From one of our most influential journalists, here is a timely, vital, and illuminating account of the next stage of China’s modernization—its plan to rival America as the world’s leading aerospace power and to bring itself from its low-wage past to a high-tech future.
In 2011, China announced its twelfth Five-Year Plan, which included the commitment to spend a quarter of a trillion dollars to jump-start its aerospace industry. In China Airborne, James Fallows documents, for the first time, the extraordinary scale of China’s project, making clear how it stands to catalyze the nation’s hyper-growth and hyper-urbanization, revolutionizing China in ways analogous to the building of America’s transcontinental railroad in the nineteenth century.
Completing this remarkable picture, Fallows chronicles life in the city of Xi’an, home to 250,000 aerospace engineers and assembly-line workers, and introduces us to some of the hucksters, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and dreamers who seek to benefit from China’s pursuit of aeronautical supremacy. He concludes by explaining what this latest demonstration of Chinese ambition means for the United States and for the rest of the world—and the right ways for us to respond.
The flight to Zhuhai
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. Through the previous five years, the SR22 had been a worldwide commercial and technological phenomenon, displacing familiar names like Cessna and Piper to become the best-selling small airplane of its type anywhere. Part of its appeal was its built-in “ballistic parachute,” a unique safety device capable of lowering the entire airplane safely to the ground in case of disaster. The first successful “save” by this system in a Cirrus occurred in the fall of 2002, when a pilot took off from a small airport near Dallas in a Cirrus that had just been in for maintenance. A few minutes after takeoff, an aileron flopped loosely from one of the wings; investigators later determined that it had not been correctly reattached after maintenance. This made the plane impossible to control and in other circumstances would probably have led to a fatal crash. Instead the pilot pulled the handle to deploy the parachute, came down near a golf-course fairway, and walked away unharmed. The plane itself was repaired and later flown around the country by Cirrus as a promotional device for its safety systems.
On the tarmac in Changsha, on a Sunday evening as darkness fell, I sat in the Cirrus’s right-hand front seat, traditionally the place for the copilot—or the flight instructor, during training flights. 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. 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 twenty-first 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 trips I would be making in China.
After all, China would seem to be a country made for travel by air. Like Australia, like Brazil, like Russia or Canada or most of the United States away from the urban Northeast, it is characterized by vast distances; widely separated population centers; mountains and gorges and other barriers separating the cities and making land travel slow and difficult—plus dramatic, interesting scenery to view from above. China’s commercial-airline business, starting from a very limited base, was already booming, with nearly twice as many people flying on airlines in 2006 as five years earlier, and twice as many again by 2011.
With the surge of private wealth and the rise of industrial centers at far-flung points across the country, “general aviation” would seem a natural candidate for development. This category includes every sort of non-airline activity, from corporate jets for China’s scores of new billionaires and thousands of rising millionaires to crop-dusting activities in its farmlands to search-and-rescue operations after disasters or last-minute organ-transplant flights to purely recreational flight. You could take China’s relatively limited numbers of airplanes, airports, and overall aviation activities as a sign of backwardness—or, as was the case in so many other aspects of modern China, as an indication of a gap that could be quickly closed with a huge spurt of construction, investment, and capital outlay.
The many countries of China
Now a word about the territory we would see from above. The main surprise of living in China, as opposed to reading or hearing about it, is how much it is a loose assemblage of organizations and aspects and subcultures, an infinity of self-enclosed activities, rather than a “country” in the normal sense. The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are. Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China’s variations are of a scale demanding special note.
What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the exception last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich, and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky. Its leaders are skillful and clumsy, supple and stubborn, visionary and foolishly shortsighted.
