China gives cool welcome to rotary-wing operations

 - October 8, 2007, 6:32 AM

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is generally seen as the next big market for the helicopter industry–OEMs, operators, training schools and maintenance operations alike. But can we expect the skies over China to be black with whirling blades any time soon?

During a China rotorcraft forum held at March’s Heli-Expo, representatives from the China World Helicopter Association (CWHA) and HAI made a presentation on the state of helicopter operations in the PRC. The Chinese government may have approved Eurocopter, Bell and Sikorsky/Schweizer helicopter assembly operations–albeit on a relatively small scale–but it is still not ready to open its skies to unfettered helicopter operations.

“It is still deciding what to do domestically,” said Tomoo Nakayama, president and CEO of Tokyo-based ITC Aerospace, and a CWHA representative. “There is little expertise in running commercial helicopter operations. Over the past 50 years, many HAI members have experienced major expansion in operations around the world.
Throughout that time, the Chinese government has kept the door closed.”

In late 2002, a delegation of operators led by HAI president Roy Resavage visited China and met with “top leadership” from the Communist party and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). They discussed opening the skies to rotorcraft, in the same way as had previously been proposed for fixed-wing aircraft. Although China has since allowed limited airplane operations, onshore commercial helicopter operations remain restricted.

There are exceptions for offshore and for power-line inspection work. Otherwise the military-controlled system is tightly regulated, requiring the submission of a flight plan a week before the flight and offering no assurance that approval will be given. Nakayama told the story of one individual who obtained permission to buy a helicopter and qualify for a CAAC license. On flying toward a major city, however, he was forced to land on the outskirts because the local controllers did not know what to do with the flight.

China’s own helicopter industry is beginning to deliver its first certified designs–all based on Eurocopter models–for civil and military use. The Z-8 resembles the three-
engine Super Frelon, the 14-seat Z-9 the Dauphin 2 and the single-engine, six-seat
Z-11 the AS 350 AStar. All are being fitted with locally assembled Turbomeca engines. In addition, China’s Harbin Aircraft Industry Group holds a 24-percent partnership in the EC 120 program (it builds the fuselage) and Changhe Aircraft Industries of Jingdezhen builds the tail section for Sikorsky’s S-92.

However, Chinese general aviation pilots are very thin on the ground, because of the hitherto limited demand for their skills and the recent explosive growth in the airline market. As a result, most of the experienced pilots now fly Boeing and Airbus airliners.

In spite of the government’s reticence over access to airspace, some Western operators have been flying successfully in China for many years. Bristow Helicopters and China Ocean Helicopter have worked together since 1983 to support oil companies with a stake in the PRC’s offshore fields, mostly in the South China Sea off Hong Kong.

In the early days of what has become a continuous association (and one that shows no sign of ending), Bristow and China Ocean flew two AS 332L Super Pumas and an SA 330J Puma. The customer soon struck copious quantities of oil, and up to 10 Super Pumas were drafted to support the operation.

Starting in the latter part of 1984, the helicopters flew from Xili Heliport on the outskirts of Shenzhen–a ferry ride up the Pearl River from the border (as it was then) with British colony Hong Kong. Operations from Xili, where China Ocean’s headquarters are also located, have always been flown by mixed Bristow/China Ocean crews and maintained by both British and Chinese engineers (who have also served on Bristow contracts elsewhere, Egypt in particular).

By 1986, convinced of the suitability of the Bristow Super Puma, China Ocean ordered two for its own fleet, thereby releasing the Puma to return to the UK. In June 1994, a Sikorsky S-76A+ also joined the fleet from Bristow’s base in England.
Until late 1994, all operations were carried out from China Ocean bases at Shenzhen and Zhanjiang in support of various oil companies. However, in December 1994 a new operation started at Wenzhou to support operations in the developing East China Sea, and this was followed by an operation at Tanggu from 1995. China Ocean Super Pumas and SA 365N Dauphins and associated personnel have since supported these operations. The company now has on its books several UK-trained and licensed Chinese pilots and engineers, some of whom have gained experience over the North Sea. They are an integral part of the team, according to Bristow commercial director Allan Brown.

