Training enough pilots able to operate within limited space in all weather conditions could be one of the biggest challenges for the People's Liberation Army in its quest for an aircraft carrier, military experts say.
Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA general, said China had trained a large number of fighter jet pilots capable of flying in all weather conditions, but their training had been limited to landings and take-offs on land for the past few decades. 'Taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier is a completely different operation, with decks being limited to 300-odd metres,' Xu said. 'Pilots also have to deal with gusts and gales on the high seas, which could jolt the ship.'
Xu said China's first aircraft carrier would be equipped with a ski-jump ramp take-off, a Russian model, as Chinese experts had been unable to master the technology of magnetic or steam catapults, which are used to hurtle planes off the ships' limited runways. As early as 2006, the PLA sent a large naval delegation headed by an unidentified deputy chief to the Ukrainian Navy Aviation Force training centres in Odessa and Sevastopol, Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canadian-based Kanwa Asian Defence Monthly, said.
He said Chinese pilots had been given extensive training on a Varyag-style ski-jump ramp at the Research Test and Flying Training Centre at Nitka, on the Crimean Peninsula, 'a traditional training base for aircraft-carrier pilots' during the Soviet era. Some military analysts said that first batch of pilots had been back in China for more than two years, training other mainland pilots at a number of sites. Xu confirmed that China had started training carrier fighter-jet pilots at the same time it was pursuing the aircraft carrier project.
'But the ongoing training of carrier fighter-jet pilots has not resulted in a formal unit so far,' he said. There were still a lot of difficulties to solve, including electronic systems inside the carrier and how to co-ordinate each fighting unit on board.
'Today's aircraft carrier is not only a warship, but a command centre when fighting enemies,' he said. 'We need more time to solve the problems, as well as perfect it.'
Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military expert, said that besides pilots, training qualified technicians would also be a challenge for China's first domestic carrier.
'We can import carrier fighter- jets, but we can't import pilots and an engineering corps,' he said. 'How to operate such a giant at sea is not an easy job.' Ni, though, stressed that the first domestic carrier would have more symbolic meaning than practical consequences.
'Our carrier will definitely not engage with the US' powerful aircraft carrier fighting groups,' he said. 'But it's enough to be a symbolic threat among neighbouring countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines who have territorial disputes with China.'