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Helicopters in China

Should you invest in a helicopter? And what are the benefits to owning a rotorcraft? While some of the larger Western manufacturers look to expand into China- forecasts for the number of helicopters registered and operating in the country vary widely. Following is a quick look at what is available- and what are the current obstacles and potential catalysts to growth for the Chinese helicopter market.

Geoff Thomas   |   1st September 2011
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Geoff Thomas Geoff Thomas

Geoff Thomas is Managing Director, GT Editorial Services, Ltd., where he writes on a variety of...
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Industry growth expected in China - but by how much?

Should you invest in a helicopter? And what are the benefits to owning a rotorcraft? While some of the larger Western manufacturers look to expand into China- forecasts for the number of helicopters registered and operating in the country vary widely. Following is a quick look at what is available- and what are the current obstacles and potential catalysts to growth for the Chinese helicopter market.

As September’s prestigious Aviation Expo China in Beijing prepared to celebrate its 25th anniversary (21-24 September)- preparations were also underway for an associated new event – the first China Helicopter Exposition - to be held in the port city of Tianjin (15-18 September). Famous manufacturers exhibiting include Avicopter- AgustaWestland- Bell Helicopter- Eurocopter- Harbin Aircraft Industry Group- Qingdao Haili Helicopter- Robinson- Sikorsky- and the Sino Russian Helicopter Technology Company.

The event reflects the growing importance of helicopters in China. For Business Aviation users- a helicopter can be a useful alternative to private jet travel between closely paired destinations that are difficult to access in an aircraft. Since helicopters can take off and land vertically- hover and fly forwards and backwards they can be used in congested or isolated areas where a jet aircraft would not be able to take-off or land.

VIP helicopters vary from types like the light single engine seven-seat Eurocopter EC130 (typically used for sightseeing) to machines such as the nine-seat heavyweight Sikorsky S-92- which will potentially be selected to transport President Obama in the US. He would be in good company – last year the Emir of Kuwait chose the S-92 for his royal duties.

So why is the event taking place in Tianjin? The city is just 60 miles from Beijing- and connected to the capital by a high speed rail link.

The city is being developed as a major aerospace industry and technology hub- and it is already home to Avicopter- the helicopter subsidiary of the China Aviation Industry Corporation (AVIC). Majority-owned (69 percent) by AVIC and 31 percent owned by the Tianjin municipal government- Avicopter is building an $800m helicopter research center and major production facility in Tianjin- which will join existing factories at Harbin- Jingdezhen and Baoding- and which will become the company’s headquarters.

It has been estimated that the new plant will have sufficient capacity to produce 30 thirty-ton helicopters- 40 ten-ton helicopters and 170 light helicopters per year- with annual production capacity rising to around 300 helicopters by 2017.

Additionally- Eurocopter (which accounts for about 40 percent of China's civil helicopter market) is reportedly considering establishing a presence in Tianjin- further underlining the city’s importance.

Why invest in a helicopter?

Organized by France’s BCI Aerospace- at the time of writing the new China Helicopter Exposition show is expecting to receive more than 2-000 visitors- with 100 domestic and 100 foreign exhibitors. The big players like AgustaWestland and Eurocopter that are set to participate are presumably hoping for the kind of market growth that has been predicted.

Individual predictions as to the extent of any such growth vary wildly- though this is perhaps unsurprising as it is quite difficult to gage the true size of today’s civil helicopter fleet. In 2010- Eurocopter (China) estimated the civil helicopter fleet at just 40 aircraft- while this year we have seen more generous estimates from Frost & Sullivan (137) and AVIC (170). Estimates for the future are even more varied.

The China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation estimated a ‘likely’ need for “more than 10-000 helicopters by 2020”- while Wang Bin- the president of the AVIC Helicopter Co- expects the demand to climb from the 170 civilian helicopters now in service to more than 1-500 over the next decade. Alain Ngoie- BCI Aerospace’s area manager echoed AVIC’s forecast- while the official website for the China Helicopter Exposition predicts a $2 billion market for 3-000 helicopters in China by 2020.

These forecasts are based on the opening-up of China’s low-altitude airspace- which today is tightly controlled by the military. Cross country flying requires flight plans to be filed with the appropriate military agencies and with China's civil aviation agency at the departure airport- at the destination airport- and at all waypoints between. The state meteorological agency should also be consulted- and the process takes a minimum of three to five days before approval may be granted.

On 14 November 2010- the State Council and the Central Military Commission issued a circular which stated an intention to gradually open part of China’s low-altitude airspace for private flights in the hope that this would promote China's general aviation sector.

The country's low-altitude airspace will be divided into three categories: some areas will remain ‘under control’ as they are today- with other areas either ‘under surveillance’ or ‘reporting’ in which aircraft will be able to fly freely.

Pilots will still need to file flight plans. To fly in ‘controlled’ or ‘surveillance’ airspace these will need to be filed by 3pm on the day before the intended flight - with a reply by 9pm that same day. Aircraft flying in the third ‘reporting’ category of airspace- however- will merely need to file an application two hours before take-off. An ‘efficient management and operation mechanism’ is to be established to facilitate this.

The process will be undertaken gradually- and the open airspace reform is initially being evaluated in Changchun and Guangzhou- with plans to add another five pilot cities imminently. A trial allowing helicopters to operate in low-altitude airspace over Hainan has also been undertaken.

In March 2011- during a press conference- the director of China Aviation Administration Council Mr. Li Jiaxiang announced that low-altitude airspace will be gradually expanded across more areas- and will eventually cover the whole country by 2015

Considering the impressive capabilities of helicopters- growth in this sector seems inevitable. Certainly the Western helicopter manufacturers who have invested heavily in joint ventures in China believe so- and they will be looking for the kind of growth that will repay those investments.

l’Hélicoptère par Hermès

One helicopter to look for is Eurocopter’s collaboration with leading French fashion house Hermés to create a version of its EC135- known as l’Hélicoptère par Hermès.

The aircraft has a striking- if minimalist exterior paint scheme- designed to accentuate the aircraft’s lines- and to emphasise the large windows- with a flowing ribbon running from nose to tail. The interior is spacious and restful- and makes extensive use of hand-crafted calf leather and ‘Toile H’- a signature Hermés fabric which originates as a covering for fire hoses- giving it unparalleled durability.

The cabin is divided into three distinct zones- consisting of the cockpit- the passenger cabin- and the baggage compartment. The cockpit is as luxuriously appointed as the cabin- with similar leather seats and trim- and with the same ‘rectangular’ styling cues which emphasise the cabin width.

The cabin is separated from the cockpit by Perspex screens- one of which slides down to allow communication with the crew. It has two rear-facing seats- with a cabinet between them that can contain a cooled mini-bar and glasses. Two forward-facing seats are opposite.

The luggage space- accessed via the usual EC135 clamshell doors- incorporates a shelf for hats or lightweight items- while the lower section can accommodate a pair of golf bags (for example).

Read more about: Business Aviation in China | Helicopters

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