“The hub of the operation remains at Shenzhen,” he told AIN. “Currently, we have three UK-registered Super Pumas on site, supported by a staff of around 20.” Such is the rate of expansion in the local area that the heliport is becoming overtaken by the city and it is no longer the ideal place to have a helicopter base. Pollution is also widespread, and chemical compressor washes are a regular part of the postflight ritual.

Shanghai Flights

“Commercially, however, Shenzhen is definitely the place to be, because this constant expansion qualifies it as one of China’s economic hotspots. We also have a share in China Ocean’s maintenance company, GAMEC, which has JAR 145 maintenance approval and supplies its services to the Chinese market, including People’s Liberation Army and Navy Z-9s. Labor costs in China are very low, and it is a thoroughly professional operation–so much so that we are thinking about putting some of our own aircraft into its care. A training school is a possibility as well.”

Operating under the same “offshore” qualification, a second partnership has set up a harbor pilot-transfer operation from another economic hotspot–Shanghai. The more northerly city boasts the third-largest container port in the world, and all ships over a certain draft are required to carry a pilot.

Two years ago, Zhejiang Leasing struck a deal to supply a MD 902 to the Guangdong General Aviation Company (GGAC), which had a contract with the Shanghai Port Authority. In 18 months the helicopter has logged more than 600 transfers of marine pilots to and from container ships. One of the partners in the business, Vic Corrie, a Canadian, said that operations have been very successful, with the three-man crew currently making up to 45 hoist transfers per day.

“The transfer area is some 40 nm out to sea,” he explained, “and pilots are normally billeted in a moored accommodation vessel, to be taken the rest of the way by boat. Before we arrived, the transfers were all done by boat and, when the weather was too rough for them, the vessels had to ride it out in the open sea, and their cargo turnarounds were often delayed as a result.”

The helicopter is captained by Gordon Jones, a Scot who learned his trade in the British Royal Navy and later ran operations for HeliJet in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. After joining Corrie at the beginning of 2002, Jones first flew an S-76A++ in Tanggu for Eastern General Aviation on contract to ConocoPhillips and its Chinese partner, Bo Hai Oil. He then flew S-76As from Sanya, on the southern tip of Hainan Island, for China Southern Airlines and Zhuhai Helicopter on contract to BP and Nanhai West Oil near Hong Kong.

Later that same year Jones moved to Shanghai, ferried the MD 902 from Zhu Hai and started operations in March last year. “We had to gain the customer’s confidence, so the workload was fairly light at first, but it’s been going great guns since the autumn. In November we flew 70 hours and serviced 285 ships, and demand has remained strong ever since. In fact there is a trend toward using the helicopter more and more, even when the weather is OK, as the volume of traffic continues to grow. I believe we have more than proved the concept and the marine pilots now really like the service.”

All flights in China must have a Chinese pilot on board, and Jones has formed a close bond with his copilot, Qu Qian, and Bristow-trained winch operator John He. Jones said, “John speaks excellent English and Qian is a skilled ex-military helicopter man who often takes over whenever it is more comfortable to fly from the left seat. (Ship’s masters are generally not willing to turn onto a flying course for you.) Qian also takes care of the flight planning, which is a relief. GAAC employs several ex-Air Force personnel who know who to talk to, to get the correct flight approvals.

“I love flying the MD 902,” Jones said. “The visibility is superb, it has a nice tight disc and the control response is excellent. The Notar system is a great confidence-booster, as we sometimes have to thread our way between cranes and the steel cables festooning the container ships.

“The three of us make a good team, and I’m having a blast,” he said. “Flying is fun again. The city is buzzing, too–they are building the Shanghai Little Eagle assembly plant right next door–but there are still only four or five other helicopters in the area, so the potential is phenomenal. In fact, Avion-Pacific has already sold two S-76C+s to the Ministry of Communications for SAR duties out of Shanghai, with perhaps another two going to a second base in the Bo Hai Sea area, near the Korean peninsula.”

