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The aircraft that crashed on Monday was said to be a new type of refuelling plane modified from the Y-8. Photo: Handout

Exclusive | ‘At least 12 crew members killed’ in Chinese military plane crash

Incident during exercise in Guizhou shows ‘imperfect’ aircraft might not be up to the task of intensive drills in the region, military source says

A military aircraft crash in Guizhou this week killed at least a dozen crew members and exposed the “fatal gap” between the air force’s ambitions and its technology, the South China Morning Post has learned.

Military sources say the crash has severely affected air force morale.

The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has confirmed that an aircraft crashed in the southwestern province during a training exercise on Monday.

It did not give details of the casualties or type of aircraft involved, but a source close to the air force told the Post that at least a dozen crew members were killed. It was a new type of refuelling plane modified from the air force’s Y-8 transport aircraft, the source said.

“There were about a dozen men and women on board and none of them managed to escape when the plane went down,” the source, who requested anonymity, said.

“There are no ejection seats on those aircraft, so the pilots and crew members would have been relying on the parachute packs on board. But they wouldn’t have had enough time to jump because the aircraft fell so fast.”

The source said the incident had undermined morale in the air force because it happened just a few weeks after a J-15 carrier-based fighter jet crashed.

A second military source said it was not known whether there were any casualties from the J-15 crash last month, but added there was growing concern in the air force that there could be more accidents as flight drills were stepped up.

The defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday.

The air force last year began intensive drills in the region using warplanes, including regular “encirclement” air patrols close to Taiwan and real-war combat exercises over the Pacific Ocean, which it said aimed to show it could break the “first island chain”. The chain is a series of archipelagos lying between China and the world’s largest ocean that Beijing says has been used by the United States as a natural barrier to contain it since the cold war.

But the second source said the two recent crashes showed that China’s “imperfect” military aircraft might not be up to the task.

“We must recognise that in China, there is a fatal gap between the air force’s combat-ready training and its imperfect aircraft development,” the second source said.

“Both the Y-8 and J-15 have some problems, including the engines, aircraft design and modifications. But instead of carrying out more test flights, the pilots are pushed directly to fly the warplanes, even though they’re imperfect, because there is this political mission to ‘build a combat-ready fighting force’.”

The first source said Chinese pilots were taught that saving the aircraft, not their personal safety, was the top priority. “This type of training and education has pushed China’s aircraft development forward, but at what cost? Life is precious,” the source said.

There could be more accidents in the future, they added, because the military was under huge pressure from the top leadership of the Central Military Commission to conduct more live-fire and all-weather drills.

In November, official media reported that 29-year-old fighter pilot Huang Peng had died in a crash. Military insiders said he had attempted to save the J-11B fighter jet and delayed ejecting from the aircraft.

Cao Xianjian survived when his J-15 fighter jet crashed in April 2016. Photo: Handout

A month earlier, state broadcaster CCTV aired a propaganda programme praising J-15 pilots Cao Xianjian and Zhang Chao for trying to save their carrier-based fighter jets as they were going down.

They were involved in separate crashes that happened three weeks apart in April 2016. Zhang, 29, died while attempting to land the fighter jet, while Cao survived the crash but was seriously injured and took more than a year to recover.

“When we [pilots] realise the aircraft has a problem, our paramount concern is, ‘How can I fly it back [to base] safely?’ ... [PLA] pilots should not abandon their fighter jets ... we are close partners,” Cao told CCTV.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: ‘At least 12 crew killed’ in military aircraft crash