Chinese air carriers have an accident rate of 0.29 per million flying hours, compared to a global average of 0.7. In the 1990s the International Air line Passengers Association has labeled China as one of the most dangerous places in the world to fly. Between 1987 and 1997 only five of the world's hundreds of airlines had four or more fatal crashes. They were: 1) Air India, with 7; 2) Korean Air, with 5; 3) USAir, with 5; 4) China Air, with 4; 5) Garuda Indonesian, with 4.

In the first six months of 1994, there were 17 near-accidents, in addition to "minor" incidents in which planes veered off the runway or scraped wings, or engines stalling in mid-air. Aviation officials blamed the problem on the deregulation and growth of the airline industry. There were 35 different airline companies in China at that time but not enough trained pilots to fly all the planes, many of which were modern foreign aircraft thought to be too complicated for Chinese pilots. [Source: Washington Post]

On the website Flight Safety Information there are some pictures of a maintenance crew fixing the front landing gear of a Chinese 747 and damaging the tail in the process.

Air Accidents in China in the 1990s

In 1992 more than 380 people were killed in 5 crashes, the worst year in China's aviation history and a fifth of all the air fatalities in the world that year. Chinese officials refused to allow foreign foreigners to inspect the wreckage or retrieve the black box from a 737-330 that crashed in November 1992, killing 141 people. There was some speculation that accident may have been caused by a malfunction of Chinese-made spare parts. In 1993, 76 people were killed in five crashes.

In June, 1994, a Soviet-made Tupolev-154, crashed 10 minutes after take-off in Xian, killing all 160 aboard. In April 1994, a CAAC Airbus A-300 crashed nears its destination at Nagoya Airport in Japan, killing 262 of the 271 people on board. It was China’s worst aviation disaster ever. After the crash CAAC went through great lengths to improve air safety.

In May 1997, a China Southern Airlines Boeing 737 crashed in bad weather conditions at the Shenzen airport in southern China. killing 35 people and injuring 35.

In February 1999, a China Southwest Airlines flight crashed near the city of Wenzhou in southeast China, killing all 64 people on board. The Russian-built Tupolev TU-154 crashed while landing. According to some witnesses there was a mid-air collision before the plane crashed into a cabbage field.

Air Accidents in China in the Early 2000s

In May 2002, a China Northern Airlines MD-82 crashed in the Yellow Sea just short of its destination, the coastal city of Dalian, killing 112 people. The crash was blamed on sabotage caused by a passenger who set a fire using gasoline in a soft drink can. Shortly before the crash the pilot radioed there was a fire in the cabin. An investigation figured out the identity of the passenger accused of starting the fire.

In April 2002, an Air China Boeing 767 slammed into a wooded, 500-meter-high mountain near Kimhae Airport in Pusan in South Korea, killing 128 of the 166 people on board. The 38 survivors were seated mostly in the front of the of plane. Fifty-four people survived. Some staggered down the mountain to get help. Fifteen died later. Before that Air China had not had a crash since 1988. See South Korea

The Boeing 767 was on its way from Beijing to Pusan. The crash occurred during poor weather and was blamed on thick fog and an unfamiliarity of the pilot with landing route. Because of strong headwinds the pilot was told to land the plane approaching the airport from the opposite side of the normal route. The plane hit the mountain while circling to the other side of the airport. The 32-year-old pilot survived. He had landed at Kimhae Airport at Pusan before but never from the opposite side. He said he felt “nothing unusual with the plane.”

The owner of a shop near the crash site told Reuters: “This man, wearing a suit covered with blood and soot, hobbled into my store, covering his face. We called the 119 emergency hot line and he sat there and asked for a mirror. He saw his face and looked stunned.”

One survivor, a 27-year-old South Korean travel agency trainee, said he saw a blue flash from the window and then lost consciousness. When he came to he crawled out of the fuselage, which he told APF was like a “crushed coke can.” Even though he was bleeding from his face he spent the next two hours pulling people from the wreckage, and helped bandage them and guide them down the mountain. “I don’t know where the energy came from but I felt as if I was carrying stuff as light as a sheet of newspaper.”

