Lack of combat an issue, helicopter pilot says
Colonel Ruan Bing has never strafed an enemy in his heavily-armed military helicopter - not because he can't, but because he just hasn't had the chance.
Despite logging thousands of flight hours over the past decade as a pilot with the Army Aviation 4th Helicopter Regiment in Beijing, Ruan, like so many of his fellow soldiers, has never seen combat.
His latest 'bird', a Z-9WZ, is considered to be so advanced and reliable that Beijing tasked Ruan and his crew with performing a series of acrobatic manoeuvres before a crowd of more than 100 domestic and foreign journalists on Tuesday to show the growing military might of the People's Liberation Army.
The aircraft is equipped with some of the most sophisticated laser sensors, electronics and missiles developed by China in recent years.
'We have carefully studied the weapons and tactics of every major country's military forces. With that knowledge, we have come up with various helicopter attack tactics to exploit their weaknesses,' Ruan told the South China Morning Post after landing his beloved green chopper.
'The problem is we have never been able to put [the helicopters] to the test in real combat,' he said with a shrug.
Instead, the regiment often participates in drills that utilise and display the major upgrades given to the nation's military helicopters since the 1980s.
Some of those modifications have come by replicating aspects of foreign aircraft, others involve the addition of advanced elements including night-vision technology and air-to-air missiles.
Despite the lack of combat, military helicopter pilots are kept busy throughout the year. Their itineraries are filled with not only drills and training, but also rescue missions to aid victims of disasters such as earthquakes, floods and landslides.
These are neither easy nor safe jobs. For example, Ruan's regiment flew deadly missions in Sichuan after the 2008 earthquake - saving thousands of lives by transporting food and bringing injured or stranded people to safety.
It's an honourable career, but for pilots trained to handle the most extreme of combat situations, something is missing.
'We can't say how good our weapons are, how clever our tactics are, or even how good we are until we have a chance to prove ourselves in real combat,' Ruan said.
The helicopter pilots consider themselves the army's elite, and they are treated as such. They live in spacious apartments, eat tasty food from menus specially created by the army's nutrition specialists, earn relatively high salaries and are often placed in the most eye-catching parts of parades and military exercises.
Even their deaths earn more attention than those of everyday soldiers. Many soldiers were killed during rescue missions after the 2008 earthquake, but the deaths of three helicopter pilots who crashed into a hill amid heavy fog received the most extensive coverage by the state media.
Understandably, this drew the ire of some ground troops. A lieutenant with a tank regiment that has worked with the helicopter pilots during military drills said the pilots could be arrogant at times.
'They give you an airy look if you challenge their judgment, as if they are gods or something,' the soldier said, declining to be named. 'Sometimes I just want to kick their backsides for their arrogance.
'But you have to admit, they are handsome, and most of the time they are right too.'
The newest generation of army pilots say they feel a special connection with the French, rather than the Russians as some of their predecessors did. This is not only because most Chinese military helicopters came from French prototypes and are still equipped with French-made engines, but because the combat pilots received advanced training in France as well. 'French people are open-minded and very friendly,' Ruan said. 'They are very different from the Americans.'
In their mock combat situations, the soldiers' main opponent is the United States, whose army, marine and air force troops have accumulated plenty of combat experience in a series of wars over the past two decades.
American military helicopters are also larger, more expensive, battle-tested and equipped with technology such as radar and noise dampeners that are said to be generations ahead of the most advanced Chinese aircraft.
But that does not intimidate Ruan. 'Once in the air, we are equals,' he said. 'The Americans have not shot down a Chinese helicopter, and we have not brought down an American one, so it is hard to say which side is superior at the moment.
'The deadliest weapon for a helicopter pilot, in my opinion, is his brain. We are trained to remain calm in any situation. We are trained to be aggressive and daring enough to die while taking out our enemy. We have our secret weapons.'
Lieutenant Ma Shuai , who recently joined the regiment with only 150 hours of flight time, also says he is not intimidated by the US.
'That's not to say I'm unaware of how good they are: I'm a big fan of [the film] Top Gun and other Hollywood movies about war. But what you see and what you experience in a real helicopter is different from the special effects you see,' he said.