On a freezing cold February evening I touched down at the reasonably new Yantai Penglai Airport in China’s North Eastern Shandong Province after a short flight from Seoul. As we taxied to our gate I noticed a twin turboprop aircraft bathing in the orange floodlights that resembled the Antonov 24/26s that I used to see regularly when I was younger heading into my local airport in the UK on cargo flights. However this was certainly no Antonov! It was a Chinese built Xian MA60 aircraft preparing for its evening flight to Dalian for the joyous sounding Joy Air but operated by the mediocre sounding Okay Airways. I knew a few things about the aircraft but I had never encountered one nor did I have any idea about where the aircraft flew. I certainly assumed that I would never get the opportunity to fly this rare type. On my return journey from Okinawa to Seoul whilst I was in transit in Nanchang (yes, an odd routing I know, I’ll post my report soon) another Xian MA60 arrived, this time belonging to Joy Air. And so, seeing this aircraft inspired me to do some research on where these aircraft operate. I then decided to have a look at the operations involving the aircraft in Yantai and found that Joy Air/Okay Airways operate the type on several daily flights to nearby Dalian. Now at this point I really started to imagine the possibility of flying on this rare type however not speaking any Chinese and assuming because of this I would be unable to even search for tickets on the airline’s website I stopped researching this. Then, one day I was bored and started looking up flights to Yantai. Of course, the Xian MA60 popped into my mind and I looked up flights on Chinese travel agent Ctrip’s app and surprisingly, Joy Air popped up. With a fare of around 24 USD each way, I could hardly pass on such an opportunity. At first I planned a triangular route flying from Seoul to Yantai, spending a night in the airport hotel before heading on to Dalian, spending a night there and then flying back to Seoul. However prices from Dalian to Seoul were rather extortionate and so I decided to fly Incheon-Yantai-Dalian-Yantai-Incheon. I had the option of taking a Tianjin Airlines ERJ-190 or Qingdao Airlines A320 instead of the MA60 for Dalian to Yantai leg however how could I chose one of those aircraft over the rare MA60? I found return flights from Incheon to Yantai using Ctrip for just over 100 USD on Shandong Airlines and I’ll post a report of those flights separately.
THE XIAN MA60
The Xi’an Aircraft Industrial Corporation’s Modern Ark 60 made its first flight just over 17 years ago in February 2000. The aircraft’s predecessor is the Xian Y-7, an aircraft based on the Antonov 24 which explains the MA60’s familiar shape. The aircraft has since evolved into the MA600 which made its first flight in 2010, although only four of these aircraft have been built. The aircraft is flown in Afghanistan, Bolivia, Burundi, Cambodia, Cameroon, China, Djibouti, Eritrea, Indonesia, Krygyzstan, Laos, Nepal, the Rep of the Congo, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Yemen, Zambia and Zimbabwe. However with only 53 aircraft in service (in March 2014, according to Wikipedia) the aircraft can’t really be called a great success. The aircraft’s safety record can be described as patchy at best with 13 examples having been involved in accidents (as of 2015), according to website Rzjets, 66 MA60s have been built which means that about 20% of the aircraft have been involved in accidents (presumably written off). In 2013 when Tonga was gifted an MA60 from the Chinese government, this poor safety record led New Zealand to warn tourists to avoid flying on this aircraft. This aircraft was grounded and returned to China in 2015. The aircraft is not licenced to fly in EU nor US skies. So, perhaps this aircraft is one for the slightly nervous flyers to miss!
Yantai is home to about 7 million people and is located on the northern shores of the Shandong Peninsula in NE China. As with many areas in the nation it is home to many factories however it is also a resort and fishing city. Dalian is similar sized city, although perhaps more well known internationally thanks to its large port located on the southern shores of the Liaodong Peninsula. The direct distance between these two cities is about 100 miles although the fact these cities are separated by the Bohai Straight justifies the numerous daily flights between the two cities, operated by Jiangxi Air, Joy Air, Okay Airlines and Qingdao Airlines. For those not wanting to fly between the two cities there are numerous daily ferry services taking between 3 and 7 hours. There are also plans to construct a 76 mile long tunnel connecting the Shandong Peninsular with the Liaodong Peninsular.
You can’t be blamed if you haven’t heard of Joy Air, after all they are a relatively small airline with a fleet of only eight aircraft, all of which are Xian MA60s and fly to seventeen destinations across eastern China with their main hub located in Xian. The airline commenced services in 2009 and joint venture between giant China Eastern and the China Aviation Industry Corporation I (AVIC I). Despite the smallness of the airline, one only needs to look at the order books to see they have great plans with 44 MA60s, 50 COMAC ARJ21s and 20 C919s currently on order. From their Chinese language only website, it doesn’t really appear as if the airline is catered for the international traveller however tickets are sold through the online travel agency Ctrip.