Air Accidents in China and Stowaways in the Mid 2000s

In January 2003, two men fell from an Air France flight as it was preparing to land in Shanghai. The two men had apparently smuggled themselves aboard the plane in Paris. One body hit a house. Another landed in a field. The two men were white and were suspected of hiding in the luggage hold. Autopsy reports indicated the men had frostbite and were dead before they hit the ground. There have been many cases of Chinese trying to smuggle themselves into Western countries but not many examples of Westerners trying to smuggle themselves into China.

In January and February in 2004, two China Southern Airlines 757 were forced to make emergency landing because of smoke in the cabin.

In November 2004, a plane crashed into a frozen lake in northern China, killing 55 people. The China East Airlines Bombadier CRJ-200 was traveling from the northern Inner Mongolia city of Bautou to Shanghai. It crashed seconds after take off. Witnesses said they heard a huge explosion before the plane hit the ground. All 53 people on the plane and two people on the ground died.

In June 2006, a military plane crashed in Anhui Province, 200 kilometers west if Shanghai, killing 40 people. Villagers described body parts scattered over the bamboo-covered hills where the plane broke up.

In July, 2007, a body was found in the nose gear a United Airlines from Shanghai after it landed in San Francisco. The man had on several layers of clothing and was an Asian in his 50s. It was assumed he was a stowaway trying to make his way to the United States. He had no visible signs of injury. It is assumed he died of lack of oxygen or hypothermia or possibly by being crushed by the nose gear.

In October 2009, four Dutch tourist were killed when a tourist hot air balloon caught on fire about 150 meters above the ground soon after take off in the tourist town of Yangshuo in the Guilin area.

Air Crashes in China in 2010

In November 2010, a Zimbabwean cargo plane crashed shortly after take off at Shanghai’s main international airport. Three crew members were killed. CCTV and Xinhua reports said the plane veered off the runway and the tail of the plane struck the ground on takeoff. The plane broke into three pieces and set a warehouse on fire.

In August 2010, a Henan Airways plane crashed and burst into flames while landing at night in foggy conditions at a small airport in Yichin in Heliongjiang Province in northeast China, killing 42 people and injuring 54, including 19 in critical condition. Reports by survivors seemed to indicate the airplane---a Brazilian-made Embraer 190---missed the runway and crashed on the ground. Yiching is a remote town 150 kilometers from the Russian border. The accident was the worst aviation disaster in China in nearly six years.

The crash and fire were so severe that little of the fuselage of the plane remained. Eight of the victims were found 20 to 30 meters away from the wreckage in a muddy field, the pilot survived but was badly hurt and initially could not speak.

A survivor told CCTV that there was bad turbulence as the plane descended, then several big jolts that caused luggage to come crashing down from the overhead bins. “After we stopped,” he said, “the people in the back were panicking and rushed to the front. We were trying to open the [emergency exits] but they wouldn’t open. Then the smoke came in...within two or three minutes or even a minute, we couldn’t breath. I knew something bad was going to happen.” The man said he and a few other passengers escaped from a hole in the wall of the cabin near the first row of seats and ran from the burning aircraft.”

After the crash, Henan Province demanded that the airline change its name on the grounds that the accident tarnished the province’s reputation. Officials also discovered that 100 pilots who worked for the airline’s parent company had falsified their flying histories.

