One of the biggest hurdles to the civil aviation in China has been the military’s tight control on the airspace. The vast majority of delays for commercial aircraft are from the ATC. Commercial pilots expect a long wait to get their clearance to push back from the gate. Once airborne, pilots can expect any number of odd holds and approach procedures to adjust for military traffic.

Fly the beautiful grey skies of Haikou

For example, while in cruise on one my flights between Shenzhen and Beijing, we had three separate holds. On approach into Beijing, we dropped down to about 10,000 feet very quickly and spent the last 120 miles so at slow speed and low altitude.

The tight control over the airspace has created problems for general aviation. There are no VFR flights. Instead, all flights must be on a flight plan and pre-approved by the governing agency.

However, this week, the Chinese Civil Aviation Authority (CAAC) took steps toward greater freedom in general aviation. It has opened test general aviation airspace over Hainan island below 1,000 meters. The flights will be conducted by four helicopters flying without the need to seek permission prior to each flight.

Over the next five years, similar test areas will  be rolled out over other provinces. Aircraft flying above 1,000 meters and below 4,000 meters will still be required to file a flight plan but, if the tests go well, they will not need to seek approval from authorities.

Hainan is a tourist island for the Chinese. These initial flights will be local sightseeing tours. However, Hainan is within GA tank-of-gas range from the cities in the pearl river delta and I hope that we will soon see GA traffic between Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Haikou.

Landing at Hainan on a better day.

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Full Text of the Hainan Government Press release in English after the break.

Hainan province pilots in low-altitude test flight

China’s aviation authorities on  Jan. 28 started to allow helicopters to fly in low-altitude airspace over the tourist island of Hainan on a trial basis for the first time. The aim is to eventually open a part of the country’s tightly-controlled airspace to private aircraft.

Four helicopters were manned by eight pilots from Shanghai-based Zhengyang Investment Group, a leading domestic firm in the general aviation industry. They are expected to conduct test flights in the sky, 1,000 meters above the ground in Hainan in the next two months.

The flight test will collect data for low-altitude flying and test the ground control system’s response to emergencies, said Zou Jianming, chairman of Zhengyang Investment Group.

Hainan is the first place in China to conduct test flights of private aircraft in low-altitude airspace, said Jiang Sixian, deputy governor of the province. Domestic and foreign firms are both welcome to invest in Hainan’s general aviation sector to develop world-class tourism here.

China’s low-altitude airspace is controlled by the Air Force and the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC). Every private aircraft flight needs approval, and the procedure can take from one day up to a week.

But last November, the State Council and the Central Military Commission said that part of the low-altitude airspace would be opened to promote the country’s general aviation sector, including the purchase and use of private planes.

General aviation refers to the part of the aviation industry that excludes flights for military, law enforcement and public transport. China has only 900 aircraft, 80 airports and fewer than 10,000 pilots in the general aviation segment.

The market for general aviation in China is valued at only 13 billion yuan (1.98 billion U.S. dollars) but is expected to grow by 15 percent annually until 2020, Hainan aviation officials said.