Chinese navy struggles to find enough pilots for 3 aircraft carriers
- PLA needs at least 200 qualified carrier-based fighter jet pilots to operate 130 ship-borne aircraft, expert says
- Military magazine says JL-9G trainer cannot be used to simulate emergency landings on a flight deck
China’s navy, the world’s second-most powerful – with two aircraft carriers commissioned and another launched in June – is struggling to meet increased demand for qualified ship-borne fighter jet pilots, analysts said.
With Fujian, China’s third and most advanced aircraft carrier, having started sea trials last week, the PLA needed at least 200 qualified carrier-based fighter jet pilots to operate 130 ship-borne aircraft, Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.
“It’s full of challenges, as aircraft design and pilot training are among the world’s most difficult and complicated core technology – which no one will share with you,” Li said.
PLA Navy pilots use the Chinese-made JL-9G, a single-engine twin-seat aircraft first revealed in 2011, as a carrier-trainer variant, but it cannot be used to simulate emergency landings on a flight deck because of flaws such as being too light and too slow, Ordnance Industry Science Technology said in a report marking the 10th anniversary of the Liaoning’s commissioning on September 25, 2012. Those flaws have seen it confined to land-based simulated carrier training.
“In the past few decades, the US military was using the T-45 Goshawk carrier-qualified trainer to train its pilot cadets,” it said.
“Now the Americans have developed a more advanced variant, the T-7A Red Hawk, which is equipped with a more powerful General Electric F404 afterburning turbofan engine that will make ship-borne fighter pilot training more efficient.”
The T-7A, which has a V-shaped vertical tail similar to that of the United States Navy’s main carrier-based fighter jet, the F/A-18 Hornet, is expected to go into operation in 2024. It was developed to train American pilots to fly fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft, according to the US Air Force.
It has an empty weight of 17½ tonnes (19.3 tons) and a maximum speed of Mach 2.4 – just over 2,960km/h (1,839 mph) – while the gross weight of the JL-9G trainer is just 7.8 tonnes and it has a top speed of Mach 1.05.
“The PLA doesn’t have the luxury of owning a trainer like the T-45, so Chinese pilot cadets’ carrier-based training entirely relies on flying the J-15, posing a great challenge to improving their flying skills [because of the absence of a back-seat coach],” the Chinese magazine said.
Two J-15 fighters crashed in April 2016, resulting in one death and one serious injury.
China has developed a twin-seat variant of the J-15 known as the J-15S, but recent footage shown by state media confirmed that platform has been turned into the ship-borne J-15D electronic warfare aircraft, Macau-based military analyst Antony Wong Tong said.
“Why China’s J-15S hasn’t been turned into a trainer like the Americans’ is a perplexing problem,” Wong said, while adding that one factor could be the cost, which would be much higher.
Zhou Chenming, a researcher with the Beijing-based Yuan Wang military science and technology think tank, said China was still testing the twin-seat J-15S, adopting a similar approach to the Americans when they turned the F-15 Eagle into different versions, including the twin-seat F-15E Strike Eagle.
“It’s a new concern for modern aircraft, with the back-seat pilot being the weapons controller,” Zhou said. “China has tried to learn from all the superiorities of the US military, especially how to train carrier-capable pilots.”
The PLA Navy started training its own pilots – rather than picking qualified candidates from the air force – following the establishment of the Naval Aeronautical University in Yantai, Shandong province, in 2017 – adopting the same approach as its US counterpart.
State-run China Central Television said the navy had directly recruited cadets from high school graduates aged between 16 and 19 since 2020. The average age of the latest generation of new naval aviation pilot cadets was 20, at least 10 years younger than their predecessors.
Dai Mingmeng, who flew a J-15 prototype on its maiden flight from the deck of Liaoning on November 3, 2012, when he was 41, was one of the first five Chinese pilots to achieve ship-borne certification. He and other senior carrier-capable pilots are now training the latest generation.
“There’s still a long way to go for China’s aircraft carrier-based fighter jet pilots to catch up to their American peers,” Zhou said.
“Chinese pilots on the Fujian may need another decade to reach the base requirement of joint operation combat-readiness, and there is still a big gap for China to catch up to the US, which has a century of experience with aircraft carriers.”