Flying Blind Through the Mountains of Hunan

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.

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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.

Between Changsha and Zhuhai stood the mountains of southern Hunan. They are not tremendously high by world standards, but they were higher than our airplane was at its initial assigned altitude. And unless the controller gave us instructions to climb -- as we would routinely expect a few minutes into the flight -- we would be headed for trouble soon. On the GPS-based moving map in the cockpit, we saw the ridge draw closer. We couldn't legally turn around, since that would be deviating from our clearance. Nor -- again without breaking rules -- could we decide to climb on our own. If we kept on straight and level, within ten minutes we'd crash. Then within eight minutes. Then six.

Of course, we wouldn't just keep on flying straight into the mountains. Around the world, pilots always have the option to "declare an emergency" and deviate from their assigned course and do whatever else they must to avoid disaster. But that is asking for trouble, even in places where flight is less carefully restricted than it is in China. I learned later that a military jet was trailing us through the flight. What might it have done if we suddenly made an unauthorized move? I was preparing a pitch to Claeys on the lines of: I know that as foreigners we are "supposed" to be speaking English to the controller, but you can speak perfectly good Chinese!

Finally a Japan Airlines pilot who was capable in both English and Chinese (apart, I assume, from Japanese) broke in to ask us, in English, if we would like some help. He then relayed the request, in Chinese, to the controller.

Immediately the controller responded to him -- partly because of the language but much more, I suspect, because talking with airline pilots seemed "normal"; we could well have been the first private pilots ever to come through his sector. The Japan Airplines pilot passed the word back to us, though we had heard it over the airwaves too. Permission to climb. One hurdle cleared. On through the dark and clouds toward Zhuhai. We marveled at the lights of the industrial urban expanse while noting the large, unlit masses that signified mountains and rocky islands. The instrument approach required circling the hills and island peaks, which is safe enough as long as you can follow the radio-guidance beam all the way down to the airport.

As we came to the coast, the clouds thickened again, and we found ourselves in the middle of them when only 1,000 feet above the ground. In flying, the big distinction is in the clouds versus out of the clouds. When out of the clouds, you can see where you're going and steer the plane as if it were a car. When you're in the clouds, it's like driving a car while blindfolded, but worse. In a plane it's simply impossible to tell up from down by your own bodily senses, if you can't see the ground or the horizon to assess whether the plane is turning, climbing, or holding a straight-and-level course. You control the plane by obsessively "scanning" the dashboard gauges, constantly comparing readings from one with the others, and taking advantage of their gyroscopes, which give an idea of where the horizon would be if you were able to see it.

Claeys had his eyes glued to the dials that showed how closely we were following the beam. If we drifted "one dot left" relative to the beam, he would nudge the plane toward the right; if we fell "one dot low" beneath the desired glide path, he would edge the plane up. I looked back and forth from those gauges to the window, waiting for the glimpse of the ground or the airport approach lights that we needed before we reached our "decision height" a few hundred feet above the runway.

Suddenly the beam we were following, for an Instrument Landing System approach (or ILS, the most accurate system then in common use) seemed to behave strangely, and even flicker off. Momentarily there was no path to follow. This required immediate attention. We were close to the ground; we were headed down; we were among rocky peaks higher than our airplane was; and because of clouds and the dark we couldn't see what was ahead.

With the rational parts of our brains, we knew how we should respond. But it is one thing to know that in theory, and to have done it in practice. It is something else to have to decide in real time while knowing that we were lower than the surrounding hills and only a few seconds' flight time away from the hyper-busy airspace for Hong Kong.

The main backup plan in any situation like this is to climb immediately, since you cannot keep heading down when you don't know what you might hit. If we climbed too much too suddenly, that could mean violating our clearance, and would bring us up into airspace where five large commercial airports had airline and air-cargo traffic merging -- Hong Kong, Macau,  Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Zhuhai -- with God knows what consequences.

Claeys and I had begun talking, tersely, about what to do next when, with the relief of a drowning person who breaks the surface to gasp air, I saw out the window that we had left the ragged bottom layer of the clouds and could see all the way to the vast, open, clearly lit main runway at Zhuhai. We landed. The humid 90-degree air fogged over glasses, camera lenses, and dial faces the second we opened the cockpit door. We had friends take a picture, with smiles that barely masked the tenseness we had felt.

We got out, sobered and giddy; we went to a nightclub in downtown Zhuhai that was called the Blue Angel and was owned by China's most famous female pilot, Chen Yan, a glamorous bombshell who was frequently on the cover of fashion magazines and who asked me, when I first met her in the presence of her teenaged son, "Do you think I am his mother? Most people think I am his sister!" Over the next few days Peter Claeys was busy at the air show; I stayed the next day and then took a commercial flight back to Shanghai, and we never fully determined what had happened in those seconds that seemed like centuries inside the cockpit. Had there been a power failure, or a disruption in the navigation signal, as sometimes happens? Had we gotten a setting wrong? Had someone at the airport inexplicably decided it was time to shut down?

I did not fly as a pilot or copilot again in mainland Chinese airspace. But starting that day, parallel to my day job of reporting on financiers and politicians, I followed the people in China who were trying to remake its history through taking to the air.