Must Read: China Airborne by James Fallows

Depending on who you talk to, China is either the graveyardor the future for major airframers like Boeing and Airbus. It will also,supposedly, be the world’s greatest market for both general and businessaviation, with millions of Chinese taking to the skies for pleasure andbusiness.

In China Airborne, journalist and avowed aviation enthusiastJames Fallows tries to make sense of how commercial and general aviation haveevolved in China, the current state of China’s aerospace sector, and what thefuture may hold.

China Airborne is fun to read and well written. Thehardcover version is just 236 pages long and I finished it in two days. Whilethose unfamiliar with China’s aerospace sector will learn a great deal, old Chinahands may be familiar with a good bit of the material Fallows covers.

Aside from discussing early Chinese aviation pioneers – oneof whom was Boeing’s first chief engineer – Fallows talks about thedifferent evolutions of aviation in the USA and China. In the USA generalaviation grew along with aviation technology itself, with GA airfields dottingthe country. In China the military has always controlled the airspace,restricting airliners to very specific corridors and making general aviation anon-starter.

Fallows goes into some detail about the important role UScompanies such as Boeing and institutions such as the FAA have played in thedevelopment of air safety in China since the 1980s. In the chapter about Chineseindigenous airliners (‘China’s own Boeing’), I smiled to come across commentsfrom eponymous aerospace sector pundit Richard Aboulafia, who produced perhapsthe most memorable quotation from the book:

“We know that this plane, the ARJ21, is completely useless.It amounts to a random collection of imported technologies and design featuresflying together in loose formation.”

The most disappointing aspect of the book was the last chapter,which is basically a general essay on Chinese society and China’s place in theworld. This chapter is very readable and interesting, but the avgeek in me washoping for more about airplanes.

Nonetheless, China Airborne is well worth the time. Greatstuff. 

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