“To invent an airplane is nothing. To build one is something. But to fly one is everything.” So observed German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal.
With its new endeavor to break into the China market, aircraft kit manufacturer Sonex Aircraft of Oshkosh hopes to deliver a chance to do both.
The company, a leader in the experimental aircraft kit industry, announced this summer its plans to export its products into the Asian nation. With the move, Sonex aims to do more than simply tap into a new market — it wants to do nothing less than help rebuild China’s aviation infrastructure.
The company worked with China general aviation advocate Frances Chao to develop its plans to export kit aircraft while simultaneously helping to re-establish general aviation in the country, Mark Schaible, general manager of Sonex, says. General aviation encompasses any type of aviation that doesn’t fall under the categories of scheduled airline or military operation.
While most of the non-flying public is unfamiliar with this sector of aviation, Schaible says that a foundation in general aviation is essential. “It’s something that’s so vital because it’s the grassroots,” he says.
General aviation serves as the genesis for all of aviation. Without that foundation, Schaible says, the industry can’t operate in countries in any kind of long-term way.
“That’s really the crisis in China right now,” Schaible says.
China had an infrastructure resembling a general aviation industry, but took all those pilots and mechanics and promoted them to airline-like activity, he says. The country cleaned out its infrastructure at the bottom, Schaible says, essentially leaving it with no general aviation, and no place to develop pilots, mechanics and other services vital to aviation.
That’s the opportunity that attracted Sonex, Schaible says. If successful, both the company and the nation stand to benefit. The business has partnered with the Beijing Aviation Technology Company Limited to help it achieve its objectives.
BAT recently built a multipurpose aviation education center in Beijing. The facility franchises and features Sonex Aircraft. In addition, it offers workshop space for the company’s products and seminars, all with the goal of educating and building enthusiasm for general aviation.
“They’re featuring us prominently to be the airplane of the future for the grassroots level of that industry,” Schaible said.
BAT aspires to reach everyone from youth to government officials to renew enthusiasm in the general aviation sector.
The timing of Sonex’s move into China will certainly help bolster Northeast Wisconsin’s newest effort to promote the region as an aviation hub. An aviation business park in Oshkosh recently opened for new tenants, and while Sonex isn’t located there, its nearby location could provide a boost.
Audra Hoy, director of business and economic development for the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corporation, celebrated the company’s accomplishments.
“Their success is exciting for us all,” Hoy says. “Their international growth confirms what we already know: that Oshkosh is a hub for aviation success.”
Though the outlook appears rosy and the company has much support in place, Sonex and Schaible are proceeding with caution. The company sells to 36 countries, but China is a bit of an outlier when it comes to establishing relations, Schaible says.
“This has been our most educational experience in this realm, working with a culture that’s so different and with such a huge language barrier,” says Schaible, noting big differences in how business is conducted in the country.
In navigating this new territory, the company relies on guidance from Chao, who is serving as director of Sonex operations in China, as well as the support of the BAT leadership team.
Small companies in a similar position wishing to make the same move may not have such resources at hand. Fortunately, local resources abound, says Dr. Marie Martin, director of Global Education and Services for Fox Valley Technical College.
“A company that wants to expand internationally needs to connect with experts right away,” Martin says.
For those companies, the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., which can provide valuable market research, is the best place to start. “WEDC opens global doors for business in Wisconsin,” Martin says.
The state organization works with a team of experts that represent 79 countries and has grants available for companies looking to expand, Martin says. Regionally, New North Inc. also makes resources available to help local companies identify and execute export opportunities.
FVTC’s Global Education department leads courses in import and export and can gear training toward small, medium or large companies, Martin says. The department, in conjunction with FVTC’s Business & Industry Services, provides customized training on site for companies, including information on topics like export documentation and compliance and regulation.
It’s personal for our area, Martin says, noting that Wisconsin has more manufacturing per capita than any other state. She goes on to cite the 130,000 jobs that export trade supports and the 20 percent of manufacturing workers in Wisconsin who depend on it for their jobs.
Schaible knows well that export presents challenges as well as rewards. He remains pragmatic. For Sonex, success in China comes down to parts leaving the warehouse.