The harbor pilots project has another point in common with the Bristow operation farther south. Both customers require a safe, professional service and expect their Western contractors to continue to provide their services for an extended period.

The World Comes to China

Eight new civil helicopters were sold in China last year. The Chinese register lists only 121 helicopters in total, compared with a U.S. registry of nearly 12,000 rotorcraft. However, the infrastructure in China just does not exist to support a huge influx.

Before Western OEMs can look forward to large-scale sales, Corrie said, people will have to sit down and write an integrated airspace plan and define the levels at which each category of aircraft will be allowed to fly. “They need pilots, engineers and air traffic controllers, too, so there will be training opportunities.”

Yet there are reasons for optimism, he said. “The Shanghai Grand Prix this fall, the Olympics in 2008 and the World Exposition in 2010 will all act as catalysts. For the automobile race I think they will depend largely on military and police helicopters, but the military may make a special case and open up the airspace for the event. We expect a second MD 902 to arrive here in the next six weeks, both to serve as a backup for the marine pilot service and to be available for charter during the race weekend. We are seeing lots of interest.

“Events such as this will help to pry open the market a bit more,” Corrie said, “but, as in so many areas, China does not like to be rushed. Security has been a big issue for such a long time, and it will take quite some time for the gates to open fully.”

Zhao Feng, an official with the Beijing Public Security Bureau, has confirmed that the city police will employ helicopters at the 2008 Olympics to ensure maximum mobility and a swift response to any incidents. Feng told the China Daily newspaper that their purchase will be included in the overall preparation plans for the huge sporting event. “There is still a lot of work to be done before then,” he said, “including setting up pilot-training facilities.” The bureau has yet to decide on the number, model and configurations of the rotorcraft.

Police in the inland city of Nanjing, the capital of East China’s Jiangsu Province, are also preparing helicopter operations. The Nanjing Public Security Bureau said it has signed with a Hong Kong-based company to buy a Robinson R22, which will be in operation by the end of this year. According to the bureau, it will be used to track criminals and control traffic, as well as for fire- and flood-prevention patrols.

China’s first police helicopter took to the skies above Wuhan, the capital of Central China’s Hubei Province, in 1996. By the end of last year China had 13 police helicopters, predominantly in Wuhan, Guangzhou, Zhengzhou and Tianjin. As the national police equipment budget increases by as much as 10 percent annually, some predict that as many as 30 helicopters will be ordered within a couple of years.

According to Tao Junsheng, vice director of the Equipment and Financial Affairs Bureau within the Ministry of Public Security, trade talks are being held with several manufacturers. “The ministry is also discussing pilot-training options with schools affiliated to the civil aviation administration.”

There are signs that the door in China may be slowly opening to other helicopter roles, too. Luo You Zhen, a high-ranking official who was with Nakayama at Heli-Expo in March, said they have already sought advice from CWHA and HAI on how best to integrate other helicopter operations for the Olympics and World Expo. For the race weekend in Shanghai, municipal officials have been seeking bids for two EMS-configured helicopters to operate during the event.

A conference last September that brought together CWHA members and government officials in the major seaport of Shanghai led to a proposal for a heliport in that city, with a suggested 51-percent share owned by the government and the remainder divided among a group of six to 10 private operators.

“The Shanghai government is considering establishing a heliport and recognizing it as a special economic development area,” Luo said. “For the Chinese government, it offers a way to build successful helicopter operations, and success in Shanghai could encourage the development of similar facilities in other cities. With the size of the potential market in China, we are confident that international financial institutions will join us.”

Nonetheless, setting up such a facility still remains a distant goal. The proposal is still being worked on by CWHA members and is not likely to be submitted to the Chinese government before year-end.

Corrie is sure of one thing: “People who predict the arrival of 10,000 helicopters within the next 10 years probably don’t know China that well.” Tim Biddle, a consultant to HAI who attended the 2003 Shanghai conference, agreed about taking a long-term view. “This is a very big marble, and it’s going to be hard to crack. But it is crackable, if the Chinese government allows it to b