Get Ready For China Helicopter EMS and SAR growth

29 May 2017
29 May 2017, Comments: 0

Government backing and easing of airspace restrictions are expected to support a boom in air medical and rescue aircraft, especially helicopters.

Shandong has become the first Chinese Province to launch a comprehensive road traffic accident and emergency rescue helicopter service system, with operator HEMS999 undergoing flight inspection and verification tests this past April. Seven dedicated Airbus H130 helicopters are distributed across six support bases located in six major cities. No base is more than 100-200 km from another, creating a helicopter air ambulance protection network which covers the whole of the Province and providing air rescue times of 30 minutes to one hour.

HEMS in ChinaHEMS999 flight crew with Airbus H130. Photo: HEMS999

Not to be left too far behind, the Shaanxi provincial government plans to use at least twelve of the 100 Bell 407GXPs it has signed up for to establish a helicopter air ambulance network with province-wide coverage, providing medical assistance, emergency and disaster relief, accident rescue and other such services. The ultimate goal is an emergency response time of within one hour. However, with not even so much as an initial delivery date yet announced, nor any operating organization set up, just about all of the details of this proposed operation are still to be worked out.

Bell 407GXP. Photo: Bell Helicopters

Government Support

A key document here is “Guidelines for Promoting the Development of the General Aviation Industry” issued by China’s State Council (the Cabinet) in May 2016. This document calls on “the People’s governments of every province, autonomous region and municipality; ministries and commissions of the State Council, and all directly subordinate agencies” to “encourage and strengthen the use of general aviation in disaster relief, emergency medical and other applications, complete air emergency rescue support systems and upgrade rapid response capabilities.” (My translation, see original Chinese here.)

Looking at the Numbers

Although boasting an average annual growth rate in helicopter flying hours exceeding 15% (33% in 2016), when China considers the experience of developed countries, its own helicopter industry still compares very unfavorably. Whether viewed from the perspective of numbers (currently there are only 764 civilian helicopters in the whole country), quality or safety of operations, convenience, and so on, the current situation is far from being able to meet China’s development needs.

Asian Sky Group, in its 2016 Civil Helicopter Fleet Report, predicts the number of civil turbine helicopters in Greater China will grow to 621 aircraft in 2017, up 15% from 540 in 2016. Mainland China hosts 409 of those helicopters, but the disparity between provinces is enormous. Guangdong, home to top operators CITIC Offshore Helicopter Company (COHC) and China Southern General Aviation Company, is streets ahead, with 113 civil turbine helicopters. Meanwhile, many other provinces only have one or two.

Around 60% of the mainland fleet is deployed in multi-mission operations such as tourism, firefighting, power line patrol and agriculture. The remaining 40% of the fleet is used for offshore work, law enforcement, SAR, corporate travel, training and so on. Only 2% is given to HEMS work.

Overall demand is set to grow at a healthy rate of 17.5% until the year 2020. Airbus Helicopters, which has just broken ground on a final assembly line in Qingdao, expects China to be buying up to 300 helicopters a year by 2025.

China’s homegrown AC311. Photo: Rob Paix

Helicopter EMS and Rescue Services

Vertical magazine’s Ken Swartz quotes an Airbus Helicopter spokesman as saying:

“Comparing with developed countries, China’s HEMS is still in its infancy. If you look at the ratio of EMS helicopters per one million people, the index in China is nearly zero. The HEMS requirement in China could [reach] 1,000 to 2,000 helicopters if you use the measure of one or two helicopters per one million citizens.”

General aviation airports 500
General aviation aircraft 5,000+
Air medical & rescue market size US$ 22.4 billion
Admissions to hospital via HEMS 1 million

Facing the Challenges

Here are just some of the challenges that need to be faced on the road to a fully developed air medical and rescue system in China:

  1. A far from complete legal and regulatory framework for civilian operators: historically,  evacuation and disaster response has been the solely the domain of the Chinese military.
  2. Inadequate planning for integrated and coordinated emergency response.
  3. Lack of experienced special mission qualified pilots. 
  4. Lack of necessary infrastructure and expertise in the healthcare sector. Hospitals were not planned with helipads in mind, there is a lack of trained air medical personnel, emergency response teams, quality equipment, and so on.
  5. High cost of entry into air medical operations and high costs for end users. While many general aviation companies aspire to provide air medical services, only the very large companies are able to invest in the equipment needed. Costs must be reduced and insurance schemes introduced if air medical services are to be accessible to the general public. The current standard rate for helicopter evacuation is in the region of 30,000 yuan (USD 4,565) per hour.

As formidable as the challenges are, the Chinese government has signaled a firm resolve to develop China’s air medical and emergency rescue service sector. This represents a significant opportunity for experienced foreign aviation businesses who can adapt and get to know and work with China and Chinese people. The opportunity applies across the whole industry spectrum – from OEMs to pilot trainers, air medical interiors designers, HEMS operators, MROs, and so on.

In order to afford an opportunity for foreign companies and experts working in the air medical and rescue area to engage with Chinese industry figures and decision makers, XL Aviation and partners will be hosting the:


to be held in conjunction with

The 5th China International General Aviation Convention
Xi’an, Shaanxi
24-27 August 2017

Please contact me via for more information and details on how you can participate.

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Rob Paix

Founder at XL Consulting
Founder and Executive Manager of XL China, Rob is originally from Australia but has lived much of his life in Asia, including 6 years in China. He particularly loves Xi’an and Western China. His varied career to date reflects his passion for aviation, travel, language and communication.

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