China’s air force in recruitment drive for J-20 stealth fighter pilots

  • Promotional video encourages young Chinese aged 17 to 20, and those graduating from high school in 2019, to apply
  • With hundreds of new warplanes being commissioned each year, the country’s demand for pilots is huge
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 January, 2019, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 January, 2019, 11:14pm

China’s air force is on the hunt for more fighter pilots for its fifth-generation J-20s, a year after the warplane was introduced to its combat units.

At present, there appear to be at least 18 pilots flying the home-grown stealth fighter jets, according to a promotional video released by the air force this week.

The video is part of a campaign to find new recruits for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force and encourages young Chinese aged 17 to 20, and those graduating from high school in 2019, to apply.

The recruitment drive is under way in 31 of the country’s 33 provinces, and successful candidates will be given the opportunity to study at some of China’s top universities while they are being trained.

As the United States seeks to expand its military presence in the region as part of its Indo-Pacific strategy, China is trying to build up its forces, with a focus on modernising the air force and navy.

And with hundreds of new warplanes – including more than 100 fighter jets – being commissioned each year, China’s demand for pilots is huge.

Last year, the air force recruited its biggest pool of trainees ever, taking on some 1,480 high school graduates.

China’s military priorities for 2019: boost training and prepare for war

All pilots must be able to fly different types of planes, but those who receive advanced training to operate China’s newest heavyweight stealth fighter are given the title J-20 pilot.

Among those featured in the air force promotional video is J-20 pilot Bai Long. The 29-year-old has become a popular public face of the PLA Air Force since he flew a J-16 multirole strike fighter during the high-profile military parade marking the PLA’s 90th anniversary in 2017. It was the public debut of China’s fourth-generation fighter jet, which is based on the Russian Sukhoi Su-30.

In an interview last year, Bai said his dream was to be able to “fly China’s most advanced fighter jet” – an ambition he has now officially achieved.

Developed by Chengdu Aerospace Corporation, the J-20 made its maiden flight in 2011 and entered service in 2017. It is the world’s third fifth-generation fighter jet after America’s F-22 and F-35 and is expected to be key to China’s ambition of gaining superiority in the air.

The South China Morning Post reported in September that China had about 20 of the J-20 fighter jets, which analysts said was “far from enough”.

China’s air force quietly adds new J-16 fighter jets to ‘push the envelope’

Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said China expected the US to deploy between 200 and 300 F-35s – in addition to the 187 F-22s in operation – in the Asia-Pacific region by 2025.

He said that meant “China needs a similar number of J-20s – or at least 200”.

Meanwhile, the PLA Navy is also searching for trainee pilots, especially for its aircraft carrier-based J-15 fighter jets. By the end of 2016, 25 pilots had qualified to fly the J-15s. That number grew to 40 the following year, and in addition more than two dozen J-15 pilots were being trained.