Globe-spanning flight to link U.S., China

May 5, 2011

China

Like many pilots, Wei Chen got the flying bug after watching Top Gun. When recruiters came to his high school, he applied to become a military pilot. But when that didn’t work out, there was no other opportunity for the Chinese citizen to fly in his home country.

Becoming a private pilot wasn’t a possibility; few Chinese even understood what general aviation was. But then again, cars were rare sights in the country just 20 years ago, he said—and things in China can change fast. Now, the Chinese government has launched an effort to build a GA industry, and Chen is a private pilot living in Memphis, Tenn. He plans to fly through his home country in an around-the-world trip in his TBM 700. He would be the first Chinese citizen to fly around the world in a single-engine airplane, and the first person to make the trip through Chinese airspace, he said.

Chen plans to take off from Memphis, where he earned his private pilot certificate in 2007, on May 22 for his 10-week journey. He intends to stop in more than 40 cities and 21 countries, using the flight to raise money for Memphis’ St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, raise awareness of GA in China, strengthen U.S.-China relationships, and promote Memphis, his current home.

The challenge

Theme song celebrates ‘Wei around the world’ message

Songwriter Tory Thomas won a Memphis Music Foundation competition for the flight’s theme song with “The Peace Above,” in a style he described as laid-back inspirational blues. Thomas works for Pinnacle Airlines, but his first flight in a general aviation aircraft was in the TBM 700 with Chen on their way to the Washington, D.C., press conference. He said he drew inspiration for the song from the fact that Chen was “trying to get a good message and do something historic.” The song is available on Chen’s website.

Chen, who owns a Memphis-based steel trading company specializing in business between the United States and China, came to the United States in 1996 to earn an MBA at Memphis University. He started flight training in a Cessna 172SP after a friend introduced him to the convenience of flying for business travel, and now flies for both business and pleasure, including some aerobatics, he said. His trip around the world has been about a year and a half in the making, and has taken coordination from connections in both the United States and China.

“Flying the airplane’s the easy part,” Chen said.

Memphis businessman and pilot Rob Williams, who met Chen at the Olive Branch Airport years ago and teamed up with him to form an aircraft parts company with offices in Memphis and China, plans to fly along on at least some of the legs of the trip. Who accompanies Chen on which legs, and how many people will be on board, depends in large part on insurance requirements, he said—just one consideration in logistical planning.

“There’s so many things other than flying that you have to worry about,” Williams said—including getting visas for all of the nations where they will be flying, no mean feat for a Chinese citizen. Chen had to reapply for some because he had started a bit too early and they ran out, Williams said.

Then there’s flight planning in nations with unfamiliar airspace. Piper Director of Worldwide Fleet Sales Chuck Glass, who has experience with Chinese airspace, and Thierry Pouille of Air Journey, who helps with planning international trips, have provided advice on flight planning. And Chen said that while services such as XM weather provide readily available weather information in the United States, the flights in other countries—particularly in the Middle East and Southeast Asia—will rely on having backup plans and flexible schedules in case of weather problems. He’ll also have helpful equipment on board: He’s got a new Garmin GTN, an iPad for flight planning, a Garmin 696 with a worldwide database, and a G530 as a backup.

But of all the factors involved in such an ambitious journey, perhaps the biggest challenge—with the biggest reward—will be flying through China. GA is still in its infancy in China, and obtaining a clearance to take off with a single-engine airplane can sometimes take a week.

Fortunately, Chen has significant help from AOPA-China and support from the Chinese government. The trip will highlight what is positioned to become a growth industry in China: GA.

GA in China

GA in China has changed significantly over the past several years, Chen said.

“Compared to five years ago, it’s night and day,” he said. “… They know about [GA], they’re curious about it,” he said. But people in China still don’t understand GA well, he explained. Airplanes need permission every time they take off and land, a process that can take much longer for single-engine airplanes—even high-performance turbine singles like Chen’s TBM 700—than twins, he said.

“If they have two engines, oh, that’s a great airplane. If you have one engine, that’s a small airplane—you can’t do it,” he told AOPA Live during a recent visit to AOPA headquarters in Maryland.

But the Chinese government is looking to expand its GA industry, rapidly building airport infrastructure and opening more low-altitude airspace to civil aviation. Chen’s trip has the potential to raise awareness and understanding of what is now a small industry there, and both the Chinese government and AOPA-China are lending their support. AOPA-China and the Greater Memphis United Chinese Association (GMUCA) are organizers of the trip, Chen said.

New-York-based pilot and member of the AOPA-China board of directors Yinjie Jason Zhang plans to fly with Chen from Memphis to Paris and a few legs in China. It will be both pilots’ first GA flying experience in their native country, which still presents logistical challenges for GA pilots.

“You can imagine the whole country as the restricted area in D.C. That’s how difficult it is to fly,” Zhang told AOPA Live.

But Chen and Zhang are confident that the Chinese government can accomplish the rapid growth it has its sights on. Just 20 years ago in China, if you had a car people looked at you like you were from outer space, Chen said. If you had a motorcycle, you were doing really well. Now, China is the world’s largest consumer automotive market.

Zhang said China is looking to make GA into a more prominent industry that supports the whole nation’s economy. He said that the government is committed to supporting GA, as evidenced by the opening of airspace, and that China has the demand to support the industry—for everything from high-end turbine aircraft to small homebuilts.

Still, it’s a challenge for such a large country with segmented airspace, he said. The country has never had a GA culture before, so it will take education—and expatriates who have flown in the United States can provide insight from their experience.

“I always say to them, ‘Don’t reinvent the wheel. … Learn from western GA,” Zhang said.

Chen thinks plenty of Chinese want to be a pilot but just don’t know how. “With Jason and I, that’s where our knowledge comes in handy.” He has a Chinese-language website to share his passion for flying with people in China, and a March news conference in Beijing was met with a warm reception, he said; he was surprised at how much attention the trip got.

“It’s unbelievable. He’s turning into a rock star over there,” Williams said.