Preferring practice to empty slogans, aspiring for originality rather than following authority and dogma blindly, opposing monotony and asserting independent personality --characterized by these traits, the new-generation pilots born in the 1980s and 1990s are becoming the new driving force of the Air Force of the People’s Liberation Army (PLAAF).
Foreign trainees are experiencing simulation flight in an exchange activity held by the Aviation University of Air Force. (Photo by Liao Qiang)
Pilots are ready for missions on a rainy night. (Photo by Ben Daochun)
Putting on the anti-gravity suit, Tang Zheng checked his devices one by one, walked into the hangar and made a pre-flight ground check from fuel, oxygen to weapon and pod. Although it was just a routine night-flight confrontation training, Tang Zheng, a Level-1 PLAAF pilot, dare not omit any detail before taking off.
One hour later, it was 00:00 am.
“783, clear to take off.” The order came from the control tower, and 783 was Tang Zheng’s number.
“Roger,” Tang Zheng’s reply was short and forceful.
The plane that Tang Zheng piloted was J-10, the third-generation warplane developed independently by China. The flying regiment he is in is a J-10 unit closest to Beijing and is responsible for the air security of the capital city.
Born in 1981, Tang Zheng was enrolled 14 years ago. Over half of the pilots in his regiment are born in the 1980s. Except for a deputy commander of the regiment and a chief of staff of the regiment, most of the leading posts including the commander of the regiment are assumed by post-80s pilots too.
Two months ago, this regiment won the team first prize in the 2014 Golden Helmet Contest of the PLAAF, while Tang Zheng missed the Golden Helmet and won a second prize in individual contest, only one point after the winner.
The Golden Helmet Contest represents the highest level of PLAAF’s air confrontation training, and winning the Golden Helmet is the highest honor for any PLAAF fighter pilot.
Most of the 170 fighter pilots participating in this year’s Golden Helmet Contest are born in the 1980s, while those ready to succeed them are the fast-growing post-90s flying trainees.
As the new-generation fighter pilots in the 21st century, these post-80s and post-90s pilots are trying to change the public impression of pilots as mysterious and rigid.
They refuse to be isolated from the time and try to interact with the public. They prefer practices to empty slogans, and are eager to learn instead of blindly following the authority.
These high-profile pilots with strong sense of individuality constitute the new DNA for the reform and transformation of the PLAAF in the new age.
“Fatty” and “Tiger”
The post-80s Tang Zheng is 170cm tall but weighs 85kg, so weight loss is his most urgent task.
Tang Zheng put on loin guard before takeoff. Because of the violent maneuvering actions during the confrontation, the pilot sometimes has to bear a load equivalent to eight to nine times of G (G means gravitational acceleration. One G is equivalent to one’s own body weight).
In other words, the pilot is repeatedly under the squeeze several times as heavy as his weight during one flight, and Tang Zheng has to take four flights a day.
The heavy-load flying training over the years and his 85kg weight give Tang Zheng the lumbar muscle strain not compatible with his age. He has even stopped doing housework like dish washing because “if I bend over a little longer, it’s hard for me to stand up straight again.” He unconsciously put his hands on his waist, “this is an occupational disease for pilots.”
Tang Zheng is a military fan from childhood and often read military magazines in middle school, with a special interest in fighters. Before the pilot recruitment, he wanted to go to a college of architecture because he loved painting and thought becoming a painter was more realistic than becoming a pilot.
A neighbor of his once participated in the pilot recruitment exam, and was said to “throw up wildly” when getting off the revolving chair, and that made Tang Zheng want to “have a try”.
That is one of the characteristics about the new-generation PLAAF pilots. “Most post-80s pilots are not here for the benefits, but because they really aspire to fly the fighter and become a PLAAF member,” said Tang Zheng.
Things in the PLAAF begin to change with the post-80s generation. With a pioneering spirit, they refuse to give in easily, have a strong learning capability and are good at overcoming technical difficulties with a wide range of capabilities.
