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China Airborne
Cover of China Airborne
China Airborne
Borrow Borrow Borrow

More than two-thirds of the new airports under construction today are being built in China. Chinese airlines expect to triple their fleet size over the next decade and will account for the fastest-growing market for Boeing and Airbus. But the Chinese are determined to be more than customers. 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. Its goal is to produce the Boeings and Airbuses of the future. Toward that end, it acquired two American companies: Cirrus Aviation, maker of the world's most popular small propeller plane, and Teledyne Continental, which produces the engines for Cirrus and other small aircraft.

In China Airborne, James Fallows documents, for the first time, the extraordinary scale of this project and explains why it is a crucial test case for China's hopes for modernization and innovation in other industries. He makes 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. Fallows chronicles life in the city of Xi'an, home to more than 250,000 aerospace engineers and assembly workers, and introduces us to some of the hucksters, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and dreamers who seek to benefit from China's pursuit of aerospace supremacy. He concludes by examining what this latest demonstration of Chinese ambition means for the United States and the rest of the world--and the right ways to understand it.

More than two-thirds of the new airports under construction today are being built in China. Chinese airlines expect to triple their fleet size over the next decade and will account for the fastest-growing market for Boeing and Airbus. But the Chinese are determined to be more than customers. 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. Its goal is to produce the Boeings and Airbuses of the future. Toward that end, it acquired two American companies: Cirrus Aviation, maker of the world's most popular small propeller plane, and Teledyne Continental, which produces the engines for Cirrus and other small aircraft.

In China Airborne, James Fallows documents, for the first time, the extraordinary scale of this project and explains why it is a crucial test case for China's hopes for modernization and innovation in other industries. He makes 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. Fallows chronicles life in the city of Xi'an, home to more than 250,000 aerospace engineers and assembly workers, and introduces us to some of the hucksters, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and dreamers who seek to benefit from China's pursuit of aerospace supremacy. He concludes by examining what this latest demonstration of Chinese ambition means for the United States and the rest of the world--and the right ways to understand it.

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Excerpts-
  • INTRODUCTION

    INTRODUCTION
    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...

About the Author-
  • 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.



Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    March 5, 2012
    Journalist Fallows, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, takes us through China’s emerging role in the aviation industry—its past, and its developing future. Despite its ample historical facts and descriptions, Fallows keeps the reader engaged by weaving personal stories and lively personalities into his depiction of the changing aerospace landscape. He tackles technical facets and political obstacles that China faces as it tries to become an aerospace power, but for Fallows, aviation is just a prime example of larger dynamics in the Chinese economy: “balance and tension.” All of this coalesces into a picture of China as a country propelling forward, “addicted to growth.” Whether readers have an interest in aviation or China’s role in the global economy, Fallows’s book makes for an intriguing read, looking at both sides of the picture: reasons for why China might succeed, as well as those for why the country might struggle. Agent: Wendy Weil Agency.

  • Kirkus

    April 15, 2012
    In this natural follow-up to Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China (2008), Atlantic correspondent Fallows analyzes the problems and promises of China's economic development through an examination of the efforts to create a world-class aerospace industry. With its unprecedented manufacturing prowess, China has become a world economic power. But how real and sustainable is the development? The test, writes the author, is how well China succeeds in its current effort to build an aerospace industry, to which the Chinese government has pledged $230 billion. "If China can succeed fully in aerospace," writes Fallows, "then in principle there is very little it cannot do." However, this is no easy task. It is one thing to assemble iPhones, quite another to build an industry of the complexity of aerospace. Fallows ably guides readers through this complexity: developing internationally recognized standards of safety and inspection, ensuring adequate air space above China for a busy airline industry, developing and manufacturing airplanes, and their millions of components, that can compete with established manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus. In this effort, Fallows sees both the broad positive and negative features of Chinese society. While China's economy at its best is marked by an anarchic spontaneity of entrepreneurial energy, this energy is often checked by a state apparatus obsessed with monitoring and controlling it. If the government will not allow open Internet access, it cannot easily open up the skies to commercial flights. The Chinese military owns the country's airspace, with only a few narrow corridors open for commercial flights into China's major cities. With precise yet accessible language, Fallows discusses a variety of contradictions in China, revealing much more about it than its prospects as an aerospace power. An enjoyable, important update on an enigmatic economic giant.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from April 1, 2012
    Atlantic correspondent Fallows dives into this most timely subject and, in brisk yet erudite language, takes readers on a tour of China's burgeoning aviation industry. Along the way, he provides an in-depth look at a place where general aviation is nearly nonexistent, multimillion dollar airports are built before airline traffic is approved, and the military holds ultimate control over all of the airspace. This economic and political narrative includes a great deal of history as well, including that of the American aircraft company Cirrus (now owned by the Chinese government, a subject that Fallows hints is worthy of a book of its own) and a significant look at the shadow Boeing casts worldwide. Fallows' prescient look at society, culture, and business is based on his conversations with numerous individuals in China who spoke to him about the hard shift required to change gears and embrace open and accessible aviation, and the epic hurdles that stand in the way. Paired with China's Wings (2012), readers will acquire an unparalleled view of China in the air past, present, and future. Highly readable and significant, Fallows' book should not be missed by those seeking to understand America's relationship with this global power.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2012, American Library Association.)

  • Publishers Weekly "Fallows keeps the reader engaged by weaving personal stories and lively personalities into his depiction of the changing aerospace landscape...his book makes for an intriguing read, looking at both sides of the picture: reasons for why China might succeed, as well as those for why the country might struggle."
  • Booklist, starred review "Prescient . . . Highly readable and significant, Fallows' book should not be missed by those seeking to understand America's relationship with this global power."
  • Tyler Cowen "That is the new book by James Fallows. On the surface it is a book about aviation in China, but it is also one of the best books on China (ever), one of the best books on industrial organization in years, and an excellent treatment of economic growth. It is also readable and fun."
  • The Economist "Not only does the book benefit from Fallows' keen observations as a journalist in China, but also it is enriched by his technical knowledge as a passionate aviator. The result is informative and lively."
  • Asia Sentinel "It is worth the reader's time to obtain it and read it. It is a timely look at a country in a newly dangerous economic and political situation. Understanding that situation is of utmost importance to the rest of the world."
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