In 2008 an earthquake in the Sichuan region of China resulted in many casualties, and Chinese officials cite the failure of emergency teams to reach inaccessible areas as the reason. A few months later a major earthquake hit Japan, but much fewer casualties were reported. The reason turned out to be the availability of helicopters to quickly reach the wounded. This has convinced China’s leaders that they must dramatically increase their helicopter fleet.
Li Daguang, a professor at the National Defense University, said, “The rescue work during the earthquake revealed China’s weakness in the helicopter industry. It does not match China’s current status in the world.” About 180 civilian helicopters are operating in the entire country. Chinese officials have stated a goal to have 2,000 civilian helicopters by the end of 2010 and 10,000 by 2020.
As a result, helicopter manufactures have responded by forming joint manufacturing partnerships. One example is Agusta Westland, which has established a joint venture with Jiangxi Changhe Aviation Industries Corporation to build the A109E light twin-engine helicopter in China. To support these partnerships, Beijing has built a new £750 million helicopter factory and research center in the northern city of Tianjin. However, Li cautioned that China still had a long way to go before it would be able to build a helicopter from scratch without Western input.
For most of the world, helicopters are important tools for disaster relief work and air ambulances; for developing countries, they have proved invaluable for construction work. With China now realizing that benefit, the country has become a bright spot in the struggling helicopter industry.