Of course there are exceptional moments when the disparate elements of China seem to function as a coherent whole. Over a six-month period in 2008, the entire country seemed to be absorbed by a succession of dramatic political and natural events. First, the pre-Olympic torch relay began its ceremonial progression from Mount Olympus in Greece to Beijing and was the cause of nationwide celebration. (“Happiness Abounds as Country Cheers,” read a banner headline in the China Daily.) The mood shifted abruptly when the relay was disrupted by Tibetan-rights protestors across Europe, to the widespread astonishment, horror, and, soon, fury of people in mainland China—where the accepted version of Tibetan history is that the territory has always been part of the Chinese nation, and that the people of Tibet should be grateful for Mao’s having rescued them from the feudal tyranny of the lamas. Then, on May 12, 2008, everything else vanished from the Chinese media when a devastating earthquake struck Sichuan province and at least eighty thousand mostly poor people were killed. Three months after that, the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games seemed to command attention in every part of the country and again marked a shift of national mood.
During periods like these, it can seem sensible to talk about a single cohesive-minded “China.” And when acting on the international stage, or when imposing some internal political rules, the central government can operate as a coordinated entity. But most of the time, visitors—and Chinese people too—see vividly and exclusively the little patch of “China” that is in front of them, with only a guess as to how representative it might be of happenings anywhere else. You can develop a feel for a city, a company, a party boss, an opportunity, a problem—and then see its opposite as soon as you go to another town.
Such observations may sound banal—China, land of contrasts!—but I have come to think that really absorbing them is one of the greatest challenges for the outside world in reckoning with China and its rise. A constant awareness of the variety and contradictions within China does not mean suspending critical judgments or failing to observe trends that prevail in most of the country most of the time. For instance, it really is true that for most Chinese families, life is both richer and freer than it was in the 1980s, and is immeasurably better on both counts than it was in the 1960s. It is also true that in most of the country, air and water pollution are so dire as to constitute not simply a major threat to public health but also a serious impediment to China’s continued prospects for economic growth. So some overall statements about “China” and “the Chinese” are fair. But because of the country’s scale, because of the linguistic and cultural barriers that can make it seem inaccessible, and because of the Chinese government’s efforts to project the image of a seamlessly unified nation, outsiders are tempted to overlook the rifts, variation, and chaos, and talk about Chinese activities as if they were one coordinated whole. Therefore it is worth building in reminders of how many varied and often conflicting Chinas there really are.
Outsiders have learned to stretch their mental boundaries when it comes to considering China’s “scale” in one sense of that term: its billion-plus population, its numerous cities the size of Paris, its collective appetite for commodities and products of all sorts, its influence on the world’s markets and environment. The military analyst Thomas P. M. Barnett has come up with a vivid thought experiment to help outsiders envision the advantages and challenges that come from China’s huge human scope: The United States and China have about the same geographic area, although China’s mountainous and desert expanses mean that it has significantly less arable land. But China’s population is about four times larger than America’s. To match the challenge of human scale that confronts China, the United States would have to bring in every person from Mexico, more than 110 million in all, plus the 200 million people in Brazil. Then it would also need the entire population of Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean nations, plus Canada, Colombia, and every other country in North and South America. After doing all that, it would be up to around one billion people. If it then also added the entire population of Nigeria, some 155 million, and every person from the hyper--crowded islands of Japan, 125 million more, it would have as many people as China—almost.
Feeding, governing, housing, and employing these vast numbers within the borders of the existing fifty U.S. states would be an almost unimaginable challenge, especially while preserving anything resembling open space or wilderness. At the same time, all this humanity would mean that the resulting superstate could draw on much greater reserves of talent in every field—scientific, athletic, artistic and musical, entrepreneurial, civic. Think of running for President in these circumstances. Think of getting into Harvard (as many Chinese students now aspire to do). Those near-unimaginable strengths and the impossibilities of the situation are China’s reality now. They explain the aphorism that has stuck with me since I heard it from a government official in Shanghai in 2006. “Outsiders think of everything about China as multiplied by 1.3 billion,” he told me. “We have to think of everything as divided by 1.3 billion.” Scale in this sense, as an indicator of variety and contradiction, of occasional chaos and frequent difficulty of control, is at least as important as the sheer weight of China’s influence on the world.