The electronic flying system in Tang Zheng’s regiment is developed by the post-80s pilots themselves. “To improve our combat capability, we cannot be afraid of losing face,” said a pilot.
To Tang Zheng’s surprise, he didn’t feel the discomfort he imagined on the revolving chair. The examiner chatted with him on purpose to see how he would react, and he was even able to tell jokes.
After preliminary check, re-check and final check, Tang Zheng was admitted by the Changchun Flying Academy of Air Force (Aviation University of Air Force today) in 2000 and became one of the 42nd batch of trainees there.
It was when the arduous training started that Tang Zheng realized to be a fighter pilot was much harder than he imagined.
Physical training was almost crazy. Every morning they had to finish the 300m, 600m and 900m running within the designated time, revolving on hanging ladder and around the solid wheel made them throw up, and another 10,000m running was waiting for them after the cultural classes. Sometimes they wondered whether they were becoming pilots or athletes.
Tang Zheng’s strength was revolving around solid wheel. They were required to revolve 40 rounds within one minute, but he could finish the task within 38 seconds. “I was only 65-plus kilograms then,” he said shyly, but his weight today has got him the indisputable nickname “Fatty”.
Xu Hu, Tang Zheng’s comrade-in-arms today, was also one of the 42nd batch trainees. Unlike Tang Zheng, Xu Hu didn’t understand this profession when he first chose to become a pilot, but his specialties were soon displayed after coming to the university.
As the “crazy one” in the physical trainings of his class, Xu Hu could easily finish both sprint and long-distance running. His record in 100m test was 11’34’’, better than Level-2 national athletes, and he also boasted the shortest start reaction time in his team.
Both born in the 1980s, Tang Zheng and Xu Hu are quite different. While the former is cautious, calm and interested in tactics, the latter, with the body cut for a pilot, is unusually valiant and resourceful, often winning with surprise moves.
Sometimes Xu Hu’s resourcefulness is used for something else. He once made a public bet with his squad leader that whoever lost in the single-hand push-up contest had to buy a drink for every classmate, and this “crazy” physical training wizard won beyond dispute.
Secretly reading Kung fu novels at class is also something Xu Hu delights in talking about. That was against the rule, so for safety’s sake, he tore down the pages and took only one chapter to the class each time, so even if he was caught, “it was a small loss and I could continue reading the rest”. The swarthy boy blinked and snickered.
Courageous and a little cute, Xu Hu has been called “Tiger” from the university to the PLAAF.
Latest fighter is the favorite.
Fighter flying is a job with high technical contents as takeoff and landing alone involves more than 300 movements.
Fighter pilot has to master a wide range of special knowledge including flying principles, radar and weapon while maintaining sound physical conditions.
From the day they came to the Aviation University of Air Force, the pilots are faced with a relentless elimination system. From physical training and cultural class to regular physical check and the final flying screening, the overall elimination rate is more than 60%.
“Elimination is a dynamic process that lasts through all four years in the university.” Zhang Weian, an officer in the Grade 2011 Tsinghua class of the Aviation University of Air Force, introduced that “it’s possible that you passed the physical check yesterday and are eliminated from the flying screening the next day”.
Take the screening in July 2013 for example, 80 out of 402 sophomore trainees were suspended from flying, an elimination rate of nearly 20%.
Even if you successfully graduate from the university and come to the flying base, exams and elimination may happen any minute.
When retrofitting the Generation-II into Generation-III fighter, Tang Zheng had to finish three big thick books of aviation theories totaling nearly 1,500 pages, as well as a 108-page manual that must be memorized from cover to cover.
For the weekly exam, 95 was the passing line and anyone below that score would be eliminated. Those who eventually succeeded in retrofitting the Generation-III fighter were the best of the best among the post-80s pilots.
After graduating from university, Tang Zheng has flown almost all homemade fighters. He first flew the J-trainer-5 and was then transferred to another PLAAF base to fly J-trainer-6.
He could have stayed and become a trainer, but after breaking his hand in a ball game, he missed the night flight exam and live-ammunition exam, so he was transferred to a third PLAAF base to fly J-7.
