When Polish-born Chinese journalist Israel Epstein went to Lhasa for the founding of Tibet Autonomous Region in 1965, there were only a few special flights to the Roof of the World, mostly by veteran military pilots. And it was a no-fly zone for helicopters due to the bad weather and complicated terrain.
But 55 years later, Tibet has 120 regular domestic and international air routes and dozens of ethnic Tibetan civil helicopter pilots. In 2018, 23-year-old Gyatso became the first ethnic Tibetan civil helicopter pilot in China thanks to a free training program offered to youngsters from impoverished families.
One of four children born into a farmer’s family in Lhasa, Gyatso had never thought he could ever become a pilot. The opportunity came in 2016, when it was decided to build a civil helicopter base for sightseeing and emergency rescue in Lhasa as part of a program to assist Tibet’s development. Local pilots and maintenance personnel were needed for the base and the Lhasa City Government teamed up with Ruoer General Aviation Development Group (RGAD), one of the earliest private companies engaged in aviation and airport construction in China, to offer free training to 28 candidates. Gyatso, then a senior computer major at Tibet University, passed the selection test and was signed up to learn flying in RGAD’s training base in the eastern province of Jiangsu. “I just couldn’t believe it. I learned from the Internet that the training fee for a pilot is more than 1 million yuan ($146,252). How could that happen to me?” Gyatso said.
In 1994, the central authorities launched a pairing assistance program under which some developed provinces and municipalities were asked to help specific cities and counties in Tibet. Since then, Beijing and Jiangsu have been working with Lhasa, with poverty alleviation as their common objective. Building a civil helicopter base and assembling a local pilot team in Tibet were part of that.
After one year’s training, Gyatso became a qualified helicopter pilot and in 2018, got a job at the newly founded Lhasa Snow Eagle General Aviation Co. His starting salary was 12,000 yuan ($1,755). “I am the major breadwinner in my family. I take care of the family expenses, including my younger brother’s tuition, so that my parents don’t have to work too hard,” he said. “I have bought a car. My life is getting better and better.”