Working in China as a Pilot

This short guide written by one of our friends who flies for a Chinese airline provides an invaluable insight into working in China as a Pilot.

Working in China

The author has been an expatriate since 2011 mostly in the Middle East and has spent more than a year living and working in China thus far.

The Big Picture

China has over 5000 years of written history, rich culture and diverse people’s spread across a country roughly the size of Europe. Westerners typically have little knowledge of China, least of all how the country had advanced in the last decade.


The selection process for Chinese airlines takes more than 6 months. A lot of the delays are due to the country’s highly bureaucratic CAAC who control every aspect of the airline operations. Patience is required and will pay dividends later.

Arguably the hardest part of the selection is the medical. Small things that we don’t pay attention to such as having a ( pre cancerous) mole removed are failure points in China. You can save a lot of time by checking with your recruitment agency if you have any excluding conditions.

The simulator check is thorough but holds no surprises, they are looking for good CRM and the ability to work with a Chinese first officer.

Smooth landings are a must, any more than a 1.5g landing is an automatic failure when on check.
Having said that, if one flies as one does on the line and speaks slowly and clearly there should be no problems for the candidate.

You can watch a video about Xiamen Airlines here 


The Chinese have a very rigid top down (steep gradient) training culture and whilst things are rapidly improving, as a type rated pilot they are expecting no questions from the candidate.

Asking questions may either be seen as a lack of knowledge (and therein laziness) or worse still creates a situation where the trainer may not know the answer, causing loss of face (see Gert/Hofstede cultural markers).

Once you are through the training, the Captain (in China) is perceived to be an all knowing man of steel, who should rarely be questioned. Even if you offer your seat to the FO or cabin crew, they will refuse to sit in front of you on the crew bus. The crew will rarely call you by your first name and will not start eating unless you take the first bite. This is quite a bizarre experience for the CRM conscious western aviator.

Flying the line

Flying the line in China is one of the most pleasurable experiences I’ve had in my career. Chinese companies are very supportive and employ flight dispatchers who check ALL of your paperwork for every flight, highlighting potential hazards and adding fuel for potential aerial encounters. Fuel is rarely an issue especially on international flights.

Contrary to most people’s assumptions, the First Officers relish flying with expats as we bring a more relaxed environment and are liberal with allocating landings/fuel decisions etc.

The FO knowledge level is high even for junior FO’s. In China memorising and retaining information is paramount to personal success and the same is true for their grasp of rules, regulations and SOPs. The casualty is sometimes practical knowledge and airmanship.


Survival in China depends on your ability to integrate, this is especially true for spouses and a rudimentary knowledge of Chinese is essential to a hassle free life. Chinese people are extremely welcoming to expats and try to befriend you whenever their English permits.

The foreigners that have not lasted during my time abroad have been the ones that have refused to integrate and are known in China as “Starbucks” foreigners. Thy can be often found complaining about how things “aren’t like home” and see the cultural differences as “annoying”.

The most successful expats throw themselves into the experience and treat it like an adventure. They make friends for life from the locals and come back home with great stories and sometimes a second language.
The main worries for parents with young children is about them fitting in. Usually the children adapt much quicker than the parents!

The cost of living in China varies greatly from arguably the most expensive city in the world Beijing, to some of the cheapest. Research the schooling and hospitals thoroughly as they are just as variable. In general big cities in China have world class medical and educational facilities.

Any expat needs one year to decide whether they like a country or not, the secret to a long happy time abroad is to travel home at least every 6 months and get your fill of home! It may be your local pub or visiting family but having something familiar on a regular basis will make you enjoy your life abroad that much more.

To summarise, moving to China was a daunting prospect for myself and my family, the selection seemed to last forever and the training was vague and tedious. That said once the line check was out of the way I sit here as I am now writing this, extremely humble that I made such a fantastic career move. We have already decided to take a second contract!
If you would like to know more about how we can support and help you with your Airline or Cadet Pilot interview, then please feel free to contact us.