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‘First’ Flight: Aviation, Air Defense, Space Exploration & More on Display at China’s 2018 Zhuhai Air Show
I just might be the luckiest expat in China. After all, over the past 7 years I’ve had the most incredible experiences that I never could have imagined before stepping foot in the country. And truth be told, many of them—scratch that, the majority of them, have actually been ‘first’.
For instance, I caught my first ever space rocket launch at Haikou Island’s Wenchang Satellite Launch Center. Now that was epic. Let’s see, I’ve watched my first ever live dragon boat race in Fenghuang Ancient Town, hopped aboard my first international cruise from China to Japan, and heck, I even played badminton for the first time. I can’t think of ever seeing anyone play that back in the US!
What’s more, I’ve recently added a new event to my ever-expanding list: I visited my very first air show—China’s much talked and hyped about 2018 Zhuhai Air Show—this past weekend, and like many of those awesome first experiences, this too would turn out to be an experience of a lifetime.
COUNT ME IN
It was Nov. 11th—Veteran’s Day back in the States. But in China, this particular day held another, yet, similar commemorative purpose: It was the 69th anniversary of the creation of the People’s Liberation Army: Air Force, or PLA Air Force. In other words, it was time to celebrate!
So, open up an air base, put on some well crafted aerial stunts featuring China’s latest fighter jets, and throw in a bunch of cool displays showcasing the world’s second largest economy’s stronghold on modern and futuristic aircrafts, comprehensive air defense systems, and yet-to-be-revealed space-tech? Well, that’s an easy guess—count me in!
First up, you should know that I’ve travelled far and wide across China, and in a land filled with 1.3 billion people, never had I ever seen so many people gathered together at once. Ever.
No kidding, the crowd size itself was a spectacle of its own merit. Forget Shanghai’s Bund during Golden Week, or Beijing’s Great Wall on any holiday, the Zhuhai Air Show’s numbers, at the very least, were in the tens of thousands. And you know what? It was all for good reason.
It was early morning and I arrived just in time. Five Chinese fighter jets had just flown across the sky in sequence and at break-neck speeds, leaving behind a mile-long smoke trail of the most vibrant colors I’d ever seen a few hundred meters up. “What an entrance!,” I thought.
They went up, down, around, and zigzagged over our heads nearly a dozen times. On their own, they’d twirl 360-degrees, shoot high into the sky at 90-degrees, and then swoop down and zip pass one another at close range—head on and at full speed. It was incredible!
What’s more, the jets produced the loudest, most deafening sounds I had ever heard. In fact, they were so loud that I felt my entire body tremble and the ground shake beneath my feet each time the planes roared by. I could only imagine how it’d feel to sit in the cockpit!
There were back-to-back shows afterwards, too, complete with various styles of aircraft and plenty of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ from the crowd. But on ground level, what really stood out was the strong sense of nationalistic pride I could feel streaking across the air, literally. This was China at its best, and at the same time, it was only a small snippet of what’s yet to come in the near-future.
Spread out across the lot were some of China’s best homegrown aircrafts, along with a few exceptions provided by the international community. I spotted everything from gliders, gyroplanes, seaplanes, and landplanes, to helicopters, drones, amphibious planes, and military air power.
And you know what? Those weren’t even the hottest items in my book. Instead, the coolest aircrafts on deck had to be the Blade Runner-esque, flying car and hovercraft prototypes of the future. Ah, if they only offered free test drives!
There were some other standout vehicles thrown into the mix. A couple of new-aged fire trucks and bulldozers, high-end tanks, and even a few military-grade naval speedboats.
It was enough eye-candy scattered around to see for days—6 days to be exact. And guess what? That was only half of what the air show would offer!
How would modern day China defend itself against foreign threats? More specifically, how would it engage enemies from the air, and what type of network was required to protect its airspace? Hey, this was the 69th anniversary of the PLA: Air Force—any and every angle had to covered.
And therein lied these bunkers, huge bunkers, sprawling with all kinds of sophisticated tech and powerful military arsenal used to detect threats and fend off attacks from the air. And in this day and age, drones and ground based air-defense systems—radar, anti-aircraft, and missile interceptors—proved king.
I saw drones big and small, from skateboard-sized reconnaissance bots to plane-sized attack weapons. There were a bunch of jeeps and humvees too, decked out in military camouflage patterns and stocked with radars, heavy machinery, and massive anti-missile silos. It was awesome!
Additionally, the exhibition housed plenty of charts detailing China’s comprehensive network and strategic action plan to safeguard its airspace, which also included communication and detection satellites, command centers, and naval crafts.
Jeez. If China’s goal was to showcase how meticulous, organized, and fully prepared they are to defend its borders, then, (*claps hands*) job well done!
And finally, the ‘one.’ The ‘big cahoona.’ The ‘crim-de-la-crim’ of sections. The ... well, you get the picture. It was China’s space industry on full display.
Let’s see, I’d already seen a rocket launch. Check. Back in 2017 I visited the Five-Hundred Meter Aperture Spherical Telescope in Guizhou. Double-check. And this time around? I’d lay eyes on a full sized replica model of the core module belonging to China’s Tianhe Space Station, which is estimated to be completed in 2022. I repeat: the luckiest expat in China.
It was unveiled for the very first time, too—the centerpiece for which Chinese astronauts would live, control, dock, and conduct experiments onboard their space station. At 16.6-meters long and 4.2-meters at its widest, the core module was easily the hottest item in the room, so much so that it was an unwritten rule to leave without snapping a selfie in front of it.
There were other displays in the room to satisfy my inner-space geek as well. Across from the module sat 10 small-scale models of rocket ships—mostly members of China’s Long March family—that have blasted Chinese satellites and taikonauts into space.
In front of the module sat a real taikonaut spacesuit that’s reached parts of Earth’s outer atmosphere that I may never have the chance to see in this lifetime. And on another end? Television screens, props, and more models covering China’s ambitious goals for lunar exploration, satellite mapping and navigation, and even commercial space flight.
Growing up in the States, I’d always hear of the history, accomplishments, failures, and zealous aspirations of countries like the USA and Russia in their unrelenting quest to reach the cosmos. Having lived in China for the past 7 years, not only has it been an incredible journey laying witness to its emergence as a powerful player on the world stage—it’s also been thrilling to learn and observe firsthand China’s progress, growing expertise, and enhanced technical prowess in the race to ‘conquer’ space. Hmm ... I wonder what kind of space achievements they’ll unveil at next year’s air show?
THAT’S A WRAP
And well, that was the last stop on my tour of China’s 2018 Zhuhai Air Show. It was everything I hoped it would be: Air stunts, aviation displays, cool tech, military weapons, space components—I discovered more about China’s grasp on these industries than I ever could have imagined.
And you know what? That’s not bad for a ‘first’ time. Safe & happy travels!
How to get to the Zhuhai Air Show?
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