Zooming in on Chinese skies

Updated: 2011-02-18 10:54

By Yu Ran (China Daily European Weekly)

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 Zooming in on Chinese skies

 Eurocopter unveiled its X3 helicopter in Marignane near Marseille, South France in this September 2010 file photo. Zhong-Ou Group will start manufacturing luxury commercial helicopters in China next year with the technical support from its partner Eurocopter, banking on rising demand for private helicopters in the country. Provided to China Daily

Helicopter companies ride on country's growing interest in luxury aviation

A Wenzhou-based auto parts manufacturer has obtained approval from European regulators to jointly manufacture with Eurocopter the first luxury

commercial helicopter in China next year, amid growing interest in aviation in the country.

With technical support from Eurocopter, which is considered the world's largest helicopter manufacturer in terms of revenue, Zhong-Ou Group plans to complete the first prototype by the end of this year before large-scale manufacturing begins.

Eurocopter, based in Marignane, France, is a subsidiary of the Leiden-based European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, which is a global defense and military contractor.

Zhong-Ou defined its new aircraft as a "luxury" jet helicopter with six to eight seats. The aircraft is expected to be priced between 30 million yuan (3.35 million euros) to 60 million yuan and will be powered either by a single- or twin-engine power system.

"The luxury helicopters will be powered by advanced turbo-charged engines produced under technical cooperation with Eurocopter, which is more technically advanced, instead of the piston engines that are commonly used in private helicopters," says Zhong-Ou Chairman Wu Guolin.

Zhong-Ou made an agreement with Mercedes Benz of Germany in 2002 to build certain models of Mercedes cars for the regional market. Since then, the Chinese company has become the largest supplier of the German cars in Southeast Asia.

"Zhong-Ou was selected by Eurocopter as its Chinese partner because we have an existing manufacturing base and plant facilities, experience in selling luxury cars and a high-end customer base," Wu says.

Under the latest agreement, Eurocopter will provide technical teams while Zhong-Ou will build new assembly plants, one in Changshu, Jiangsu province, and the other in Songjiang district of Shanghai.

Zhong-Ou has already invested about 500 million yuan in the Changshu facilities, located on a 33.3-hectare site. Work on the second production base in Shanghai, covering 13.3 hectares, will begin later this year.

"My ultimate goal is to have major parts of helicopters manufactured with local technical support in China to achieve real 'Made-in-China' products instead of receiving authorized assistance from more advanced European partners," Wu says.

Private helicopters are already considered major toys among wealthy Wenzhou businessmen.

Guan Hongsheng, the 44-year-old founder of a company that manufactures garments, hats, shoes and construction material for export to the United States and Europe, helped launched the Wenzhou Lucheng Hialukong Club in 2008 to "introduce a healthy and challenging lifestyle" to rich residents of their hometown. The club is "dedicated to motorcycle racing, boating and helicopter flying".

Guan himself owns three helicopters in China and two others in the US. His activities made the headlines in Zhejiang earlier last year when he and a friend were caught flying separately in two Rotorway Exec 162F helicopters for 20 minutes without official approval. Each of them was fined 20,000 yuan for their acts.

"I did that just for fun," Guan says. "Nobody was going to get hurt."

Guan now has a student pilot permit that enables him to fly the aircraft with a personal coach. The cost for hiring the coach is 10,000 yuan and the coaching fee is 380 yuan an hour.

"Normally, about 10 of us share the cost of hiring a pilot coach by flying my helicopters for one or two days in the suburbs of Wenzhou. I don't want to make any money from my helicopter but invite more young people along for high-quality leisure activities ," Guan says.

Yu Zhiwu, 37, one of the senior members of the club and the organizer of its activities, has also become a fan of helicopters.

"I own two motorboats, one yacht and one helicopter in the port at Linjiang town, the rural area of Wenzhou that is the base for our current club activities," Yu says.

Guan and Yu also smell business opportunities from their leisure activities.

During one of their regular visits to the US last July, they bought a total of 10 icon-A5 amphibious-typed helicopters valued at 3 million yuan each and were authorized to sell the helicopters in China.

"The price of the helicopter is about the same as that of a luxury car, which is affordable among the upper class as a form of transportation and as a toy," Guan says.

The State Council and Central Military Commission said that the nation's low-altitude airspace will gradually open to promote the general aviation industry. Under the move, up to 1,000-meters high of airspace will be cleared for private aircraft to fly.

"I know the sky will be open to us private helicopter owners sooner or later as we are flying merely as fans of helicopters and not for any illegal purposes," Guan says.

"It is very hard to predict how many people will buy the private helicopters, but we are confident that more people will join us by leading a luxurious, fashionable lifestyle," Yu says.


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