I have met people for whom “China” is the export factories surrounding Hong Kong and Shenzhen; others for whom it is the Communist Party Schools and centers of related doctrine in Beijing. For many tens of millions in the countryside, “China” is nothing more than the area they can reach by foot from their farmhouses each day. When I spent several days at the Shanghai World Expo in 2010 with an Italian friend, we were often the only non-Chinese people within sight among the thousands in a given pavilion, public square, or multi-hour line for admission. The vast majority of other attendees were families from China’s second- and third-tier cities for whom a trip through the Saudi Arabian or German pavilion was as close as they were ever likely to come to a view of the outside world. Exhibits that seemed cheesy to sophisticates from Europe, Japan, or North America were much more popular with their target audiences of untraveled Chinese. In this way the Expo served the same function for early twenty-first century China as the St. Louis and Chicago world’s fairs had done for wide--eyed inland Americans a hundred years before.
On one of my first reporting trips to Guangdong province in southern China, a foreigner who had lived there for more than a decade and worked daily with Chinese factory owners and laborers said, “Each month I’m here, I know half as much as I did the month before.” I thought he was being arch, but a few years later I began to grasp what he was saying. It’s not that your store of knowledge keeps going down; it’s that your awareness of what you don’t know—and won’t ever know—keeps going up, and at a faster rate. It’s like driving away from the city lights at night and, when lifting your gaze, realizing with shock how many more stars are in the sky than you had previously seen, or imagined. It increases the importance of trying to recognize trends while allowing the possibility of change.
On the ground at Changsha
The trip began poorly. I had 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. This is the way small-plane aviation is, anywhere in the world: “efficient” during the moments the plane is actually in the air and flying point to point, burdened with waits both planned and unplanned much of the rest of the time. Claeys had recently based the airplane in Changsha as part of a long-game strategy for attracting the interest of one of the likeliest-seeming purchasers in China. This was Zhang Yue, or “Chairman Zhang,” a stylish industrial entrepreneur then in his mid forties who had trained as a landscape painter in vocational school and then come up with a way to make energy--saving air conditioners for places with unreliable electric-power supplies—like rural China, India, and Pakistan. He succeeded so spectacularly that he had built a surreal company town-utopia on the outskirts of the big industrial city of Changsha, which had been Chairman Mao’s home in his student days and now has the biggest statue of Mao in the world (a hundred-foot-high granite bust).
Mr. Zhang’s Broad Town factory compound, named for the Broad Air Conditioning company he and his brother founded and that he still ran, is on a similarly grand scale. It features a building modeled on the main palace at Versailles, a heliport, a gold-colored steel-and-glass replica of the Great Pyramid of Egypt, and similar other touches around the factory and dormitories themselves. Mr. Zhang is an avid environmentalist—he said that Al Gore was his hero—and an aviation buff as well, and Claeys thought he would be a good candidate for one of China’s first Cirruses. He already had a small Broad Corporation air fleet consisting of a helicopter, a small jet, and several Cessna single-engine propeller planes, and he was always on the lookout for newer and, he hoped, more environmentally friendly forms of air travel.
