PARIS --- Viewed from afar, and free of the hyperventilating scramble to cover all events and get the news that is a reporter’s air show routine, this week’s Airshow China offers an interesting show of contrasts.
The first is the contrast between the high expectations of Western media, which had been led to believe that huge revelations about China’s military aircraft were in the offing, and the little that was actually served up during the show. China’s Y-20 military airlifter and its much-vaunted J-31 “stealth” fighter did fly, but while on the ground have been kept well away from foreign media.
And China seemed eager to deflate interest in that aircraft. A news item on the air show on its main English-language website said that “the J-31 stealth fighter, nicknamed “Huying” [is] a low-end version of the fourth-generation aircraft in the eyes of military fans.”
And if that was not enough to put off curious visitors, Reuters quoted Avic spokesman as saying that "We were told not to do any promotion for the plane," but did not elaborate. Two additional in-flight presentations of the J-31 are scheduled, Avic officials said.
That’s another cultural difference, then: Western manufacturers generally take their aircraft to air shows to publicize them, not to hide them, so not doing any promotion while at the show makes the whole exercise seem rather pointless to Western eyes.
Zhuhai Airshow: Chinese J-31 stealth fighter performs display
China’s much-vaunted J-31 stealth fighter put on a very pedestrian display during the Zhuhai show, and as it was kept well away while on the ground it didn’t provide much in the way of public relations boost for China’s aerospace industry. (YouTube video by CNC World)
In fact, whatever information was reported by Western media during the show’s first three days was largely a re-hash of reports printed in the lead-up to the show by China’s official media. And even minor military stories, such as the Chinese air force’s “all-female aerobatic team,” were deflated when photos of the team revealed that at the majority of its members are male (see above).
The second contrast is between the promise that Western commercial aircraft manufacturers see in the Chinese market and the lack of any new deals announced during the show. This falls well short of expectations; AFP’s pre-show report said that “global aviation firms flocked to China on Tuesday to show off their wares as economic development and an expanding middle class promise a bonanza in one of the world's fastest-growing aircraft markets.”
So far, this week’s only big deal, Boeing’s $8.5 billion sale of 737s to lessor SMBC, was signed the day before the show, and in Tokyo, not Zhuhai. And when Airbus announced its $10 billion deal to sell 100 A320s to China Aircraft Leasing Company, it was on Nov 06, the week before the Zhuhai show opened, even though a famous trade weekly reported it on Nov 12 with a Zhuhai dateline.
By contrast, during the Farnborough air show in July, Airbus had announced new orders worth $75 billion, Boeing won $40 billion, GE Aviation $36 billion, with other manufacturers accounting for billions more.
In fact, far from buying, China announced a few sales of its own, which although modest by Western standards show its industry is beginning to get some traction in the market. State-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (COMAC) said it had agreed the sale of 30 of its C919 airliners to China Merchants Bank, Reuters reported Nov 11, while on Nov 13 the South China Morning Post reported from Zhuhai that state-owned AVIC had sold 81 helicopters and 20 Y-12 turboprops to a US company, Coptervision.
The rest of what issued from Zhuhai was mostly froth, with statements of long-term strategic partnerships, letters of intent, and many plans, but little in the way of concrete deals.
Remarkable Maneuvers by Sukhoi Su-35S at Zhuhai Show
Russian fighter displays are an air show staple, and continue to impress even after a couple of decades. Latest is the Sukhoi Su-35S, which put on a truly remarkable routine piloted by Serguéi Bogdan. China is expected to buy an initial batch of 24 Su-35S fighters by year-end.
Another contrast, more visible from afar than on site, is between Western media’s general skepticism of industry claims, and the eagerness with which it embraced Chinese announcements of technology-busting new weapons on the basis of a few plastic models on show and mostly unattributed statements.
It is thanks to scale models shown on stands that we have heard about China's “Emergency Satellite Launch Vehicle,” its “New Air Defense System,” its “New, Stealthy WJ-500 UAV,” its “First Amphib UAV,” and more, including a future, possible four turboprop military airlifter that “could enter service in the 2020s,” one reporter writes, before admitting that it is, in reality, “at the stage of concept design.”
Airshow China has a few more days to run, so new developments could yet appear that could upset the contrasts outlined above. But that would be yet another contrast, as at Western airshows the big deals are announced in the first 2-3 days, allowing CEOs and top officials to make a quick escape.
All of which proves the timelessness of the Kipling’s famous verse that, in aviation as in air shows, “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”