Tactical transport planes that have in recent years been put into service for the People’s Liberation Army are being customized as aircraft dedicated to specialized missions including in-air refueling, airborne early warning systems and medical evacuations.

The PLA has re-purposed the Y-9, a medium-sized transporter, to form a squadron of “air ambulances and flying hospitals” for a recent mass exercise involving emergency evacuation of “injured” troops from a mock battlefield in southwest China. The Y-9 medical crew also delivered pre-hospital treatment to “patients” while airborne, according to the state broadcaster China Central Television.

The turboprop-powered Y-9, roughly of the size of a Boeing 737 passenger jet, is designed to haul vehicle cargo or 100-plus troops. Its aeromedical version can ferry up to 72 patients with intensive care modules like portable ventilators, defibrillators, ultrasound examiners and cardiopulmonary resuscitation devices aboard.

The Y-9 is the PLA’s equivalent of the US Air Force’s C-130J Super Hercules. It has an operational range of 4,000 kilometers with a full payload of 25 tonnes. In March, a Y-9 was used to perform an emergency medical transfer of a critically ill officer from Lhasa, Tibet to Chengdu, capital of neighboring Sichuan province.

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The Y-20 is the largest aircraft in service with the PLA. Photo: L.G.Liao/WikiMedia

The Y-20, the Y-9’s bigger sibling, can airlift up to 66 tons of cargo. Some reports say that a Y-20 “flying hospital” has also been in service with the Chinese Air Force.

Chinese media note that other than transporting military personnel, these planes will also, in a country prone to natural disasters, assume a leading role in evacuating residents and the injured to safety.

In May 2008, Beijing relied on a number of C-17 Globemaster III airlifters from the US and Mil Mi-26 transport helicopters from Russia during the post-quake evacuation after a catastrophic tremor jolted western Sichuan and Gansu provinces.

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