Murphy's Law: Shot Down Over Beijing

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January 6, 2015: In October 2014 three men went on trial in China for illegally operating a UAV over the capital in December 2013. That incident caused a massive mobilization of troops and aircraft. Within an hour an armed helicopter was sent up to examine the 2.3 meter (7.5 foot) long UAV and concluded that it was one of the many commercial UAVs made in sold in China for real estate, agriculture and other business uses. But there was no way to contact who was operating the UAV so the helicopter was ordered to open fire and bring down the UAV. In doing that other aerial observers noted a car below that appeared to contain the UAV control equipment and the man operating the UAV. Police and soldiers were called in to arrest the three men involved. It was unclear at first what the three could be charged with. The fact of the matter was that the UAV was collecting information for real estate developers and such Chinese made UAVs have been doing all over China for over a decade. But this time the UAV flew through some highly restricted (and defended) air space over the national capital. The UAV users did not realize that the rules were different over the capital and that the rules were enforced. This was in sharp contrast to the rest of China. It was also another example of how confused and chaotic the situation is in Chinese air space, where there are no agreed upon rules about who can do what.

The basic problem is that Chinese Air Force still legally controls 80 percent of Chinese air space and frequently shuts down commercial use of large sections of it for military exercises. This often has catastrophic impact on commercial aviation. For example nearly a thousand flights leaving Shanghai were cancelled in July 2014 and over a 100,000 travelers were forced to wait, or find another way to get where they were going because the military unexpectedly shut down civilian access to air space heavily used by airliners. .

As Chinese commercial aviation continues its rapid growth the percentage of flights that are delayed by the military increases. Already Chinese commercial aviation has the worst on-time record in the world. China’s booming commercial aviation industry has long been pressuring the government to force the military to release more air space for commercial use. There has not been much progress. Until the 1990s all Chinese air space was under the control of the military. Gradually, to allow commercial aviation to operate, more and more air space was opened to commercial use while remaining subject to military use (and temporarily banning everyone else). Currently, about a quarter of Chinese air space is restricted to only military use. Some of that restricted air space causes many commercial flights to go out of their way, or makes it difficult for commercial airliners to avoid bad weather. So the military has agreed to surrender the most troublesome (to civil aviation) bits of air space. Soon, perhaps by this year. Maybe.

There is another problem here. As Chinese aircraft factories churn out more commercial helicopters and small airplanes, there is a curious absence of these aircraft in the Chinese skies. China doesn't lack for billionaires and businesses that can afford this form of transportation. What China does lack is permission for private citizens to fly. Until moments like this, it's easy to forget that China is still a communist police state. The military controls the skies, and getting permission to fly private aircraft is extremely difficult. Very wealthy, well-connected and brave individuals ignore the law and fly anyway. Their attitude is that they have enough lawyers, cash and connections to deal with the police. Of course, there's always the risk that some air force commander will just decide you are a threat and blow you out of the sky. The attitudes towards the UAVs is a little different if only because the military depends on commercial firms for reliable UAVs using current technology. The government and the air force are well aware that local governments and all sorts of businesses regularly use UAVs and generally these unmanned aircraft are not bothered. There is a lot of resistance from the air force to change the laws to legalize the use of UAVs or, worse yet, commercial aviation.

But under pressure from its growing business class, China is opening up the currently unfriendly skies to private aviation. It will take years (and some large cash gifts) to pry control from the military, but soon many areas will be open to private aircraft flying at low altitude (under 4,000 meters/13,122 feet). Aircraft, usually helicopters, flying at under 1,000 meters (3,200 feet) won't even have to file flight plans. The rules and regulations are being worked out now, and some areas are to be opened up.

Meanwhile, the Chinese commercial aviation fleet currently consists of some 2,000 aircraft. That’s more than double what was available in 2005. This has now more than doubled, because larger aircraft are being used. China has over two dozen airlines, and one (China United Airlines, with nearly a hundred aircraft) is actually owned by the Chinese air force, and can use military air space.

By law, China can still order all these aircraft into military service. As a practical matter, only China United Airline sends it airliners off to train with the troops once or twice a year. Actually, within the air force, China United Airlines is known as the 34th Air Division. Most of the airline employees are active duty or reserve air force personnel The Chinese military was supposed to sell off their huge business empire in the late 1990s, but only about half the assets were disposed of and keeping the 34th Air Division was sold as “military necessity.”.

 

 


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