China is expanding its search for Navy aircraft carrier pilots


A Chinese naval officer takes photos with the public in front of a J-15 fighter jet aboard the aircraft carrier Liaoning in July 2017.
Felix Wong/South China Morning Post via Getty Images

  • China’s fleet of aircraft carriers has grown rapidly, expanding from one to three in a decade.
  • To use this fleet effectively, China’s navy must also train pilots to operate carrier-based aircraft.
  • To find enough pilots for potentially six carriers, the Chinese Navy is expanding its recruiting pool.

Eager to find pilots for its growing fleet of aircraft carriers, China is turning to a new source of labor — in this case, girl power.

For the first time, the People’s Liberation Army Navy, known as PLAN, is recruiting women and recent college graduates to become pilots in its new branch of carrier aviation. While US naval aviation arrived in 1910, the US Navy did not have its first female fighter pilot until 1990.

“Starting in 2023, the Navy will select carrier-based aircraft pilots from fresh graduates from local colleges and universities,” according to a Chinese Navy brochure. “We welcome young men and women who love homeland defense, are dedicated to sea and air, and are well-prepared to participate in the selection process so they can devote their youth to building a world-class Navy and contribute to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation!”

The brochure lists a variety of requirements, some common to military aviation and others unique to communist China.

A J-15 prepares to take off from Liaoning in December 2016.
STR/AFP via Getty Images

Candidates must be no older than 24 and must have a degree in science and technology. They must be no taller than 6 feet and unmarried. Of course they have to “love that [Communist] partying, loving the fatherland, loving the people and loving socialism” and having a “clean political history”.

This is the first time the PLAN has accepted naval aviation candidates who have not attended military colleges, according to the state-sponsored news site Global Times. A source told the Global Times that the Navy believes four years of college lay a solid foundation for aspiring naval aviators.

In recent years, the world has focused on China’s burgeoning aircraft carrier fleet, which has grown from just one ramshackle former Soviet aircraft carrier a decade ago to three aircraft carriers today, including two built in Chinese shipyards. Some experts believe China may build six or more aircraft carriers, which could challenge the US Navy, particularly in the South China Sea and other waters near China.

But it takes more than just ships to build an effective carrier fleet. When it comes to naval aviation, America dwarfs every other nation simply because the US Navy has an enormous pool of pilots and a solid training system.

Although the US Navy and Air Force are currently facing pilot shortages — as are commercial airlines — the Navy still has around 7,000 pilots on its rolls.

Sailors aboard the Chinese aircraft carrier Shandong at its commissioning ceremony in December 2019.
Xinhua/Li Gang via Getty Images

China is pretty much starting from scratch, which means it needs to stock up on a sufficient number of airlines with qualified flyers and create the training pipeline necessary to maintain a steady flow of new pilots. Tapping into China’s female population is one solution, even though China has one of the lowest numbers of female pilots in the world.

In fact, China’s dangerously low birth rate has prompted the Chinese military as a whole to recruit more women.

In addition to pilots, China also needs powerful carrier aircraft. The US Navy has been developing carrier-based aircraft since the 1920s, including modern jets such as the F-14, F/A-18 and now the F-35.

Although China has a large and advanced aviation industry, it does not have the experience or expertise of other, more mature navies. In fact, the Chinese Navy copied a Russian carrier aircraft without permission to boost its carrier program.

This Chinese knockoff, the J-15, became notorious for its crash, much to the delight of the Russian media, but the Chinese naval aviation fleet continues to grow, adding more advanced fighter jets and other carrier-capable aircraft.

US Naval Aviation also had its growing pains. One reason the US Navy has mastered aircraft carrier operations is that it has been launching aircraft from floating airfields for a century. China may need time to catch up, but there’s no reason it couldn’t do the same.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy Magazine, and other publications. He has a Masters in Political Science. Keep following him Twitter and LinkedIn.

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