Humanitarian supplies are loaded onto a transport aircraft at an airport in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, before being transported to Kathmandu, Nepal, after an earthquake in the country in 2015. ZHOU JIANHUA/FOR CHINA DAILY
The Kunlun Eagle Group is increasingly providing assistance overseas. Wang Keju reports from Yichang, Hubei province.
It was 4 am and fog shrouded the southern Indian Ocean, famous for its roaring westerly winds and unsettled weather.
Even though he was flying just 420 meters above the surface of the water and battling heavy turbulence in a bank of cloud, Colonel Li Sheng, pilot of a People's Liberation Army Air Force Ilyushin Il-76 transport plane, decided to descend a further 100 meters.
Li, a chief navigator with the Air Force's transport squadron in the Central Theater Command, was part of a seven-country search for traces of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, two weeks after the Boeing 777 disappeared.
MH370 was carrying 239 passengers and crew, including 154 Chinese citizens, when it disappeared from radar screens during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on March 8, 2014.
"Conditions were extremely bumpy, and the aircraft was so close to the surface of the ocean that I felt as though I could reach out my hand and touch it," the 42-year-old said. "But in order to get a clearer view of any objects in the sea, we had to risk flying at lower altitude."
After two hours of flying at low altitude and staring at the sea, the crew had nothing to show for their efforts but sore eyes. On the return flight to Perth, state capital of Western Australia, when they were supposed to take a break, the aircrew continued to search. Finally, they noticed two square, white objects floating in the water.
The crew and Australian experts onboard analyzed photos they had taken, and confirmed the objects as suspected wreckage, which made China the first of the seven countries involved, including Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia, to discover possible flight debris.
In the past 40 years of deepening and advancing reform and opening-up, the squadron has followed the Air Force's "going out" call, and undertaken many overseas missions around the world.
More than 300 members of the transport squadron have traveled to 32 countries on tasks such as providing humanitarian aid, international rescue and relief, and taking part in joint military exercises.
"We will adapt to the trend of a new global military revolution and to national security needs; we will upgrade our military capabilities and see that by the year 2020 mechanization has basically been achieved, IT application has come a long way and strategic capabilities have seen a big improvement," said Xi Jinping, chairman of the Central Military Commission, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October last year.
Xi's words galvanized members of the PLA Air Force transport squadron, which was founded in 1952. In 1953 and the decade that followed, the squadron trained on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau many times, but the harsh conditions - including complex terrain, climatic changes, poor equipment, incomplete data and altitude sickness - didn't intimidate the flight crews.
They conquered the challenge of flying over the Kunlun Mountains, classified as an extremely dangerous flying zone at the time, opened up 25 plateau routes and made thousands of flights. In 1964, the PLA Air Force awarded the squadron the title "Kunlun Eagle Group" because of the fearlessness and toughness of its members.
During the search for MH370, Li and 37 other pilots and aircrew embraced the spirit passed down by previous generations of the squadron - "Be afraid of nothing and fly to places where people need our help most" - and overcame almost every difficulty they encountered.
By the time the search ended about six weeks later, the squadron had spent about 260 flying hours covering about 210,000 square kilometers of the southern Indian Ocean, and had provided the Malaysian authorities with 65 sightings of possible debris for further investigation.
"The speed with which we fitted into the ongoing arrangements, the technical ability and responsiveness of our team, and the collaborative spirit of the whole exercise were a fine example of international cooperation," Li said.
As their participation grew and they began to play a more important role in global activities, the squadron's members developed the habit of keeping an eye on news from around the world. Whenever a disaster is reported on the television, they immediately prepare to be sent to the spot.
In February 2011, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was toppled. The ensuing upsurge in violence could easily have turned into a fully fledged civil war.
Watching the images of the deteriorating security situation in the country, Liu Shukui, a 55-year-old navigator in the squadron, was deeply worried about the thousands of Chinese living there, and hoped he would be sent to evacuate them.
After receiving orders from the Central Military Commission on Feb 28, Liu had just one day to prepare before he piloted an Ilyushin Il-76 to assist the evacuation.
During the journey from the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region to Libya, the temperature rose by more than 50 C. "When we departed Urumqi, the regional capital, I could not stop shivering, even though I was wearing a leather jacket, but when we refueled in Sudan, even a sleeveless shirt was too much. My face became one huge salt crystal and my hair was as hard as if I had used hairspray," he said.
After flying 9,500 kilometers in about 30 hours, the four planes arrived at Sebha International Airport, in the capital of south Libya's Sehba district. Liu remembers seeing armed soldiers everywhere as a result of the insurgency, and the smell of war pervaded the air.
"But the intensity quickly faded away when I stepped out of my plane and heard the thunderous applause and cheers from my fellow Chinese," Li said.
The four transport planes carried 287 people back to China, while another 1,655 were safely ferried to Sudan.
It was the first time the PLA Air Force had evacuated Chinese nationals from overseas.
"Years have passed, but every time I think of a middle-aged man who kissed the ground after getting off the plane in Beijing, I am reminded me of my responsibilities and the honor of being a member of the PLA," Li said.
Flying techniques, overseas experience and, most important, the qualities of courage, responsibility and serving the people have been handed down since the squadron was founded.
Senior Colonel Lyu Jibo has been teaching new pilots for about 20 years. In his 30 years of flying, he has taken part in many operations, such as providing disaster relief after a magnitude 6.9 earthquake hit Yushu, Qinghai province, in 2010, and a mudslide in Zhouqu county, Gansu province, in the same year.
"In fact, we (modern members) are not that good - the older generation opened up the routes on the plateau, flew over the site of a nuclear test to collect air samples, and made many, many other achievements," the 50-year-old pilot and trainer said.
"Our predecessors cultivated us, and just like my teacher, I will give everything I have to our younger members."
Lyu, who is now just about seven years from retirement, said he will do all he can to ensure that the group's new pilots inherit the good traditions of previous generations and strive for even greater achievements.