The Chinese military is waging a nationwide recruitment campaign and a cadet pilot program to draw new recruits ahead of the introduction of the domestically-produced Type 001A aircraft carrier. With the Type 001A due as early as 2020, Chinese top brass are all too aware that the grooming of elite pilots able to fly fighters from a seagoing airbase has been falling behind.

Starting from this month, would-be fighter pilots among male high school graduates aged between 16-19 can apply to sit enrollment exams and interviews, according to the PLA Daily.

Shortlisted cadet pilots, usually physically fit teenage prodigies excellent in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines, will be trained at the People’s Liberation Army’s Naval Aviation University in eastern Shandong province, where they will learn on a new type of training aircraft that better mimics the J-15.

A Chinese J-15 fighter jet prepares to take off from the deck of the Liaoning aircraft carrier. Photo: AFP
A Chinese J-15 fighter jet prepares to take off from the deck of the Liaoning. Photo: AFP

Upon graduation, cadets will become naval officers, and those with the highest academic ratings will be sent to the Peking University, Tsinghua University or Beihang University in Beijing to pursue their bachelor and postgraduate studies in a dual degree, fast-track program with tuitions wavered and a handsome stipend on offer.

The goal is to “grade-skip” the time needed to groom a platoon of well-rounded carrier-based pilots when the homemade carrier enters into service with the PLA Navy before 2020.

With the Liaoning carrier already in service, the Type 001A undergoing further sea trials, a third carrier under construction and a fourth at the planning stages, the Chinese Navy is indeed facing a pilot crunch, according to Li Daguang, a professor at the Beijing-based National Defense University.

However the talent crunch is believed to be temporary, say observers, now that party cadres and the PLA are set to produce new ranks of elite pilots to serve on the carriers of the future.

A pilot shortage is not the only difficulty facing the Chinese forces. There is also a pressing need for more advanced carrier-based fighters to take over from the ageing J-15.

Meanwhile, the Global Times also confirmed that fighter pilots already in service aboard the Liaoning are now able to conduct J-15 night missions on the high seas.

The glowing afterburner of a J-15 fighter jet is seen aboard the Chinese carrier Liaoning during a recent nighttime training. Photo: China Central Television screen grab
The afterburner of a J-15 fighter jet is seen aboard the Liaoning during a recent nighttime training exercise. Photo: China Central Television screen grab

One major obstacle to aircraft carrier night missions was the fact that lights on a carrier would usually be dimmed during the night, making takeoffs and landings using a tiny airstrip in the sea even more challenging, military commentator Song Zhongping told the paper.

There are also rumors that the J-15 is set to take off from the Type 001A carrier during its upcoming third sea trial, as recent photos from the vessel’s second trial in August have revealed that its flight deck is already fitted with four arresting cables.

If so, the Liaoning‘s pilots will likely be on secondment to the sister vessel to fly fighters and test flight-support systems. Then, all eyes will be on coming flight tests that may gauge whether the domestically-produced Chinese carrier that is based on an older Soviet design is up to scratch.

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