Patrick Murphy, Flight School Mgr.
Written by Patrick Murphy   

Patrick Murphy, Flight School Manager in China (Expatriate)

Expat. Expatriate.

Just the word conveys something negative. And the definitions for the word, expatriate, don’t leave one with a warm and fuzzy feeling, either.

1. to banish a person from his or her native country.
2. to withdraw (oneself) from residence in one’s native country.
3. to withdraw (oneself) from allegiance to one’s country.

So how does an aviation professional end up working in another country?

I can still vividly remember more than a year ago when I told family, friends, and acquaintances about my move to China. The most often heard response was “you gotta be crazy.” Luckily, the response from my wife was, “honey, I will move with you anywhere you decide to go.” To answer the response from my friends, I said, “Yes, you must be a little crazy to move that far and see it as a positive career move.” And to my wife and me, the reality is that we are still trying to find a way to spend more of our time together. It has taken MUCH longer than we anticipated selling our homestead in the USA. Finally in October 2006, we will move out of our larger house and into a smaller one in Florida after 10 serious months of trying to sell the house and 14 months after my move overseas. We have decided to keep a smaller house in the USA as a refuge and as an investment. This makes both my wife and I feel better, and perhaps even puts me clear of the purest definition of an expatriate.

Why did I make the move?

Since 1990, I have devoted my professional life to managing flight schools. I have been a Chief Flight Instructor, President, Director of Training, Program Director, etc. at flights schools and university aviation programs in Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, and Delaware. And I have loved almost every minute of it. In most years, I have even been able to fly 100 to 300 hours.

I should also mention my diversion in 1999 to a major regional airline in the United States. I just had to do it! After I had watched so many of my students follow their dreams and become airline pilots, I knew that if given a chance I would have to try that dream, too. And I did. The flying at the regional was absolutely fantastic. Flying 5 or 6 legs a day, without an autopilot, made me the best instrument pilot I have ever been or ever will be again. But my “true” job satisfaction has always come from instructing or managing. And when my path to the training department at the airline where I worked was blocked due to the evolution of that airline away from the aircraft I was in (turbo-prop) to jets, my fate there was sealed. It did not help any that my pay was only $18 per hour at the time. You know you are not making the pay grade when you count every penny of the $1.25 per hour per diem that you are receiving.

My career managing flight schools in the USA came to a speed bump in 2005. Would I continue on the same path in the USA, find a new position as Chief Flight Instructor, Director of Training, or similar and live out my next 10 years doing much what I had done for the past 15 years at much the same pay? Or would I take a big leap in geography and faith and move to the other side of the world to fill the void in flight training there?

Obviously, I did take that leap. But it was not without a lengthy amount or research and discussion with my wife. I’ll write a little more on the family side of things later.

In the beginning.

I had experience working with foreign flight students beginning as far back as my first part-time, CFI job in 1982. Back then, the students were Japanese and the venue was Southern California. I worked part-time in flight schools in Southern California for over seven years. My day job was a very comfortable position teaching and managing at a large university. My expertise and degree was in public administration. But university life, though interesting at times, was not as compelling as a life in aviation. And eventually the tug of flight overcame my desire for the security of a university job.

My first full-time job in aviation (at this point I had over 5,000 hrs. logged, mostly as a flight instructor) was at another university, but this time my job was to give flight instruction to airline cadets from Taiwan. The location was North Dakota. Later, I was to be involved in either flight schools or universities with a flight programs in Georgia, Delaware, Florida, and Tennessee. At many of those schools, foreign students were a component of the student body, too. So, I had experience with many students from all areas of world including Japan, France, China, and India.

After considering staying in flight training in America, returning to a regional airline, or going overseas to China to further my career, I chose the overseas route. I found the job the old-fashioned route: through networking! That networking included following some leads I had gained through contacts on

A large part of the challenge for anyone considering a career overseas is the change of locations. Perhaps, this is not such a big deal if the new venue is in the Western world. But a change to Asia is a big one, not to be taken lightly. In fact, in my experience less than half of the flight instructors or even airline pilots who come to China make it through the first year. Those that stay, remain and enjoy their time in China, some for many years.

What could be so difficult that would make someone leave a well-paying job in China? Well, let me make a partial list.


1. Pollution. China is a developing country and as such is focusing on increasing the economy and not focusing on mitigating the by-products of industrialization. All other industrialized countries have gone through this phase, too. China is still likely 30 years from solving many of these pollution issues. In the meantime, they have air and water pollution that rivals some of the worst in the world. The air pollution in some of the cities I stay in is among the worst 10 in the world. If this is not acceptable to anyone contemplating being an expatriate in the developing world, then they should consider somewhere else.