Starting on Saturday morning, Claeys kept asking the Aviation Department at Broad if and when they might be able to find some fuel for the Cirrus, so it could fly on to Zhuhai. Piston-powered airplanes—most of the small ones with propellers—use a different sort of fuel from either jets or cars. They need a form of gasoline, rather than the kerosene used by jets (or by turbine-powered turboprops); and the gas must be a higher octane than automobile gas, with the lead additives that were banned in normal gasoline many years ago. Given China’s tiny fleet of piston planes, this aviation gasoline, or avgas, was not easy to come by. Hour after hour we heard that the fuel was “on its way” or “almost here.” For a while, it was supposed to be on a convoy from another province. Then we didn’t hear about a convoy anymore. But perhaps there was gas at a different part of the airport! Then again, apparently not. 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. Against my own late-rising nature, I have come to respect the flying world’s emphasis on getting started as close as possible to first light. There are that many more hours of daylight to work with, and that much more leeway to wait out or plan around bad weather. If you’re worried about turbulence, wind, or thunderstorms, those problems are usually mildest early in the day. But Sunday morning passed, with no fuel. We were taken to the Broad Company’s huge employee 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. Two p.m. came and went. Three o’clock. Four. The November sun was getting low in the sky—though not as low as you would expect, given the season. Since the whole continental mass of China runs on Beijing Time, sunrise and sunset both come “late” in cities away from the east coast; it is as if everywhere from Boston to Seattle ran on East Coast time.
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. (“Hang kong qi you!”) 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.
At most airports, fuel comes out by way of a motor-driven pump, like at a gas station. At a few of the most remote, you might use a hand-cranked system to drive fuel through the hose and into the airplane’s gas tank. In this case, we had the barrel on the truck bed, a gas tank opening on top of each wing of the plane, and a ten-foot-long, inch-wide plastic hose with which to connect them. A luckless member of the Broad Corporation’s Aviation Department team began sucking fuel through the hose to siphon it from the barrel into the wing tanks.
At first he dreamed that he could start a flow going without getting gasoline all over his tongue and teeth. But each time he tried, yanking the hose from his mouth just before the gasoline reached his lips and jerking the hose toward the plane, the gas retreated back down the hose as soon as he stopped sucking. Not liking it a bit, and to the laughter of his fellow team members, he faced the fact that he would have to suck the gas along until it was spewing into his mouth—and then hand the hose to one of us to stick in the tank, while he began spitting and wiping off his tongue with a cloth. The Chinese term chi ku, “eat bitterness,” is shorthand for being tough, doing what it takes, bearing hardship. I imagined that in Changsha they might someday say he you, “drink gas,” for the same concept.
An hour of this—the flow got slower and slower as the level in the barrel went down—with ever-darkening skies, and we were ready to go. In pilot school, you’re taught to be hyperconscious of the quality of the fuel going into the gas tank. After all, it is what will keep you in the air and alive. 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.
Into the plane; onto the runway; preparing for takeoff. Before the flight, Claeys had spent weeks getting the clearances he needed to operate a foreign-registered airplane, as a foreign citizen, through Chinese military airspace—which virtually all the airspace in China is. As we prepared for a southbound departure on the very long, military-scale runway, Claeys revved the engine repeatedly, to make sure that the gas was actually supporting combustion, and as a proxy for seeing that it would keep doing so once we took off.
The most dangerous time in a small-plane flight is the first thirty or forty 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. If the engine fails when an airplane is 10,000 feet up, that’s not good. But because airplanes are designed to glide down relatively slowly even without engine power, rather than plummeting like a rock, the higher an airplane is when the trouble starts, the more time the pilot has to decide what to do, and the wider the range of territory and possible landing sites the plane could reach in a glide. Even with its parachute, the Cirrus is in trouble if an engine fails before it gets at least 400 feet above the ground—there is just not enough time for the parachute to deploy fully and slow the descent. So Claeys tested and retested the engine; I kept my eye on the parachute handle, to use if we got far enough into the air; Walter Wang settled into the backseat, and we went to the end of the runway to take off.
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.
Into the clouds
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—with the added ability to go up and down. When you’re in the clouds, everything about controlling the plane is different. It’s like driving a car while blindfolded, but worse. Assuming he’s not near a cliff, even a blindfolded driver can keep a car securely on the ground. 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. This is the hardest aspect of aeronautics to believe unless you have tried it. 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.