Having arrived late the previous night from Incheon, I decided the best option was to stay at the only hotel located within the grounds of the airport, an expensive, large and deserted hotel located a short walk from the terminal. This was my second time staying there and it’s a very nice hotel although a little eerie given the lack of guests (the only other guests I saw there were a couple of Korean China Eastern crew members), it seems like one of those empty places I imagine people seem to visit when they go on tours of NK. After a good breakfast I left the warm hotel at 0840 and made my way in the cold 4 degree spring air to the terminal where I arrived ten minutes later. A shuttle bus is offered however I saw this as a little unnecessary and thus I declined the ride.
From the outside the terminal looks boring and uninspiring however on the inside it is modern and cleaner than most regional Chinese airports I have passed through. After entering on the terminal on the arrivals level I headed upstairs to departures, here there are 3 banks of check in desks, one for international flights, one for domestic travel and the other for flights on Shandong Airlines as well as several check in machines. Seeing as I didn’t have any luggage I tried my luck with the machines although after entering my passport number they only displayed my Yantai-Incheon flight and so I had no other option but to join the short queues at the domestic flight bank. This wasn’t a problem and I assumed I would be checked in within ten minutes or so however I most certainly underestimated how long this would take. All passengers appeared to have incredible amounts of luggage and seemed to disregard any sort of queuing system. After twenty minutes of attempting to guard my position I was nearing the front of the queue although the desk was suddenly closed and there was a mad rush to the neighbouring desk. After twenty minutes of having a luggage trolley constantly ramming my ankles I made it to the front and I was checked in within a minute and given my Yantai Airport branded boarding pass. Domestic travel in China can be an infuriating experience for even the calmest of travellers.
After the chaos that was check in I headed to the calm security area and five minutes or so later I was airside where I took a seat. This area wasn’t too busy and there was plenty of space to sit down. Compared to other airports in China I imagine relatively few foreigners pass through Yantai although all signs are in Korean and English as well as Chinese and many announcements are made in these two languages. The highlight of the ramp was a Tianjin Airlines ERJ-145, an aircraft which will be pretty normal for many people reading this however seeing one of these little jets in a nation where Boeing 737s and Airbus A320 family aircraft dominate domestic routes is a little strange! Surprisingly considering the airlines’ significant presence in Yantai the ramp was devoid of any Shandong Airlines aircraft, instead it was rush hour for Air China with three flights departing to Beijing, Chengdu and Daqing, as well as a few China Eastern and Shanghai Airlines flights. At 1045 I watched as our aircraft arrived 25 minutes ahead of schedule and made its way to a remote stand away from the terminal.
Boarding was scheduled to begin at 1110, 30 minutes before our scheduled departure time of 1140 and so I made my way down to bus boarding gate 21 at 1100 where I found about 25 passengers waiting. Boarding began exactly on time at 1110, being one of the first to board the bus I had to wait for a steady stream of passengers to board before we set off for our aircraft. Unsurprisingly most of my fellow passengers on the flight seemed to be mostly from China, many of whom appeared to be suited business people. At 1126, with all 33 passengers aboard, the bus made its way to our aircraft. After a small ramp tour we arrived at our battered looking Xian MA60 B-3712. There is very little information about the aircraft available online however we can be certain it was manufactured in Xi’an and judging by its construction number of 913 it was probably manufactured at some point between 2010 and 2013. The aircraft wears the Okay Airways livery, according to Wikipedia, all the Okay Airways Xian MA60s were transferred to Joy Air in late 2016, however everything in the cabin bar the safety card suggested that the aircraft was operated by Okay Airways.
I climbed aboard taking care not to fall off the stairs as one side is covered by the hand rail before crouching over to avoid banging my head on the door. As I entered the aircraft I was greeted by a crew member. At the rear there is a large storage area and bottles of water were placed on the jump seat here. Two comfortable looking business class seats were located at the rear of the cabin in a 1-1 configuration. I was quite surprised at how low the ceiling was on the aircraft and I had to almost bend over slightly to avoid hitting my head. After waiting for passengers to put their belongings away I arrived at seat 4A. Despite the light load, I had a seat mate on the flight. The seats on this aircraft were thin beige leather seats that were much harder than they looked. The legroom on the aircraft was pretty terrible which added to the uncomfortable situation. Aside from the overhead panel, nothing on the aircraft looked modern and it seemed to be one of the most worn and battered looking aircraft I have ever taken! At the front of the cabin stood either a crew member or a security guard who spent most of the boarding process looking at his phone. Like a number of turboprops, the main cargo hold on the aircraft is at the front of the aircraft.