2. General Aviation infrastructure. Although China has quite a few commercial airports, many of which having an “international” designation, there are few airports that support general aviation or flight training. Avgas is nonexistent in China. And even if your aircraft will run on JetA, getting it properly delivered into a small, non-jet aircraft may be impossible. There is no network of FBOs in China. Even if you get approval to fly into a destination in China, unless you make arrangements in advance, you may be stranded there for a long time. Currently, China will not allow pilots (even GA pilots) to conduct “transit” checks (preflights while away from your home base) so you must arrange to either bring a mechanic with you or meet one at your destination.

3. Airspace. Essentially, all airspace outside the international airports and international airways is controlled by the military. And like the military anywhere, they are not likely to easily give up control of the airspace they currently “own”. Even when practice areas are accepted as usable on paper, in practice it may be much more difficult to get access to them. Many air routes in China are not designated for international use, particularly at low levels. Therefore, many airway still require the use of the Chinese language (Mandarin). Getting new routes approved for cross-country flights will be difficult as it will take not only the cooperation of the civilian authorities but also the military. And remember, all flight plans must be submitted 24 hours in advance and no flights, even local, may fly without a flight plan.

4. Communist Country. There are actually many “nice” things about being a foreigner in a communist country, but let’s review the negative issues first. There is no right to free speech in China. Chinese anti-government organizers often are jailed; foreigners would be deported. The internet and likely all communications could be monitored. Religion is very controlled in the country though attendance at officially-sanctioned churches is allowed and that includes the Chinese Catholic Church. But non-approved religions are not tolerated and for the Chinese jail is again a possibility. You and I would just be deported. The good things about a more “controlled” society are that there are few handguns. The risk of having someone rob you in the street or your home through the use of a gun is slight. Though crimes on foreigners do happen, particularly in the major cities where foreigners congregate at the same spots all the time so are easy prey, in other areas of the country such crime is a very rare experience.

5. Family. Getting visas to visit or work in China are relatively easy. China recognizes the need for foreign experts in many fields including aviation. Families can visit freely and foreign workers with the right visas in China can cross the border without any problems. My wife currently has a 12 month visa that allows unlimited visits to China for stays up to 30 or even 60 days each. But choices about bringing one’s family or leaving them home are difficult ones. Wives may not want to come due to the limited opportunities for them to work or even socialize. Young children seem to adapt anywhere. We have several families with young children (toddlers to age 4) and they are learning Chinese, of course, as quickly as they are learning English. But older children may be resistant to the move. Only the largest of cities would likely have special schools organized for foreigners and those can be very expensive. Many jobs including mine allow limited opportunity for the foreign workers to return to the USA to visit family. And US tax law may prevent you from being in the USA more than 30 days in any 12 month period if you want to take full advantage of the tax savings. I spent only 2 weeks in the USA during my first 12 months on the job in China. However, since part of my family lives in the Philippines where my wife and I also support 2 foster children, I spent another couple of weeks visiting there. Unlike the long trip from the US to the Philippines from China this is just a half-day trip. My wife has also spent several extended periods in China visiting me and touring the country.

6. Food. We have actually had a few flight instructors show up in China and announce that they do not like Chinese food AT ALL. That certainly can limit one’s choices for eating if you are completely resistant to the local cuisine. In all the larger cities in China, there are Western fast food outlets: McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut seem to have the widest penetration. For those who are adventurous, the dining can be an adventure each day, even an enjoyable one. For those who do not like Chinese food, it can be very limiting indeed.

7. Health Care. Don’t expect the same level of care at the local level in China that you are used to in the USA or elsewhere in the West. The largest cities like Beijing and Shanghai have some excellent hospital facilities. But local emergency clinics or even the skills of the local doctors can be quite varied. Expect nowhere near the amount of personal privacy that you are used to in the West. Some clinics especially dental clinics, though, do have VIP rooms that are often the best place for a foreigner to be treated. Of course, when you do find health care to your liking, the price is so low as to be nearly unbelievable. I recently had my teeth cleaned and examined for under $8 USD and that was in a VIP clinic at a university dental facility by a doctor and not a dental hygienist.

8. Transients. We are (temporary) guests in China. I acknowledge that once they are able to find enough domestic employees to take over our positions, we will become unwanted guests. I hope to stay 5 to 10 years. But if the boom goes bust during that time, I am prepared to return to the USA or go elsewhere even earlier than that.

