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.
Going electric means increasing safety and ease of operations as well as reducing operational costs and noise, both on board and on the ground -- important in crowded Europe where many small airports face noise restrictions and have to equip their aircrafts with costly silencing exhaust.
These will not be the first electric self-launching gliders (the German-built Antares comes to mind), and many other companies around the world are building and testing with enthusiasm, but as in many other industries, the economies of scale, generous financing and government backing of Chinese companies will probably make a difference.
Sure, China is not promoting gliding, or even flying in general (yet, at least, despite the many government statements to the contrary). But Tian's electric packs, which began their adventure in Europe on the back of some paraglider pilots, are now making their way to the best German gliding manufacturing companies and will soon show up in aviation fairs around the globe.
All this while Mr. Tian improves the manufacturing standard of its newly acquired designs, the Viva and a single seating light glider called Apis, and sells them back to Europe and America.
If this sounds familiar, it's because something similar it's happening at a much larger scale in the company that manufactures Cirrus, the airplane that James Fallows flies. As he wrote, the company was snapped up by a Chinese government-owned aviation conglomerate called CAIGA.
The gliding manufacturing lines involved few jobs at best and a very limited amount of aircrafts, but this is a major company, with hundreds of employees and sales in the hundreds of million of dollars. Cirrus management is swearing that jobs, and the precious know-how associated with the development of a new light jet, will remain in the States, but others are not so confident.
It's hard to guess what will happen next, but the one fact that we can all bet on is that China will have a significant, long-lasting impact. What a surprise.
Michele Travierso is a writer/entrepreneur with a thing for airplanes, tech, travel and mountains. Oh, and photography.
*Gliding is also a hotbed of innovation: the first use of fiberglass in a production flying machine was in a glider. The best low speed wing profiles -- the good ones being more efficient in cutting through the air -- were designed by engineers that worked on glider. Such profiles, in powered airplanes, greatly reduce fuel consumption and allow a higher speed for any given power setting. Paul MacCready, one of the most influential aeronautic engineers of the century, was a keen glider pilot and revolutionized the sport with the invention of a little piece of equipment (the "MacCready ring" is still installed in almost every glider) that won him the first world gliding championship, the first won by an American, in 1956.