Low-on- Fuel Airline Battle over Shanghai

In August 2011, the pilot of a Juneyao Airlines flight refused six requests from Shanghai air traffic control to give way after the Qatar Airlines jet from Doha issued a "mayday" call seeking priority in landing because it was running short of fuel. Reports at the time said the aircraft came dangerously close to collision before both landed safely. The Qatar jet, among 20 circling over Shanghai's Pudong International Airport due to bad weather, made an urgent request to land at the city's other main airport, Hongqiao International. But the Juneyao Airlines pilot argued that his aircraft was also low on fuel. [Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, AP, August 30, 2011]

Aviation authorities ordered stiff punishment for the Juneyao Airlines pilot. The China Civil Aviation Administration, or CAAC, deemed the 13 incident, a "serious violation of regulations." Its investigation found that the Juneyao jet had enough fuel to stay airborne for 42 more minutes, while the Qatar jet had only enough fuel for 18 more minutes of flight, it said. The Juneyao pilot’s license was revoked.

Safety Concerns Over Air Travel in China

The case was the latest to raise concern about China's increasingly busy airports, as traffic controllers struggle to keep up and airlines scramble for pilots, many of whom lack experience, analysts said. Congestion in China's skies also is adding to air traffic control problems, forcing detours, delays and raising the risks of collision, the International Air Traffic Association has warned.[Source: Elaine Kurtenbach, AP, August 30, 2011]

So far, China's overall safety rate is "respectable," says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group Corp., a consultancy. But he notes that "Given China aviation's congestion and extremely high growth rates, there's bound to be a few improperly trained pilots and dubious runway procedures."

AP reported: "Airports have proliferated as have smaller regional airlines as passenger numbers have soared. A year ago, 42 people died in the crash of a Henan Airlines flight making a night landing in a remote town in northeastern China. Adding to the confusion is China's own difficulties with pilots and pilot training. Experts say the country will need tens of thousands of new pilots in coming years to man its growing fleets of aircraft and also to replace the current generation of pilots as they retire. Already flight crews are stretched to the limit by manpower shortages. In 2008, China Eastern Airline saw disruptions to more than 20 flights in southwestern China's Yunnan province by pilots who either turned back midway through their flights or landed them and then took off again without letting passengers disembark.

Chinese Airport Director Executed

In August 2009, China executed Li Peiyin, the former head of a huge state-owned airport holding company, six months after he was convicted on bribery and embezzlement charges involving more than $14.6 million. Li had been the chairman and general manager of Capital Airports Holding Company, a $14.6 billion conglomerate that runs 30 airports in nine Chinese provinces, including Beijing’s much-acclaimed new international airport. [Source: Michael Wines and Mark McDonald New York Times, August 7, 2009]

Xinhua said that Li was executed in Jinan, a Yellow River city in eastern China’s Shandong Province. At his peak, Li, 60, supervised a 38,000-employee behemoth that not only served 30 percent of the nation’s air passenger traffic, but had also launched forays into insurance, hotels, real estate and tourism. [Ibid]

In February 2009, a court in Jinan ruled that he had embezzled $12.1 million from the company over a three-year period ending in 2000, and had accepted an additional $3.9 million in bribes during an eight-year period starting in 1995. Most of the bribes received by Li---reportedly for loans or loan guarantees---came from Qin Hui, owner of the popular Paradise nightclub located in the luxury Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing, according to Shanghai Daily. The court said that Li’s actions had caused the nation severe financial losses. [Ibid]

Problems Aboard Chinese Flights

Describing a plane journey from Urumchi to Lanzhou in the 1980s, Theroux wrote, "Every seat was taken, and every person was heavily laden with carry-on baggage---big skull-cracking bundles that fell out of the overhead rack. Even before the plane took off people were softy vomiting, with their heads down and their hands folded." After it took off "the plane was very hot and then so cold I could see my breath. It creaked like a schooner under sail." When the announcement was made that the plane will be landing, passengers began pushing and shoving and grabbing their bags before the plane touched down.

The Lonely Planet guide of China reported the following incident: "amused passengers watched the pilot (returning from the toilet) locked out of the cockpit by a jammed door. The co-pilot opened the door from within, then both men fiddled with the catch and succeeded in locking themselves out of the cockpit. As passengers stared in disbelief, the pilot and co-pilot attacked the door with a fire-ax, pausing for a moment to draw a curtain between themselves and the audience."