9. People, people everywhere. If you do not like crowds, don’t come to China! Even crossing the street can become an adventure whereby not only dodging people is the game, but also cars, bikes, motorcycles, and buses. Chinese have no discipline in lines. Even getting on a train where seats are pre-assigned can be an adventure in close quarters maneuvering. The Chinese also have little inclination to give women, children or old people preference in a lining-up situation. Forget about claiming someone jumped in line ahead of you. Most Chinese would see that as just your own tough luck.

10. Criminal Justice. The lowest levels of criminal justice in China are quite different from the USA or Western world. Let me give one example to illustrate this story.

Three flight instructors were crossing a busy intersection in a Chinese city. A car weaves through the pedestrians at an unsafe speed and irrespective of traffic laws (not uncommon in China at all). The car nearly strikes the instructors and one of the instructors hits and breaks the windshield with his hand as the car passes. The car stops in the middle of the road (also a common occurrence after an accident) and an argument ensues. Of course, the words are in Chinese and the instructors understand little. A crowd gathers, also a usual post-incident occurrence. The car driver and his friends claim the instructor broke the windshield intentionally. Of course, the instructor thought the driver should be arrested for vehicular assault. Not wanting to continue the discussion, the foreign instructors decide to leave the scene believing that the driver was not likely to see it their way. They approached a nearby city bus and started to get on. The driver and others grabbed the instructor who broke the windshield and quite roughly stopped him from leaving. Lesson #1 in this story: in China you never leave the scene of an accident or disagreement even a small one as that will be taken by the Chinese bystanders as an admission of guilt. Always wait for the police to arrive. See item on “patience” later in this article.

Back to our story: the instructors were restrained from leaving by the Chinese driver and his friends and the police arrived within minutes. No resolution was achieved quickly so the police took all concerned to a nearby police station to continue the discussion. During this time, our flight instructor did call the company for assistance and soon after the instructors arrived at the station we had an interpreter/negotiator on hand. But no resolution was forthcoming. The driver continued to insist that the instructor should pay for the windshield and the instructor insisted the driver should be arrested. Back and forth it went with no result. The police, of course, cared little since they did not witness the accident and no major injuries or damage had been sustained. But they were going to detain everyone until one party or the other gave in. In China, often you can “win” this game just by waiting it out. However, with an excited and roughed up instructor in the balance, that end-game was not the best course of action for the company. So the company’s negotiator negotiated a deal. For 200 RMB ($25 USD), the driver was happy to leave. Was this justice? Not in America it isn’t! But China is not America! There is no court, no judge and no jury for this type of situation in China.

Here is another example of the difference in the legal system in China vs. the USA. If you get stopped for a minor traffic infraction like speeding (and I do now have a Chinese Driver’s License), don’t expect to sign a warrant and later get your day in court. Fines up to 200 RMB are paid on the spot to the officer. You’ll also get points put on your license. If you get enough points “earned” in a year, you must go back to traffic school. Don’t insist on contesting the decision of the cop. Pay the money and move on! Is it justice – no, it’s China!

11. It takes patience! Few things happen in China with the speed we see in the West. Want to wire money home from a bank? Expect to fill in the right form, present your passport, and then go to 3 different windows in the bank to do it. Since you are sending US Dollars, also expect to pay a substantial fee for this service. Even sending money home by Western Union which is available in many locations might take as much as 30 minutes once you do reach #1 in the line.

Other examples: getting certified as a commercial pilot and flight instructor in China takes 8 weeks or more. Taking an aviation knowledge exam here can be an adventure itself. Will the computer system work? How many questions will be unintelligible? Even checking into a hotel means you must present a passport and wait for it to be copied and examined. Don’t expect to just show a credit card and go to your room. All travel in China is controlled to some extent through lodging. Even private citizens are expected to report the arrival of a foreigner for a stay in their home. But this is rarely more than a nuisance. However, do not overstay a visa in China. The penalty is 500 RMB per day or $55 USD. And they will check and collect that when you leave the country.

12. Management Style. The Chinese style of management concentrates more on penalties to induce proper behavior than that in the Western world. Communication is also more closed than we are used to. Failure to perform properly at work can result not only in fines but also public humiliation. The public humiliation usually means that you would have to stand in front of an assembly of your peers and be publicly disparaged by them and management. However, with that said, most Chinese managers are careful not to use the full-Chinese style of management when working with foreigners. If they did, we’d probably all pack up and leave.

And what about the positives?

1. Expanding aviation market. Despite all the difficulties, aviation in China is rapidly expanding. The current need annually for pilots today is estimated at 2,500. There are positions not only available for foreign flight instructors, but also now for foreign first officers, and they have been hiring foreign captains for several years. I have lived much of my aviation life dealing with “down” markets in the United States including the early and mid-1990s and the 2000/post 9-11 era. It is nice to deal with expansion issues rather than retrenchment and redundancy (layoffs).