Boarding was over in no time and as soon as the engines started a pre-recorded and safety announcement in Chinese and English played. Surprisingly, despite being sat next to the engine, the engine start seemed to be reasonably quiet. We taxied out of the stand as the safety announcement continued to play and made a quiet and quick taxi directly to runway 4. After holding for a while whilst a China Eastern A320 arrived we taxied onto the runway. At 1145, suddenly the cabin was filled with noise and intense vibration turning the seats into massage chairs as we rocketed off down the runway and into the smoggy skies.
We seemed to climb very steeply and this was over quickly most likely due to the low cruising altitude of the flight. We made it up into the clouds and remained there for the duration of the flight. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the first officer appeared from the front door and made his way to the back of the cabin. Thanks to the clouds there were no views of the water beneath us on the flight until we neared Dalian. The seat belt signs remained on for the duration of the flight despite the absence of turbulence. Surprisingly, the level vibration didn’t decrease at all when we reached our cruising altitude and the power was reduced. On all flights taken on Chinese airlines thus far I have always been served something whether it be a bag of apple chips or a full meal with all the trimmings. I was sort of expecting to be thrown a bag of apple chips at some point during the flight however this never happened and the crew remained firmly in their seats for the duration of the cruise. Not I really cared given the short duration of the flight.
Shortly after we reached cruising altitude, the aircraft began to sink back towards earth. The first officer returned to the cockpit and the descent announcement was made. Eventually the coast line came into view and after a few turns our landing gear came down, after this we seemed to make a fairly steep dive down to the runway passing first over industrial areas and then over rows of fancy apartment blocks and villas. At 1218, 33 minutes after our departure we came back to earth with a bump on runway 10. This was followed by some gentle braking after which we taxied off the runway and past a host of brand new aircraft likely to be far more comfortable than our MA60. There were three international visitors that lunch time, a JL 788 from Narita and an NH 738 and 788 from Osaka Kansai and Narita respectively. In the cabin music rang out at an unusually high volume although the PA volume had to be this loud in order to be heard over the engines. As expected, we passed the modern looking terminal and headed for a remote stand. 49 minutes after our engines were started, the vibrations stopped and the cabin jumped up. It was a bit of an odd sensation getting up after the vibration filled flight, the only thing I can compare it to is getting up from a massage chair! After thanking the crew member, bending over to fit through the door and after cautiously making my way down the ladder I headed to the bus parked behind the aircraft.
The bus journey to the terminal didn’t take long and before I knew it I was in Dalian’s crowded and messy looking domestic arrival area surrounded by drivers begging for custom. I decided to take the subway into the centre where I arrived at 1300. After an afternoon of sightseeing I headed back to the airport from where I walked to the local Green Tree Inn, a Chinese budget chain hotel.
After a relatively comfortable sleep I woke up at 0600 intending to head to the airport at 0700. This went as planned and at exactly 0702 I found myself walking to the airport. The air seemed less polluted and the streets less busy that morning making the walk to the airport a much more pleasant experience than the walk back from it the previous day. All was going well and I arrived at the slightly dingy 15 minutes later, just less than three hours before my flight.
Dalian Airport has a very typical Chinese regional airport look consisting of a large terminal covered in glass. Inside it is relatively modern and clean (apart from the toilets of course) however I found the check in hall to be a little dark and dingy. Half of the check in hall consists of China Southern desks whilst the other covers flights for all other airlines, there is also a private ‘VIP’ business/first check in area at the far end of the domestic area. Despite the fact that there were plenty of domestic departures at this time in the morning, the check in area was fairly quiet. I again tried to try my luck with the check in machines although just as had happened in Yantai, these could only check in for my Yantai-Incheon later that day. Fortunately I found a check in desk with no queue and so check in was quick and easy, here I received a Dalian Airport branded boarded pass. I decided to head straight through security which again was quick and easy and I found myself airside within 10 minutes or so after arriving at the airport.
Airside there were quite a number of passengers however I decided to head to the far end of the terminal which seemed much less busy. Outside there was a steady stream of movements, many of which were from the usual culprits (China Eastern and China Southern) however there were also movements from hometown airline Dalian Airlines, CRJ operator China Express Airlines, Tianjin Airlines, a Deer Jet 737 and a Hebei Airlines Embraer 190. Two freight movements arrived in the form of Boeing 737Fs operated by CR Cargo and China Postal Airlines. Although the highlight was a Y-12 which landed at 0825. Inside were plenty of shops and restaurants including McDonalds and Starbucks for those not so willing to try the local delicacies. Unlike Yantai, the signs and announcements here are only in Chinese and English.
