I’ve been out of the loop for a couple of weeks now, as I had the opportunity to travel to China for the 2nd Asia/Australia Rotorcraft Forum. Over the next couple of posts, I’ll describe some of the things I saw while I was there, plus a few impressions from a novice traveler in Asia.
The first day of the conference was an opportunity to visit an AVICopter factory and to see the 2nd China Helicopter Expo. Initially, I thought that this was a small expo connected to our conference. Boy, was I wrong.
This expo was open to the general public; it was held in Tianjin because the AVICopter headquarters and factory is located there. As the Chinese people might say, it was 人山人海 (renshan renhai), which means “people mountain people ocean”. I don’t claim to be an expert at crowd estimates, but there thousands. The expo hall was five hangars long, and took me 25 minutes just to walk around and glance at everything. The flight line had an area cordoned off with a static display of about a dozen different aircraft, and ideal viewing for the airshow.
Our first stop was to take a look at an AVICopter factory. We saw two assembly lines, with work ongoing on the AC312 (a variant of the Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin 2) and the AC311, an original utility helicopter with heavy Eurocopter influence. The biggest impression I got was how clean and empty the factory floor was–there were two assembly lines active, but it looked as if there was space for 4-6 more lines. I couldn’t tell if this was their “for-show” assembly line or if they just preparing for some future ramp-up of production. To be fair, we visited the factory on a Sunday, so there were not many workers present.
While the factory floor was quiet and sparse, the expo was overflowing with people. There were in the neighborhood of 100 booths. I managed to at least stroll by each booth and take photo or two of items that got me interested. There were several themes that I picked up on; first was a heavy emphasis on piloted simulation. I saw at least six different booths with simulators, most of which took the form of a cockpit sitting in front of a big screen TV–cool that it seems that the falling price of the flat panels has helped with more than just football-watching. Another thing that caught my eye was the preponderance of concept models and mock-up, rather than actual aircraft. This kind of dovetails with the idea I got on the factory floor that there is more potential (and hope) for growth than there is production. Finally, I got a good look at several unmanned models (and concepts), which I will likely talk in more detail about in a future post. As an aside, I was a little bit disappointed that Sikorsky, which has sponsored much of my research, had a huge booth that didn’t have anything on display.
Out on the flight line, there were two things in store for us; first, there was a static display of (I assume) the array of helicopters in public service in China. First, and coolest, was the display of a Z-19 attack helicopter. This helicopter is a Chinese design, though (again) heavily influenced by Eurocopter designs, most notably the ducted fan in lieu of a standard tail rotor. Also present were an AC311, a Robinson R22 and R44, and a few small trainer-type models that I had to look up to figure out what they were (AK1-3, RotorWay Talon, and an couple of minimalist designs, one with an open cockpit, that I couldn’t figure out):
The second thing out on the flightline was a helicopter aerobatics show. I was told later that this is illegal in the US as it is too dangerous–and it did seem quite so. The beginning was a little bit lame, with utility helicopters doing a little pendulum dance, but nothing super amazing. However, the larger AC313/Z-8 put on quite a show, with two aircraft circling each other nose-in, and a rescue helicopter crew demonstrated a patient recovery via winch. The Z-19s stole the show, though, with several high-speed passes, formation flight with smoke trails, high performance climbs, and (I’m sure I’ll get the name of the maneuver wrong) zero-G high pitch angle pedal turns. I don’t have the videos up yet, but I hope to post them on Youtube–stay tuned.
My overall impressions of the expo were pretty good. I saw lots of ideas & conceptual work in mockup; however, I did not get sense that much real development is going on. I was impressed by the skill of the pilots, given the relatively young age of their helicopter fleet and probably institutional training. Finally, what was intriguing was that there appeared to be real interest in aviation from ordinary people–I suppose I didn’t expect that from the Chinese. (I do have to make a caveat–Tianjin is so huge that perhaps there isn’t much real interest, but even a small percentage of 13.5 million people is still a lot.) I am quite glad that the ARF was scheduled in such a way to visit this expo, and hope to visit it again when/if we move to China.