Clearer skies ahead for small planes in China

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May 26--BEIJING -- Low-altitude flight restrictions for small planes will be reduced in China but stricter management will ensure public safety, authorities said.

But the new rules do not mean a free-for-all in the skies, despite what earlier reports might have indicated, Cai Jun, head of the air traffic control department under the general headquarters of the People's Liberation Army Air Force, said on Wednesday.

The new rules will divide low-altitude airspace, under 1,000 meters, into three sectors, Cai said.

"Restricted airspace" -- such as landing and taking-off zones at airports and the sky above major ground structures -- demands that all flights must get approval from air traffic controllers and follow their instructions precisely.

"Monitored airspace", which neighbors "restricted airspace", is the second sector and "report airspace" is the third.

In both these sectors, pilots of light aircraft must report their flight plans to air traffic controllers and are responsible for flight safety.

The difference between the two sectors is that controllers in "monitored airspace" monitor flights and can issue warnings when necessary. The exact size of each sector was not revealed.

Pilots of small planes currently need to follow a complicated procedure to get flight approval, which usually takes a few days.

Though the new procedures seem simpler, management of general aviation (all aircraft excluding military and commercial jets) will be stricter, Cai said.

Monitoring, assessment and inspection systems will be set up. "Authorities will be stricter with the issuing of pilot licenses and assess the qualification of the aircraft and capabilities of those pilots who want to fly low-altitude. A system to punish violators will ensure those who fly outside of pre-established boundaries will be punished," he said.

Safety is the prime reason behind all these measures, he said.

Haphazard and even dangerous flying by pilots of small planes has occurred in many countries. In the United States, where more than 200,000 light aircraft can take to the skies, accidents are all too frequent.

"In China, some light aircraft are not well-equipped, some are even unable to report their location in flight properly," he said.

"The situation in the US (the number of private planes) is very likely to be what China will experience... What we want above all else is for small planes to be able to take off and land safely."

Guan Hongsheng, a businessman in Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, owns two helicopters in China and a third in the US.

He was concerned that the new regulations, when implemented, could create more barriers for pilots.

The 44-year-old and a friend were caught flying two helicopters for 20 minutes without official approval. This is often referred to as black flying . They were each fined 20,000 yuan ($3,000).

"I did this because the application procedures are too time-consuming These outdated regulations need to be reviewed, and it's essential to simplify the application process," he said.

"I hope the skies will soon be open to us, as we're flying as helicopter enthusiasts and not for illegal purposes," he said.

But industry insiders said that China should take any aviation reform slowly.

Jiang Li, chief representative of the US plane maker Cirrus in China, said that China does not need to open up low-altitude airspace the way the US has.

"China should not rush but instead try to learn from mistakes in the US," he said.

According to a circular issued by the State Council and the Central Military Commission last year, restrictions on low-altitude flying will be gradually relaxed in five to 10 years.

Niu Xinya and Li Jianzhao contributed to this story.

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