Business News

China’s Rich Try to Fly Around Red Tape

Michael Wines

Here in this smoggy coastal metropolis, the nouveau-riche heart of entrepreneurial China, the latest sign that one has really made it is not a Benz, or even a Bentley. It is a helicopter. Perhaps 10 of Wenzhou’s super-rich have one.

Guan Hongsheng has three. Although, really, who’s counting?

“For us, a workweek is 80 hours or more. So you know what we need? Fast,” said Mr. Guan, a gold-necklaced, yacht-sailing titan who made a fortune as a trader. To relieve the stress of making vast sums of money, he said, there is nothing like zipping around in a copter.

“Only then can I truly relax,” he said. “It’s that simple.”

If only it were legal, too.

Mr. Guan and his friends are black fliers — part of a minuscule group of wealthy Chinese who fly, quite literally, in the face of the law. The first Chinese rich enough to own their own aircraft, they have collided in midair with the Chinese military, which controls the country’s airspace and never contemplated such a fantastic development, much less authorized it. Just asking for permission to take off can involve days of bureaucratic gantlet-running, and still end in rejection.

Getting permission to land can be another hassle altogether.

So black fliers take to the air clandestinely, flitting where the authorities are unlikely to notice or care, occasionally causing havoc on the ground below, risking fines that would send an average Chinese to the poorhouse but which, for most of them, do not have much of a deterrent effect.

“It’s like this — your family, your wife, won’t let you go out and pick up girls. But you went out and did it anyway,” Mr. Guan said. “Secret flying is like secret love. You do it, you don’t tell people about it.”

Just how many pilots make black flights (in Chinese, hei fei) is unclear, but their number is assuredly tiny. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration says that nearly 237,000 general aviation aircraft were actively flying in the country in 2010. By comparison, experts say, China has perhaps 1,000 registered private aircraft.

No one knows how many of those make black flights. But Cao Wei, who runs a Beijing company that leases small aircraft and trains pilots, says there are several hundred unregistered aircraft, and all of those do. A large percentage of aircraft that make black flights, he said, are helicopters, much favored because they do not need a runway.

“You don’t need much space, and you can have a flexible flight plan,” he said. “Say your home is a few kilometers from the golf course — you just hop in your helicopter, fly low, and go there. It’s very difficult to discover.”

Perhaps so, but hei fei pilots nevertheless have gotten into more than their share of scrapes. Several have been mistaken for UFOs while aloft over major cities, including a helicopter pilot whose evening excursion last July over the airport in Hangzhou, north of Wenzhou, tied up a score of commercial jets on the ground. A rich pilot in Dongguan, a south China metropolis, made national headlines in 2006 when he used his helicopter to pursue and subdue thieves who had stolen his luxury car.

More recently, an especially unlucky pilot wandered onto air traffic controllers’ radar screens between Shanghai’s two major airports during last year’s Shanghai International Expo, which, like most Chinese spectacles, was smothered in a blanket of anti-terrorism, anti-dissident security.

Most brushes with the authorities are less dramatic. Mr. Guan was apprehended in March 2010 after he and other hobbyists flew two helicopters around Wenzhou without government approval. The penalties ranged up to 100,000 renminbi, or about $15,400, but “we were able to talk them down to 20,000,” he said.

Punished but hardly chastened, Mr. Guan keeps his American-made Robinson copter in a quasi hangar at his yacht club, on the banks of the milky Ou River some 30 minutes from downtown Wenzhou. For now, he limits his flights of fancy to the airspace over the river, where he is unlikely to draw much attention.

Theoretically, he and others can fly wherever they wish. Practically, the obstacles are daunting.

China’s airspace is the jealously guarded province of its military, which parcels out flying rights grudgingly, even to the nation’s booming commercial airline sector. Lengthy airport delays — often unexplained, but generally attributed to the preeminence of air force jets on maneuvers — are a staple of commercial Chinese flights.

Private aircraft occupy the lowest rung of the flight ladder. Pilots in training, and those who just want to go up for the view, can fly on reasonably short notice in tightly circumscribed areas, just a few kilometers across, at a handful of airports. But anyone seeking to fly to another airstrip must negotiate a bureaucratic thicket, filing flight plans with the military and China’s civil aviation agency not only at the departure point, but at the arrival point and all points in between.

Mr. Cao, the Beijing flight company owner, said the state meteorological agency also must be consulted. Within a few days — or a week, or 10 days, depending on whom one believes — the authorities will respond with an O.K. Or not.

“Only if the civil aviation agency and the air force agree — and also the individual offices of the air force and civil aviation along the route agree — can you get permission,” he said. “And if any one of them doesn’t give you a license, you can’t make the flight. And it’s only if the weather is good.”

The thicket can be impenetrable. Another Wenzhou hei fei helicopter pilot, Zhu Songbin, bought a small airplane last year in Guangzhou, where his flight school is based, and sought clearance to fly it to Wenzhou, about 570 miles to the northwest.

Then he discovered that merely applying for permission to fly would cost thousands of dollars and require an interagency meeting with no guarantee of approval.

Mr. Zhu said he contemplated making a long black flight home, then thought better of it. “I was afraid they’d revoke my license if they caught me,” he said.

So he gave up. “I just sold the plane to somebody else,” he said.

The promising news, Mr. Cao and others say, is that the government is moving to change the rules. Officials proposed last November to allow general-aviation aircraft to fly the skies below 4,000 meters, or about 13,125 feet. The first step, an experiment allowing planes to fly below 1,000 meters, or 3,280 feet, will be tried out in 2011 and 2012 in two provinces, Guangdong and Heilongjiang.

Already, investors are gearing up for what they believe will be a lucrative market in small planes. In February, a subsidiary of a state-owned Chinese company bought Cirrus Industries, a Minnesota manufacturer of small aircraft.

The boom may have to wait a while: under current plans, Chinese airspace will not be fully open to private planes until 2020.

Jonathan Kaiman contributed research from Beijing.