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