In December 2004, a passenger punched a stewardess and a dozen other passengers blocked the doors when the flight attendants insited that oversize luggage to be checked in rather than jammed on the overhead compartments.

In July 2004, a man with a history of mental illness tried to hijack a domestic Air China flight to South Korea, saying some friends of his on the plane were carrying bottles of acid. The situation was resolved quickly. The plane made an emergency landing in the Chinese city of Zhengzhou and the man gave himself up. No acid was found on the plane.

In the mid 2000s, a Chinese national legislator was charged with striking a flight attendant who refused to let him on a plane because he didn’t have a ticket.

After the Henan Airlines plane crash in August that killed 42 people in northeast China,officials discovered that 100 pilots who worked for the airline’s parent company had falsified their flying histories.

Protest by Angry Passengers at a Chinese Airport in April 2012

In April 17, 2012, Duncan Hewitt wrote in China Beat, “Several papers reported how twenty airline passengers, furious at having been delayed overnight at Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport when a flight was cancelled---and at receiving no compensation for their troubles---burst past security guards and blocked a runway near the plane they were eventually due to leave on, forcing one international flight that had just landed to change its course on the taxi way. The protesters were soon removed from the runway, but to the anger of some local media , the authorities were apparently initially unwilling to take any further action against them (though after much media criticism, they were later reported to have been given unspecified “administrative punishment.”) [Source: Duncan Hewitt China Beat, April 17, 2012]

It’s perhaps not surprising: with Chinese people increasingly aware of their rights as consumers---and, perhaps, as citizens too---these days, protests by passengers angry at shoddy treatment by state-run airlines (many of which still seem to hanker for the unaccountable days of old) have become commonplace, and the police are often very wary of intervening for fear of provoking a violent reaction . (I saw such a case myself at Shanghai’s Hongqiao Airport a couple of weeks ago, when a passenger furious at the cancellation of his flight due to fog leapt onto the counter of an airline desk and began screaming at the top of his voice. Two young policemen hovered nervously nearby, watching but taking no action.) These days, it seems, achieving total unity of opinion among people who feel increasingly empowered as individuals may not be quite as easy as it was in the days when the People’s Daily first wrote such headlines. [Ibid]

Tight Control of China’s Airspace

Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “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.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 18, 2011]

“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.” [Ibid]

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.” [Ibid]

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. [Ibid]

“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. [Ibid]

China’s Rich Black Fliers

Reporting from Wenzhou, Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “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.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 18, 2011]

“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.” [Ibid]

“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.” [Ibid]

“Just how many pilots make black flights (in Chinese, hei fei) is unclear, but their number is assuredly tiny,” Wines wrote. “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.”

“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. “

Problems Encountered by Black Fliers

Hei fei pilots have gotten into more than their share of scrapes. Michael Wines wrote in the New York Times, “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.” [Source: Michael Wines, New York Times, May 18, 2011]

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.

China Aviation Oil Scandal

In December 2004, China Aviation Oil, a Singapore-based company controlled by the Chinese government, declared bankruptcy after losing $550 million in derivative trading, the biggest derivative trading loses in Singapore since Nick Leeson list $1.4 billion. Chen Jiulin, the chief of executive of the company, was arrested in connection with the case. Other executives were required to surrender their passports.

20080313-trans-airport Nolls.jpg
Chinese airport in the 1980s

China Aviation controls most of China’s jet fuel imports and has a virtual monopoly an jet fuel sales in China. It lost in the derivative trading mainly by betting that the price of oil would go down in 2004. Instead of revealing the losses the company tried to sell shares of the company to European and Asian investors. Deutsche Bank bought a 15 percent share of the company.

As was the case Leeson affair it is unclear how such large losses were able t mount. Some called the whole affair China’s Enron scandal. Ironically in 2002, China Aviation Oil was named Singapore’s most transparent company.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated November 2012

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