.
Related question: Should we worry that the U.S. government, having quickly taken a "this is bullshit!" stance by sending B-52s through the new ADIZ, is showing contradictions of its own, in urging U.S.-based airlines to file flight planes with the Chinese authorities?
No. This isn't the airlines' battle.* They already file flight plans for every operation with various national and international authorities. It's no harm to them to copy the Chinese in too. The immediate danger of this ADIZ is that it will be one more occasion for national-pride chest-bumping among Chinese and other (Japanese, U.S., South Korean, Taiwanese) military aircraft, in an already tense region where an accident or miscalculation could have big and dangerous consequences. It makes sense to minimize the chance that passenger airplanes could be involved.
And to be clear: this is a potentially very dangerous situation. The build-up to it has involved animus from many players, but this latest move is all China's doing.
Now let's look on the brighter side, all still in the aviation theme.
1) Private pilots' licenses come to China. Huzzah! This is one more step down the path I examined in China Airborne. That is, China's determination to will itself into leadership as an international aerospace power, despite its lack of (a) airports, (b) airplanes, (c) an advanced aircraft or engine-building industry, (d) flyable airspace, and (e) pilots. Everyone knows about its efforts to address the first three shortages -- or would, if they'd read my book! Last week I mentioned a long-awaited move on the airspace front: reducing the amount under the military's control. And yesterday we hear: easier requirements for certification as a pilot.
This is good news. Though anyone familiar with road traffic in China will pause for reflection on reading this quote, via the NYT:
On Friday, The Beijing News carried the headline: “In the future, getting a private pilot’s license will be just as easy as getting an automobile driver’s license.”
2) World's shortest commercial flight: the apparent champ. Via the very interesting site of Matt Dearden, a UK-born bush pilot working in Indonesia, this clip of a 73-second flight from one hilltop airstrip to another. Between the two airstrips is a very deep valley. The dramatic part of the video starts about 30 seconds in, with an approach to one of the tiny airstrips.
Passengers pay $5 apiece to save the many hours the steeply down-and-up-hill journey would take on foot. In case you're wondering, the locale of this flight is West Papua -- which is on the western, Indonesian half of the island whose eastern half is the nation of Papua New Guinea.
Also in case you're wondering, the elevation at these airfields is around 4500 feet, which is high-ish; and the landing strips appear to be around 1000 - 1200 feet long, which is short. Impressive. (Photo at top of this post is from Dearden's site. And here is a sample dramatic entry from his Papuan flying adventures.)
A different pilot's video of landing on one of these airports is here.
3) World's shortest flight: runner up. It's from my ancestral homeland of Scotland, and it's about 90 seconds from takeoff to touchdown -- as you can see in the video of one entire flight, below. You'll note that about 40 seconds after takeoff the pilot is already reducing power to prepare for landing.
Compared with normal commercial journeys, this up-and-down flight path seems very odd -- but it's not that different from the routine training exercise of "flying the pattern" that all pilots have gone through. Pattern work involves taking off, climbing to 800 - 1000 feet above the ground, and doing a series of four right- or left-hand turns to make a rectangular path above the ground before coming in for landing again, a minute or so after takeoff. My point is simply that reducing power and speed very soon after lifting off is a familiar rather than an alien thing to do.
* Airlines have identifiable home countries -- American Airlines, All-Nippon, Singapore Air, etc -- but those with international routes truly do operate, like shipping lines, in a beyond-national-borders, international-commons regime. It would make a bad situation worse to bring airlines further into it, as players, or pawns.
Update I've heard online from a number of people who disagree about airlines and the ADIZ. Their main point is that China's goal is to change the status quo in the region, and any step that accommodates the new, unilaterally proclaimed Chinese rules effectively recognizes this new status quo. Eg:
The thing is we didn't have to issue guidance - the airlines could have complied on their own in order to deal with the potential safety issues - without the USG weighing in and undermining our position on the ADIZ and putting space btw Washington and Tokyo/Seoul in a really high profile way at an awful time. Major unforced error on our part.
I don't think "strategic ambiguity," in the form of letting the airlines comply but not saying so in public, would necessarily be a more forceful or sustainable position. And officially telling U.S. airlines not to follow the new Chinese rules would have raised the problem I mention, of putting normal businesses in the midst of an international struggle.
In any case, I think a U.S. goal should be to put airline operations to the side, as a minor, routine part of the drama. The real question is what the U.S. and other governments do to contain (and not stoke) the tension in the region, and to respond to this expansionary move on China's part.
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