At 0913, almost an hour before our departure time our white and orange OKAir Xian MA60’s main wheels made what seemed like soft touch down and the aircraft appeared to avoid putting the front wheel on the ground for a while before this touched the earth with what looked like quite a bump indicating our aircraft had arrived in Dalian. Fifteen minutes before our scheduled boarding time I headed down to gate 3, the bus boarding gate area was rather busy with flights departing to Shanghai Pudong, Ningbo/Shenzhen and Nanyang/Kunming all leaving from this area. At this time a change in our boarding gate number was also announced however this was only to the neighbouring gate. I was a little unsure as to whether we would receive a different aircraft on this flight or whether I’d be making the return journey on the same aircraft I had arrived on. Boarding started on time at 0935 and all 35 passengers boarded the bus by 0938. After a short ramp tour which took us past the China Flying Dragon Aviation Y-12 I had seen arrive earlier we arrived at our waiting Xian MA60.
As it turned out, a different aircraft would be taking us back to Yantai, this aircraft would be B-3715 which like the previous MA60 was probably built sometime in between 2010 and 2013. After waiting for a while on the bus next to the aircraft we were allowed to disembark and board the Modern Ark 60. Again, after taking care not to fall off the ladder I found myself at the rear of the aircraft. On this flight, the aircraft’s sole cabin crew member remained silent as she carefully watched the passengers board. This aircraft had a real oily vintage aircraft scent unlike your typical airliner. Sitting in seat 12D, located in the rear most row of economy I didn’t have long journey to traverse to my seat. There my seat mate was already waiting, after pushing past him I sat down in the grey leather/faux leather seat. I have to say, the legroom on this aircraft seemed to be slightly better than that on the first making the seat feel slightly more comfortable. As with the first aircraft there were plenty of signs of wear and tear throughout the cabin. No water bottles had been placed near the door on this flight however these had been placed in every seat pocket along with a generic sick bag thanking passengers for flying with ‘our airline’, the safety card and a promotional booklet for Huashan City.
At 0950, the sole cabin crew member headed to the front of the cabin to demonstrate how to fasten the seat belts as safety announcement was played in Chinese and English. At 0953 the engines quietly spooled into life. After the engines had been started we remained on stand for about five minutes before pulling forwards and making a quick taxi to the runway taking us past the terminal and China Southern maintenance area. By this time a sole foreign aircraft had arrived in the form of an Asiana A321. I had considered taking this flight back to Incheon however how could I pass on the opportunity to fly on this beast again? After passing by a Nanchang/Shijiazhuang Y-5 we taxied onto runway 28. At 1004, one minute before our scheduled departure time the cabin suddenly filled with vibrations and we went flying down the runway and into the blue-ish sky.
As with the last flight our climb seemed to be rather steep although it lasted longer. Beneath us were a mix of apartment blocks both fancy and standard which then changed into an industrial landscape before we rose above the thin layer of cloud. Eventually we reached our cruising altitude, although there was nothing to indicate this as the seat belt signs remained on. Despite sitting near the rear of the aircraft, the levels of vibration were still fairly high although as one would expect, the engine noise here was far less deafening. Halfway through the flight, I decided to make the most of the onboard facilities and headed to the bathroom, as the seat belt sign remained on I was fearful of receiving some angry words from the flight attendant. However I had nothing to worry about as when I reached the rear of the aircraft she was slumped in the jump seat, blanket on lap, fast asleep. The bathroom was very dark and the taps lacked water, soap was also missing although there were tissues and a comb.
After heading back to my seat the aircraft began to sink gently towards earth, a pre-recorded announcement played and the flight attendant must have suddenly woken up as she came around checking the passenger’s seat belts were fastened. We continued to sink down however our view of the ground remained obscured by the clouds. 5 degrees of flaps were added and then the landing gear and we were still in the clouds, eventually we sank below these revealing rural looking towns and farms. Full flaps were extended as we continued to sink over the rural landscape before passing over a modern looking motorway. We made a relatively steep dive towards the runway flaring at the last minute, floating for a while and then coming back to earth with a significant bump at 1043. At this time the airport was quiet with only a Shandong Airlines 738 and Air China A320 waiting at the terminal as well as a CAAC Cessna 560XL at a remote stand. We pulled into stand 310, the same stand we had departed from the previous day and the engines were shut down, bring my second and perhaps last ever MA60 flight for quite some time to an end.
The doors were opened quickly and the passengers rushed off, eventually I made it down the steep steps and onto the bus. After the last passenger disembarked so did both pilots in order to carry out an inspection and a cleaner and a team of OKAir engineers came to tend to the aircraft. The journey to the terminal was quick and there was very little walking to be done upon arrival to get to the land side arrival area.