At Guangzhou Suilian helicopter pilot school, business is busier than ever, with its six trainers booked solid almost every day.

“Learning to fly a helicopter is becoming a new hobby in China as rich people are getting tired of golf and cars,” says Guan Xiwen, general manger of the school in Guangzhou. “We have to turn down students sometimes.”

This new-found interest is fuelling a burgeoning helicopter market in the world’s most populous nation. While the number of crafts sold globally increased just 7 per cent in 2008 and 5.7 per cent in 2009, China’s fleet grew by more than a quarter from 108 in 2008 to 137 this year, according to Frost & Sullivan, the consultancy. Zhang Yue, the tycoon who controls Broad Air Conditioning, pioneered the trend by securing the country’s first private helicopter pilot’s licence in 1997.

The number of helicopters in commercial use in the country is expected to triple to about 450 by 2015, Frost & Sullivan says. This would make China the fastest growing market in the world, outpacing India and Russia.

One company banking on that potential is Bell Helicopter, one of the world’s oldest and biggest helicopter manufacturers.

The US company, which has sold just 20 helicopters in China since entering the market in 1984, including several to Mr Zhang, expects demand from the country’s nouveau riche to lift annual sales to 10 to 15 craft – at a list price of $6.5m each – in the next few years. Bell is set to announce its first Chinese order for the 429, its latest model, next week.

“The rich people who have enjoyed luxury cars are looking for the next step, which will be something aviation-related,” says CM Hwang, Asia Pacific business development manager at Bell. “This is great growth potential for us.”

The rising interest comes as Beijing is looking at lowering airport charges for helicopters, according to Bell. Local media have reported that the government is considering opening up more low-altitude airspace to accommodate helicopters.

For Bell, an arm of conglomerate Textron, opportunities in China are well-timed because rivals such as Eurocopter and AgustaWestland have been catching up fast in recent years. Bell once controlled about half of the world’s commercial helicopter market, but its market share has slipped to 30 -40 per cent currently.

Bell has also been attracting business from utility companies such as State Grid. The country’s biggest power network operator, which uses helicopters to patrol its power lines, is Bell’s single biggest customer in China having bought five craft.

Bell faces heated competition in China, with at least nine other companies, including state-owned giant China Aviation Industry Corporation and most international manufacturers, also present.

As business improves, Bell and its rivals are facing a new problem: a lack of pilots. China currently has fewer than 650 licenced helicopter pilots.

The teachers at Suilian will be kept busy for quite a while.

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