Because of the clouds, and because it was night, and because it’s not possible in China just to fly around without the government’s approval as it is in much of the United States, from takeoff onward we were already operating under instrument flight rules, following controllers’ instructions about when to climb, which direction to turn, and what waypoints to cross on our way south. This should have been fine, but it soon became more complicated than we had foreseen. Around the world, air-traffic controllers are supposed to be able to talk with pilots in English, in addition to their local language. If you listen to controllers’ discussions on the radio, you will hear a mixture of Spanish and English in Mexico, Korean and English in Korea, French and English in France, and an improbable English-only discourse most of the time in Japan, even though most of those speaking are clearly Japanese. (I ascribe this to a greater emphasis on doing things the “right” way in Japan than in many other places.) When traveling on an airline that lets passengers listen to air-traffic control, I would hear, at China’s main international airports—Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou—controllers talking rapid Mandarin to Chinese pilots and careful, accented, but clear English to Germans, Japanese, Americans, Turks, and other outsiders. But here in the interior of China, there would be no reason for controllers to keep up that competency. Claeys, skilled in Chinese, felt for procedure’s sake that as a foreign pilot he should speak English over the airwaves. But every exchange was halting—and I began to think that the controllers just wanted to forget that we were there.
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. Even for airliners, instrument flights usually take place in stages: first up to 3,000 feet, then 5,000 feet, then for the airliners well up into the “flight levels,” usually above 30,000 feet. Airliners fly that high precisely because the air is so thin. Within limits, the higher it goes, the less wind resistance, or drag, an airplane has to force itself through, so the better fuel mileage it gets. It looked as if we needed to get to about 10,000 feet to go safely over the mountains—that was our guess from the charts, which themselves were in principle a military secret in China—but the controllers hadn’t told us to climb, and we couldn’t get their attention to pass along our increasingly urgent request.
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! Time to switch? Please?
All the chatter between pilots and controllers, anywhere in the world, is over open radio channels, as with truckers’ old CBs. The other pilots on the frequency, apparently all of them from airlines, could hear our increasingly tense-sounding attempts to get the controllers’ attention. 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 JAL 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. Its airport is one of a large number studding the bay around Hong Kong harbor. Geographically, the closest U.S. equivalent would be the coast of Maine or Alaska, with rocky cliffs rising sharply from the bay. Economically and commercially, the equivalent would be the greater Los Angeles basin, with roads, lights, and buildings sprawling as far in all directions as one could see. As we descended (with controllers’ permission—they were more comfortable in English here so much closer to Hong Kong) in preparation for landing, we were mainly out of the clouds while still 2,000 feet above the ground. We marveled at the lights of the industrial urban expanse while noting the large, unlit masses that signified mountains and rocky islands. Zhuhai’s airport is on the far southern extension of a peninsula, the southernmost point in the Hong Kong area. 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. 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—and had discussed during the preceding few minutes, in the “brief the approach” discussion that is supposed to be part of the preparation for every landing—how we should respond. Airplane life is based on backups and contingencies, and every pilot who has trained for an instrument rating has practiced the “missed approach” routine that is called for if you don’t see the ground or runway lights when you descend as low as the approach-chart says you safely and legally can. But it is one thing to know that in theory, and to have done it in practice time and again. 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. Of course we’d climb nonetheless; as the aviation saying went, it’s better to be around to argue about possible violations than to miss that disciplinary hearing because you have crashed. We could worry later on, too, about what had gone wrong. Had the landing signal failed or been switched off for some reason? Was it our instruments or their settings?
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, both 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? At the time I had been too busy staring for breaks in the clouds to notice all the variables, and afterward there was no way to be sure. We saw the runway in time and got down—and if we hadn’t seen it, we had been prepared to divert somewhere else.
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.
Excerpted from China Airborne by James Fallows. Copyright © 2012 by James Fallows. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has reported from around the world and has worked in software design at Microsoft, as the editor of U.S. News & World Report, and as a speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter. He is currently a news analyst for NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered and a visiting professor at the University of Sydney.