Army test pilots risk lives for helicopter development

Source: XinhuaEditor: Zhang Tao
2016-08-10 20:54

BEIJING, Aug. 10 (Xinhua) -- Yuan Luogeng vividly remembers every time he has escaped death since becoming a test pilot for the Army of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) nearly a decade ago.

Every critical situation, be it landing with a missile, a stub wing breaking off, or a rotor hit by a rocket projectile, could have resulted in his helicopter crashing, and certain death for all onboard had he not handled the danger promptly and properly.

"You don't have time for fear. You just act on instinct," said Yuan, 50, who joined the Army's test-pilot battalion in early 2007.

Thanks to the composure and skill of Yuan and his peers, the battalion, founded in February 2001, has survived more than 60 highly dangerous situations, with no helicopters destroyed and no one hurt.

"Death could come at any moment. These test pilots are the closest to death in peacetime," said Chen Fenghua, the battalion's political commissar.

The battalion, the only one of its kind in the Army, tests military helicopters during the research and development stage, and before they are delivered to users.

To test a helicopter's performance, pilots must push it to its limits to find out its maximum speed, load and ceiling, as well as other useful data.

As a result, they often need to conduct test missions in extremely high or low temperatures, at very high altitudes and other harsh conditions.

On average, each test pilots, aged between 28 and 50, has encountered nearly eight dangerous circumstances during missions, battalion figures show.

In January 2010, pilots Yao Haizhong and Yuan Luogeng carried out a mission in Hailar in northern China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The temperature was minus 43 degrees centigrade.

"We only wore very thin cotton gloves. The control stick felt like a block of ice. My hands were numb, I was in so much pain. The mission lasted only 40 minutes, but it felt like hours," said Yao Haizhong, who now heads the battalion.

By always pushing the limits, the battalion has achieved much over the past 15 years.

It has completed all kinds of test missions for more than 20 new China-designed helicopters, setting dozens of records, including a world record for a high-altitude flight, according to Chen.

"Everything we've done contributes to the Army's ongoing transformation. The Army needs helicopters, to ensure it is highly mobile and flexible in offense and defense. The battalion supports the development of all helicopter models every step of the way," said Xu Guolin with the Army's armaments department, who was also former chief of the battalion.

In recent years, test missions have increased markedly, as China has developed more new models of helicopter.

"Initially, we only tested one or two models, and now its over 20. We used to hand over two or three helicopters to users every year, and now it's nearly 100 annually. Our pilots' test flight time has risen from less than 100 hours a year to several thousand hours," Chen said.

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