China has moved closer to its goal of building a blue-water navy, with pilots successfully landing on and taking off from the Liaoning, the country's first aircraft carrier, according to military experts.
A J-15 fighter jet is slowed by an arresting device as it lands on the Liaoning aircraft carrier in a recent training exercise in Dalian, Liaoning province. [Li Tang / China Daily]
Dai Mingmeng, a squadron leader from an aviation regiment of the East China Sea Fleet, landed a J-15 carrier-based fighter jet on the Liaoning on Friday morning, marking a milestone for the People's Liberation Army navy, according to the Beijing-based Mirror Evening News.
Following Dai, another four pilots also landed J-15s on the carrier and later took off, the PLA Daily reported on Sunday.
"This is a new landmark in the Chinese navy's efforts to develop the combat capability of its carrier battle group," Du Wenlong, a senior researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science, said on Sunday.
"The carrier-borne fighter jet is the core of a carrier battle group and the success of landing and take-off tests is of unparalleled importance as pilots further their training," he said, adding that the successful exercises indicate the Liaoning and the J-15 have met the navy's requirements.
"It also proves that our personnel training system for the aircraft carrier is successful."
Xu Yongling, a former test pilot and military aviation expert, said: "The landing operation is totally up to the pilot's manual manipulation of the aircraft. Together with the risks of the whole landing process, it is far more difficult than performing an outer space mission.
"The achievement and significance of the first landing on the carrier is equivalent to a breakthrough in aerospace exploration," he said.
China Central Television broadcast footage of the landing and take-off on Sunday. It showed a J-15, which took off from an airport in an unidentified location, is approaching the Liaoning.
The pilot then lowered the tailhook, a hook attached to the rear of the plane and used to rapidly decelerate during landings, and engaged the second arresting cable. The J-15 taxied about 50 meters and stopped.
The plane folded its wings and technical checks were made. After take-off preparations were complete, the pilot restarted the engines and flew off the deck.
According to Southern Metropolis Daily, the earliest landing test that was disclosed on the Internet took place on Nov 20 when a J-15 landed on the Liaoning. Details about the earlier test remain unknown.
Advanced jet unveiled
The Liaoning, a refitted Soviet-era carrier, entered active service in September and is now in the middle of its second sea trial after joining the navy.
Since being commissioned to the PLA navy, its crew has completed more than 100 training and test programs, according to Xinhua News Agency.
Earlier this month, reports and photos appeared on the PLA Daily and the website of the Defense Ministry stated that the Liaoning successfully completed a touch-and-go test on Oct 29. The reports did not disclose which aircraft carried out the test and how many jets were involved in the operation.
However, according to military observers, it was conducted by a J-15 fighter jet.
The news of the landing test also marked the debut of the J-15 as China's first generation multi-purpose carrier-borne fighter jet, the PLA navy said.
It has been given an official nickname - Flying Shark.
According to aviation fans and Western media reports, the twin-engine J-15 was developed by Shenyang Aircraft Corp, a subsidiary of the Aviation Industry Corp of China, and at least 12 prototypes have been manufactured and used in tests.
Xinhua said the J-15 is able to carry anti-ship, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and precision guided bombs. It quoted military experts as saying the J-15 has comprehensive capabilities comparable to those of Russia's Sukhoi Su-33 and the US F/A-18 Hornet.
Although it was developed based on the Su-33, the avionics and weaponry on the J-15 are more advanced than those of the Su-33, and the jet features domestically developed, cutting-edge technologies, such as an active electronically scanned array radar, radar absorbent material and an infra-red search and track system, military experts said.
The J-15 "likely exceeds or matches the aerodynamic capabilities of virtually all fighter aircraft currently operated by regional militaries, with the exception of the US' F-22 Raptor", according to Gabe Collins, a China observer in the US, and Andrew Erickson, professor at the US Naval War College, in an article on their website, chinasignpost.com.
The J-15 is particularly good in an aerial dogfight, due to its maneuverability and high thrust-to-weight ratio, said Kanwa Defense Review, a Canadian online magazine on defense affairs and weapon technology.
In addition to the advanced jet, the landing also cast the limelight on the arresting gear on the Liaoning, which is one of the most sophisticated mechanical instruments on aircraft carriers.
Only a handful of nations have the technology and ability to develop and manufacture arresting gear and none of them will export such technology to other countries, defense industry insiders said, noting that the situation left China no other choice but to develop the equipment itself.
More time needed
In spite of great success, the completion of the landing and take-off tests is only a small step toward the Chinese aircraft carrier's fully possessing combat capability, experts said.
"The tests were carried out in daytime and under relatively simple circumstances," Du Wenlong said. "Our pilots haven't performed landing and take-offs at night or in complicated situations, and they will need more training on how to intercept enemy aircraft and destroy targets at sea."
"Considering the experiences of other countries, I think we have to wait at least two years before our carrier-based fighter jets become fully operational," said Zhang Junshe, a researcher from the Naval Military Studies Research Institute.
"And taking the time needed to provide training for other planes, such as airborne warning and control system aircraft, and anti-submarine aircraft, into account, it will take four to five years for our carrier to obtain full combat capability."
The J-15 fighter jets will begin to conduct combat and formation drills only after other aircrafts complete landing and take-off training, he added.
To become a pilot for a carrier-based fighter jet, a PLA aviator has to pass four rounds of tests, said Zhang Hongtao, a senior officer of the PLA navy who is in charge of selecting pilots.
The selected pilots must be under 35 years old and have at least 1,000 flight hours, he said, adding that they also must possess a strong mind and have quick responses.
"A pilot in the US Navy usually spends at least 21 months in training before he is deemed qualified to perform duties on an aircraft carrier. I don't think we can do it in less time," Du said.
"A take-off process alone requires 65 actions by our flight deck personnel and each step cannot allow any error," said Li Xiaoyong, deputy chief of the aviation section on the Liaoning.
"Although this work is arduous and dangerous, none of us has shown cowardice, for we are 'super warriors' on the carrier."
"After the landing and take-off tests, those who once looked down on China's capabilities can no longer call it (the Liaoning) a shark without teeth," said Chen Bing, a news commentator.