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A Chinese fighter pilot prepares for a night take-off on the Liaoning aircraft carrier. Photo: Handout

China’s aircraft carrier pilots upskill for demanding night missions

  • A group of instructors qualify to train other personnel for the difficult task of landing and taking off in the dark from the carrier’s deck
  • The skills are essential to modern warfare, analyst says
China’s naval air force is expanding its night combat strength with a new group of fighter pilots qualifying as instructors for night-time take-offs and landings on the country’s aircraft carriers.
According to PLA Daily, several pilots from the People’s Liberation Army Naval Aviation University gained the certification after performing the manoeuvres in J-15 fighter jets on the carrier Liaoning in high winds on the Bohai Sea.

State broadcaster CCTV quoted Wang Yong, a university instructor who took part in the certification exam, as saying the risks of landing at night on the vessel were many times greater than that of landing during the day.

“It not only requires the pilots to have excellent flying skills, but also requires the pilots to have a strong heart and top mental strength,” Wang said.

PLA Daily quoted a landing signals officer on the Liaoning as saying that low visibility was the biggest challenge of landing on a carrier at night.

“There is no surrounding environment for reference. Relying on only light signals on the carrier to accurately land on the small flight deck is a huge test of a pilot’s skill and courage,” the officer was quoted as saying.

Night missions on aircraft carriers are internationally recognised as far more dangerous than in the day sorties, with previously only the United States, Russia, France, and Britain having mastered the manoeuvres.

CCTV quoted Chinese military expert Yin Zhuo as saying night landings were so difficult that less than 60 per cent of pilots with the French and US navies were qualified for night operations.

Yin also said night flights played an important role in mounting surprise attacks. And if a long-distance operation started in the afternoon, it would also require landing at night, he said.

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Beijing-based military analyst Song Zhongping said China clearly saw pilots with these skills as essential to meeting the needs of all-weather modern warfare.

“The possibility of conducting combat missions at night in modern warfare grows higher. Because night attacks are so sudden it is necessary to strengthen training so that personnel can fly in all kinds of weather and at all times of the day,” Song said.

He said training for aviation cadets was a high priority for the Chinese military and the certification process showed that a comprehensive training system had been established, with more pilots expected to acquire the skills.

“To establish a complete coaching system requires the instructors to have the capability of coaching at both day and night first, and the whole team is expected to be stronger,” Song said.


A rare at-sea look at China’s aircraft carrier the Liaoning and fighter jet training

A rare at-sea look at China’s aircraft carrier the Liaoning and fighter jet training

The PLA Daily also reported that a new batch of pilot cadets had been certified for daytime carrier operations during the Liaoning Bohai Sea mission.

The pilot instructors who operated at night and pilot cadets who operated during the day all succeeded in landing on their first tries, the report also said, adding that the number of people who qualified was a record high for a single voyage by the Liaoning.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Navy pilots boost skills for night missions