Thursday, November 06, 2014

For next trip abroad, why not fly the plane yourself?

Recreational flying is commonplace overseas, but it is only beginning to take off in China. 
Photo: Courtesy of Zhang Guoxiang

As a high-flying businesswoman at a Beijing-based finance company, 32-year-old He Wenjuan has been on an airplane more times than she cares to count. But a recent flight she embarked on in Thailand was a little different from all the others - on this occasion, she was not a passenger, but the pilot.

He had no prior experience with flying an airplane. But after two short lessons with a flight instructor, she was put in the cockpit of a Cessna 172 - a four seat, single engine, fixed-wing plane that lays claim to being the most manufactured aircraft in history - and made responsible for flying from the bustling capital of Bangkok, to the seaside resort of Pattaya, around 150 kilometers to the capital's southeast.

He was, of course, accompanied by an experienced flight instructor, but for all intents and purposes, she was the one who was piloting the plane.

"The most breathtaking moment was when I was flying over one of the small islands near Pattaya," He recalls. "I circled around the island a few times, because it was so beautiful. I felt like a bird, who had shaken off the shackles of gravity."

The flight was arranged by Ifeixing Club, the only-China based tourism agency that currently organizes trips that allow travelers to experience the thrill of piloting their own plane abroad.

"In the US and many countries in Europe, people have owned private planes and participated in recreational aviation for many years," said Zhang Guoxiang, the company's CEO. "However in China there are many cumbersome procedures and excessive regulations that limit recreational flying."

In comparison, Zhang said that there were relatively few requirements for signing up for their recreational aviation tours abroad. Those who signed up would take a commercial flight to one of the three overseas locations currently offered by the company. Once there, they would undergo a two-session training course which would cover all the basics, from taking off and landing, to how to control the plane in the air.

He's flight in Thailand was part of a three-day trip costing 9,999 yuan ($1,634), which included requisite visits to local tourist sites.

Overseas, recreational aviation is well established, and those keen to experience the thrill of piloting a plane can organize their own itineraries without the involvement of a travel agency.

Many recreational aviation clubs are open to Chinese nationals, such as NYFlying Club, a private high-end aviation club in the US. Such clubs mainly focus on aviation instruction and recreational flights.

In 2010, a woman using the nickname of Banzhang Jiemei posted on her Sina blog her own experiences of being at the helm of an aircraft, after joining a recreational flying club in the US on her own initiative. "I paid $100 for an entrance fee and then signed up to be a member of the club for $50 per month," she wrote. "So now I can hire planes at the club for between $100-$700 per hour, any time I want."

He said that it never occurred to her to organize her trip herself. "It was more convenient for me to book the trip through a Chinese agency," she said.

Having gotten her first taste of piloting a plane however, she is enthusiastic for more.

"I'm really happy to have finally realized it."

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