2. Salary. Right now since the Chinese need foreigners in many industries, the pay can be lucrative. Even foreign flight instructor positions are salaried with benefits such as paid health care insurance here in China. The Chinese realize that in order to attract talent, they must pay high enough wages. There are tax advantages particularly for Americans working overseas. Up to $80,000 USD can be earned tax-free. So that makes each dollar earned overseas even more valuable. But remember that your travel expenses for going home will likely go up. Even if your immediate family comes with you, the rest of the relatives may want to see you once in a while.

3. Low cost of living. Except for in the major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the cost of living is likely 1/4 of the cost in the USA. A newly-constructed, small, furnished apartment in my town in China (2 million people) including utilities goes for around $200 USD per month. Meals, especially if eaten in Chinese-group style, can be as little as $1.50 USD per person. Many employers will throw in benefits like housing and local transportation making the cost to work in China even lower. Some flight instructors in our company get by on as little as $200 USD for living expenses each month so they are able to save nearly $2,000 USD during that same period. That can go a long way to paying off loans or saving for a point in the career when expenses are higher or earnings lower, or both.

4. Dating. Single men who enjoy the company of Chinese women seem to be happy here, indeed. The relatively high salary versus the local Chinese wages makes a foreigner an attractive partner in China. Many of our male instructors have found serious partners with more than a few contemplating marriage. Less than 5% of our instructors are women and I do think single women can have a more difficult time adjusting in China. I once had a very pretty, blonde Canadian lady tell me that she could not get a date in China. And that was in Beijing where there even were a lot of foreigners. I would say that she mentioned that she was not interested in dating Chinese men. She said that all the foreign men who came to China were looking for a Chinese girl. This may serve as a warning to married men and their spouses, too. Temptation is around every corner. Remember that the Chinese have fewer hang-ups with things like bath houses or massages. A nightly call for a “massage” while you are staying in a hotel, or even a knock at the door by a pretty masseuse, is not unusual. A polite “no” ends the intrusion if you so desire.

5. Modern equipment. Most flight schools in China are using the best equipment that can be found anywhere: Garmin G1000 avionics, new generation aircraft, level 5 FTDs, etc. There is no fleet of existing general aviation aircraft in China so all you are likely to fly is a newly imported aircraft. Even the airlines in China have ditched most of their old aircraft. The days of the Russian passenger aircraft are long gone. Both Boeing and Airbus are delivering aircraft to China as fast as they can deliver them.

6. Early entry to airline. China is now starting to hire low-time, foreign First Officers to fill some positions. This is especially true at the smaller start-up airlines and cargo outfits. One deal that we now have on the table would permit our flight instructors to move to a B737 (cargo) with as little flight time as 1000 TT and 300 multi. The down side is the pay and the lack of a path to a Captain seat. The Chinese company would pay for the B737 type rating, however. Please refer to the negatives above as these are likely temporary and not career positions.

7. Adventure. Certainly, if you come to China you will gather stories that would take you a lifetime to tell back home. Learn the language and culture. Visit the landmarks. Travel to some of the biggest cities in the world. Visit Tibet and Hong Kong. See some of the oldest relics in the world. Teach people in China about our language and about life in America. Side trips to exotic locations like Thailand, Singapore, and even Vietnam are easy.

My Other Aviation Career Experience.

During my 27 years in aviation, I have taken a few additional side roads. I was a freeway traffic pilot in 1984 in Los Angeles and one highlight of that was being one of the few pilots who were cleared by the Olympic security officials to operate near the major sports venues. During that time, I also owned a C152 (and used it for the traffic gig) until a flight instructor decided that C152s had an endurance of 6 hours and not the usual 4 and ended up running out of fuel in the traffic pattern at an airport in the LA basin. They almost made it back to the airport. The good thing was only the airplane got hurt in that accident. I also owned a C310 B model in the mid 80s which I used to build my multi time. The C310B was a good looking airplane as those old enough to remember Sky King will remember. For those who do not, this was a 1950s TV show. Even my memory of that show is fuzzy given I was not born until 1954.


Think long and hard about whether you would be able to handle the life of an expatriate. I now tell flight instructor applicants at my current company that just wanting the higher salary is not enough. In the end, even money will not overcome a permanent feeling that you are out-of-place. So do your homework and if you come, enjoy!

Patrick Murphy
Screen Name: PWMURPHY
An American in China