His fourth station was the August 1st Aerobatic Team, but he was just a benchwarmer and didn’t participate in any performance there in three years.
At that time, the homemade fighter J-10 was already commissioned, and Tang Zheng had only one thing in mind then “if I ever had a chance to fly J-10, I’d prove I’m the best.”
The opportunity came when he was transferred to the current unit in 2009. Hearing that he could fly J-10 here, Tang Zheng’s eyes sparkled. The upgrade from Generation-II to Generation-III fighter is like jumping from cell phone with black-and-white screen directly to touch-pad smart phone. “Everyone wants to fly the best plane”.
To become the best, Tang Zheng gave up some of his hobbies. He used to like painting and could carve lifelike flowers on olive pit, loved online games and foreign movies, and enjoyed imitating the movements in the air battles in those movies.
He reunited with his college classmate Xu Hu here, which was also the latter’s third station. From the northwest desert to south China, Xu Hu still wore his typical “Tiger” smile in college with a trace of naughtiness in it.
Xu Hu still maintained a joking defiance against authority and tradition. He disliked “fancy” words, preferred “reasonable and well-grounded” orders, and had an insuppressible desire to “challenge the limit”.
“I don’t care where I am as long as I can challenge the best plane,” he told the reporter.
Xu Hu is the famous “load king” in his regiment. When taking the overload test, he asked the staff “what’s the biggest load this machine can test?”
“Passing line is eight G and the maximal is nine.”
“Give me nine,” Xu Hu was very ambitious.
When the centrifuge was started, he pulled the lever all the way up.
When suddenly encountering a huge load, normal people would suffer a blackout for four to five seconds, but Xu Hu didn’t care.
During a flying training, he conducted a wild maneuvering movement in order to shake off the rival. When the pilot in the front cabin shouted in the earphone “Tiger, I have a blackout, what about you?” he said “I’m fine, continue!”
But he didn’t succeed in the test. A few seconds later, the staff rushed in and shut down the machine. “Get off the chair. What you did almost broke our machine.”
The most important task of Tang Zheng and Xu Hu is to ensure the air space security for the capital city. When they are on duty, they have to be fully armed and be on 24-hour standby at the control tower.
Whenever the alarm sounds and the warning light flashes, they have to take off within the shortest time. “It’s extremely tense when on duty. Even after I get home, I’d stand up immediately if the car alarm downstairs sounds,” said Tang Zheng.
Sometimes the unidentified air situations appearing on the radar were birds wearing metal rings, which already disappeared when fighters were in the air.
One time when Tang Zheng was searching for unidentified flying object according to radar instructions, he found a balloon for commercial promotion printed with a huge grey wolf.
“Tiger” may be naughty apparently, but he is very serious in real flight.
During a routine training, Xu Hu and his comrades were ready to take off in formation. The fighter taxied with acceleration and when he was about to leave the ground, Xu Hu saw the warning light flash on the right. His fast reaction in 100m sprint came in useful at that moment, and he stopped accelerating immediately and left the runway in safety.
After taxiing to the stand, he felt the fighter shaking and asked the maintenance staff why. “I’m not moving it,” said the maintenance staff.
Xu Hu stepped down the fighter and walked to the tail, saw engine oil dripping down and reported to the division commander on duty immediately. Danger in the fighter is a huge event in the PLAAF.
It was found out later that an extremely small bearing gear in the engine was broken during the taxi, and it was estimated that if it had taken Xu Hu longer to react, his fighter would be in the air two seconds later, and the engine would stop then.
There was a residential area outside the airport, and the consequences would be unimaginable.
“I don’t know about fast reaction. It was all subconscious.” Xu Hu said he was able to do that thanks to the rigorous everyday training.
He was granted the first-class merit by the PLAAF, but his wife only knew about the good news from their neighbor three months later. “What exactly did you do?” his wife asked.
“Just stopping the accelerator,” Xu Hu said casually, although his northeast accent did express a touch of joy and pride. His wife later knew about the truth from the bulletin board in their community.