Formidable female aviators of Chinese Air Force

The prudent novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “The mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.” The women pilots of the Chinese Air Force have risen to prove that their passion for flying is on par with other pilots across the world. In March 2012, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Air Force celebrated the 60th anniversary of female aviators joining the first operational unit, thus making China one of 16 countries with women air force pilots on active duty. Of the 543 who began training in 1951, the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has graduated eight groups of women aviators, consisting of 328 highly skilled female pilots, navigators, communicators, and versatile maintenance crews. They work shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues in the Air Force.

The Chinese Air Force has a rich heritage embellished with determination and innovation. This is the aerial wing of the People’s Liberation Army. It was established on November 11, 1949. The Air Force is composed of five branches: aviation, anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, radar and Airborne Corps. Over the decades consistently increasing its air power today the Chinese Air Force has almost 600 modern aircraft. Among its premier fighters are the Shenyang J-11 and Chengdu J-10. The Shenyang J-11 is a twin-engine jet fighter with the NATO code name ‘Flanker L’. The fighter has a speed of 2,500 Kmph and a service ceiling of 19,000 metres. This modern fighter has a combat range of 1,500 km. It has 10 hard points on which it can carry a payload of rockets, missiles and free fall cluster bombs.

Known as the ‘Vigorous Dragon’, the Chengdu J-10 is a single-engine multi-role fighter configured with Delta wing design. Its NATO code is ‘Firebird’. It was primarily designed for air-to-air combat. It is powered by a single turbofan. Its maximum speed is 2,300 Kmph with a service ceiling of 17,000 metres. It has 11 hard points in total and can carry air-to-air missiles and air-to-surface missiles. Its potent payload can be augmented with LT-2 laser-guided bombs, GB2 and GB3 glide bombs, FT-1 satellite-guided bombs and 500 kg bombs. Its avionics include pulse Doppler fire control radar.

Since the early 1980s, the Chinese Air Force has averaged a new group of about 30 to 35 cadets every three years. Each class is divided into functional groups. For example, China’s first female astronaut was selected in 2010 from the 7th Group. This was a great honour. The 8th Group has become the first combat/fighter pilots’ section. Historically, Chinese female aviators have been separated from their male counterparts throughout their cadet education and training, as well as in their operational units. The majority of them have been assigned to all-female crews in a single flight group subordinate to the Guangzhou Military Region Air Force’s (MRAF’s) 13th Air Division’s 38th Regiment, where they conduct charter flights, disaster relief, and research-oriented trial flights, as well as reforestation and cloud seeding.

In 2005, four crews conducted their first drop of several hundred airborne troops. A few pilots have been assigned to mixed IL-76 crews. The IL-76 is a heavy transport plane. The PLAAF recruits both male and female aviator cadets the same way from thousands of high school graduate and college student applicants. Whereas all previous graduates flew transport aircraft, the pilots of the 8th Group were recruited to fly combat/fighter aircraft and the 9th Group was recruited to fly transport, tanker, early warning, and reconnaissance aircraft.

Historically, female aviators have received their basic education in Changchun (the Air Force Aviation University since 2004) and their basic (CJ-6) and advanced (Y-7) flight training in the 1st Flight College (Harbin) or 2nd Flight College (Huxian and Jiajiang). The 8th Group, however, received its basic (CJ-6) flight training in Harbin and advanced (K-8) flight training at the 3rd Flight College (Jinzhou).

Today, female cadets go through basic education which lasts for 30 months at the Aviation University, followed by six months of basic flight training and 12 months of advanced trainer training. Basic education for aspiring Chinese Air Force pilots consists of military, political, cultural, physical and psychological topics. In order to augment their confidence and survival endurance skills they take part in parachute jumps from a Y-5 at 800 metres and undergo seven days of survival and field training.

The 8th Group then moved to the 3rd Flight College to complete 12 months of flying in an advanced trainer. The training consisted of cockpit familiarization, solo flights, and dealing with special situations, such as engine failure, instrument failure, bird strikes, and changing weather conditions. Their techniques and skills training included horizontal rolls, diving, aerial somersaults, half somersaults with a roll over, high altitude flying, and night flying.

Graduates in the 1st to 7th Groups were assigned directly to an operational unit, where they transitioned into that unit’s transport aircraft and remained there for the rest of their career. As of 2005, female aviators had flown in eight aircraft variants, including the Li-2, Y-5, Y-7, Trident and Il-76, and had flown almost one million hours. The 38th Regiment’s 3rd Flight Group has about 60 pilots, of whom one-half are women officers. Until the early-2000s, Chinese Air Force women had not held leadership positions. In 2003, one pilot received her first star as a deputy chief of staff in the Guangzhou MRAF Headquarters. It was not until 2004 that the first female became the 38th Group commander. In 2009, another female became the first commander of the 4th Transport Air Division in Sichuan.

PLAAF’s female aviators and support personnel are becoming more integrated into the PLA’s overall combat plans, missions and campaigns. Although the percentage of female aviators is still quite small, they have begun to assume increasingly more important combat missions. They have begun flying fighters, attack aircraft and helicopters as well as flying combat-support missions –including transporting airborne troops and possibly eventually flying on AEW and tanker aircraft.

In addition, they are now becoming unit commanders, senior staff officers in various headquarters and astronauts. One of the venerated lady pilots is Yu Xu. She was killed in a training air crash. She was born in Chengdu. Yu entered the Air Force Aviation University in 2005 and graduated in 2009. She became one of 16 women qualified to fly fighter jets. By 2012 she was certified to fly the Chengdu J-10 fighter aircraft, becoming the first Chinese woman to ascend this elite class of pilots. She was part of the August One aerobatic flying team at age 30. She died in November 2016.

It is said almost 350,000 people came to mourn her death and placed flowers. The ashes of this woman pilot have been placed at a burial ground for martyrs. It is said fear is a reaction, courage is a decision. Yu Xu is the embodiment of courage and she inspires aspiring pilots of the Chinese Air Force. These women aviators are a symbol of educated, empowered and courageous women military officers.

– Daily News Sri Lanka

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