China is having trouble finding enough skilled pilots to fly fighter jets for its aircraft carriers. This is making China’s navy speed up pilot training.

China has two long-established carriers, namely the Liaoning and the Shandong. This June, it released its latest carrier called Fujian. 

Since China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, went into service, the Chinese navy has pushed training for fighter jet pilots on aircraft carriers further. However, Ordnance Industry Science Technology – a Chinese military magazine – said that progress is slow, mainly due to the lack of carrier-based fighter trainers.

Last week, sea tests began for China’s third and most advanced aircraft carrier, the Fujian. Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie told the South China Morning Post that the Chinese military needs at least 200 qualified fighter jet pilots who can fly from aircraft carriers to run 130 ship-borne aircraft.

According to state-run China Central Television, since 2020, the Chinese navy has been directly recruiting high school graduates aged 16 to 19. On average, the new navy aviation pilot cadets were 20 years old, which was 10 years younger than previous generations. 

In 2017, the PLA navy opened the Naval Aeronautical University in Yantai, Shandong province, to train its own pilots. This was based on the U.S. model. The PLA navy thus did not need to recruit qualified candidates from the air force anymore. 

Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said, “It’s full of challenges, as aircraft design and pilot training are among the world’s most difficult and complicated core technologies – which no one will share with you.”

Besides the lack of pilots, the fighter jet itself is also a problem. 

The twin-engine single-seat J-15 Flying Shark is China’s only ship-borne fighter jet. It has been dubbed the world’s heaviest carrier-borne fighter as it weighs 19.3 tons but with only a maximum speed of Mach 2.4, or almost 3,000 km/h (1,864 mph).

Defense experts say that even though China is building aircraft carriers faster, the J-15 fighter jets that can fly from aircraft carriers are still not ready, because they are extremely heavy. 

In 2016, two J-15s crashed, killing one and injuring another. 

Ordnance Industry Science Technology said, “The PLA does not have the luxury of owning a trainer like the [U.S.’s] T-45, so Chinese pilot cadets’ carrier-based training entirely relies on flying the J-15, posing a great challenge to improving their flying skills [because of the absence of a back-seat coach].”

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