A J-15 carrier-borne fighter jet conducts a ground-based landing training last month. [Photo by Chen Zebing/China Daily]
Dubbed 'blade dancers', pilots of carrier-borne jets maneuver through honorable parade
Five carrier-borne J-15 fighter jets with Flying Shark logos painted on their vertical stabilizers flew in a perfect V-shaped formation over Tian'anmen Square in Beijing on Oct 1 during a military parade to celebrate the People's Republic of China's 70th birthday.
The J-15 fighter force, established in 2013, is China's sole carrier-based air combat unit. Representing a major milestone in the People's Liberation Army Naval Air Force's combat capability, the force's crown jewel has participated in all five military parades in China in the past four years.
Zhang Ye, the pilot of the lead aircraft in the J-15 formation, said it is no easy task flying a warplane at high speed, low altitude and in tight formation while coping with turbulence produced by aircraft ahead and distractions from celebrations on the ground.
The carrier-borne fighter jet is one of the key frontiers in the PLA's endeavor to become a world-class force and the "iron fist" of the Chinese Navy, capable of protecting national sovereignty and overseas interests, he said.
"Therefore, our parade is a powerful demonstration of the latest achievements of China's military reform, and an effective way to showcase our military strength and the ability to carry out our duties in the new era," he said.
"Our fighter force is very young, and we are extremely proud to be part of the national celebration. Although we have overcome difficulties regarding carrier-borne jet launching and landing, we still have a long way to go in terms of improving combat capability. This task is arduous, but we have the confidence to overcome all obstacles."
A Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft takes off last month. [Photo by Chen Zebing/China Daily]
Zhang's confidence may sound typical of any military veteran, but China's ace pilots go through regular life-threatening trials and tribulations to obtain that level of self-assurance.
When landing a jet on the ground, the aircraft typically decelerates and touches down on a runway several kilometers long. However, carrier-based aircraft must accelerate when landing on a moving carrier with a runway less than 300 meters long.
The added speed is meant to maintain the jet's momentum in case its tail hook fails to snare any arresting wires and it needs to take off for another landing attempt. As a result, landing on a carrier often gives pilots a sense of crashing on purpose.
Moreover, carrier-based aircraft take off and land on the open sea, where weather conditions can be unpredictable. The accident risk faced by carrier-based pilots is five times greater than that of astronauts, and 20 times higher than conventional pilots.
Zhang said that because of the high risk, J-15 pilots were often dubbed "blade dancers".
Zhang Ye, pilot of the lead aircraft in the J-15 formation during the National Day parade
To mitigate risks, all J-15 pilots must practice and master landing on the ground before trying it at sea. But every now and then, something terrible can happen that will put even the most seasoned pilot to the test.
During a training session in July 2017, Yuan Wei accidentally hit a flock of birds while taking off in his J-15. The birds slammed into his jet's left engine and it caught fire - one of the most dangerous scenarios for any pilot because the aircraft can explode at any moment.
"My flight operator told me that there was a huge fireball shooting from my left engine," Yuan said. "My first instinct was to abort and parachute out, but I realized my jet had a full tank and if left uncontrolled, it might keep gliding in the air and crash into a nearby civilian area. I had to bring the jet down."
Lu Chaohui, Yuan's flight controller and a decorated veteran, said people in the control tower were initially stunned because they had never seen anything like it.
"But Yuan is like my brother, I had to bring him back," Lu said.
Within a split second, Lu calmly instructed Yuan to balance his aircraft using the right engine. In the following 11 minutes, he gave out more than 50 crucial commands that helped Yuan safely return to base.
"It was a miracle in every sense of the word," Lu said, adding they had made Chinese aviation history by completing the first extreme low-altitude forced landing with a fully fueled burning jet after a bird collision.
"We got extremely lucky and the appraisal team later concluded our feat was impossible to duplicate, but at least we learned many valuable lessons. After the incident, I am more determined and prepared to get my comrades out of difficult situations."
As for Yuan, he said the event was nerve-wracking, but it gave him a stronger sense of calm, confidence and camaraderie afterward.
"Nothing can phase me now knowing I can return from a burning jet and with my comrades having my back," he said.
Lu and Yuan both flew J-15s during the military parade on Oct 1.
"My role is usually backstage as a controller," Lu said. "But being able to fly with my brothers in unison for the nation's 70th birthday? What an honor."
Flying Shark, the official nickname for the J-15, meant to signify the aircraft's fierce aerial combat capability at sea. [Photo by Chen Zebing/China Daily]
While the pilots and their aircraft were undoubtedly the stars of the military parade, it took a monumental effort from personnel behind the scenes - ranging from backup pilots to a maintenance crew - to make the parade a success.
The J-15 squadron for the parade consisted of seven aircraft, but only five flew over Beijing. The two backup fighters returned to their base when they were halfway to the capital, as did the other backup aircraft for the parade.
Jin Tao, the backup lead pilot for the Y-8 maritime patrol aircraft, said he had been a backup for three military parades in the past four years.
"Backup aircraft are only needed when there is a situation, and I hope there won't be any situation," he said.
Backup pilots are held to the same training standards as the pilots in the flyover, and Jin said they play a key role in solving technical issues, testing flight plans and formations, and preparing emergency protocols.
"Being a backup pilot is still a great honor," he said. "After all, you can't have a lead role without someone playing a supporting role."
Xia Fengyi, a maintenance mechanic for the second division of the PLA Naval Air Force, said the air base for the parade aircraft was in a hot and saline environment and wires, plugs and bolts could easily get corroded, leading to malfunctions.
The maintenance crew often worked late into the night to ensure every detail of the aircraft was safe and secure.
"Our clothes are always wet from the sweat," Xia said. "Only by troubleshooting tirelessly and meticulously can we ensure the next day's training will go smoothly."
While mechanics have the luxury of working in a hangar, the training quality control team must bear the full heat of the sun for hours since their job requires them to work in the field to take photos, record data and evaluate each training session.
"It is a very tiring but important job," said Li Huacai, who records the coordinates of training exercises. "Every coordinate has to be perfectly recorded, or the evaluation will be inaccurate and lead to further mistakes."
Liu Chao, the team's photographer, said their skin became darker and rougher due to prolonged exposure to the elements.
"So long as we can contribute to the parade, every hardship is worth it," he said.
Tailhook, the most ironic feature of carrier-borne fighter jet. It is designed to snare arresting wires on the carrier's deck to absorb energy and slow the aircraft while landing. [Photo by Chen Zebing/China Daily]