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Questions About China's Military Training After Female Fighter Pilot Dies

Two Chinese J-10 aircraft cross each other during a military exercise in 2015.
Nicolas Asfouri
AFP/Getty Images
Two Chinese J-10 aircraft cross each other during a military exercise in 2015.

An elite Chinese fighter pilot died Saturday in a training accident, Chinese media reports.

The pilot, Yu Xu, was particularly well known because she was the first woman to fly the country's most advanced fighter jet, the J-10, and was a member of the elite aerobatic team known as the August 1st Air Demonstration Team, according to the state-run, English-language China Daily newspaper.

Chinese news reports did not describe the cause of the accident, saying only that both Yu and her co-pilot ejected from the plane and that Yu did not survive.

Yu was 30 years old, and had joined the Chinese air force in 2005 as a student at the country's air force university, according to China Daily.

The newspaper said Yu was a "flight squadron commander," and described her military career this way:

"She graduated in 2009, becoming one of the first 16 Chinese women pilots capable of flying fighter jets. Before the 16 airwomen, all of the air force's female fliers were transport aircraft pilots.

"Yu took part in the National Day Parade on Oct. 1, 2009, as she piloted a JL-8 trainer jet above Tian'anmen Square. In July 2012, she flew a J-10 fighter, becoming the first woman to operate the advanced aircraft. She was one of only four women qualified to fly the third-generation J-10."

Yu flew a J-10 fighter jet publicly at an airshow earlier this month, the South China Morning Post reported. The newspaper quoted an interview Yu gave to China National Radio before the show, saying, "I hope to give the audience a good performance. In terms of safety, in our training we're always reminded to put safety first."

Sunday's accident is not the first time the J-10 jet has crashed, the Post reports:

"There has been a string of J-10 accidents over the past few years, the most recent on September 28, when an aircraft crashed near Yangcun air base in Tianjin reportedly after hitting a bird. In May, another J-10 crashed in Taizhou , Zhejiang.

"Three J-10 crashes were reported last year — one each in Shenyang, Huzhou and Taizhou.

"In November 2014, a J-10B fighter jet crashed in suburban Chengdu, injuring at least seven people on the ground."

According to a recent Pentagon-funded report by the nonprofit military think tank Rand Corporation, it is unclear exactly how many hours of training Chinese fighter pilots receive, but "U.S. pilots almost certainly continue to receive more flight hours than their Chinese counterparts."

The report included excerpts from a 2014 article in Kongjun Bao, the official Chinese air force newspaper, in which a military commander explained one cause of training accidents:

"Why do veteran pilots who have thousands of flight hours under their belts and top flight talents who have earned great honors in major military tasks have 'slip-ups' in simple subjects in everyday training? ... [A regiment commander said] 'When executing major exercises, everyone's focus is highly concentrated and no one would dare to be negligent in the slightest degree. However, some pilots see regular training as 'ordinary flying,' so they intentionally or unintentionally lower their requirements and standards.' "

In June, members of the U.S. military blamed poor flying by a Chinese pilot for a close encounter between two Chinese fighter jets and a U.S. surveillance plane over the East China Sea.

A Pentagon statement posted on the news site of the U.S. Naval Institute described the Chinese pilot's actions this way:

"One of the intercepting Chinese jets had an unsafe excessive rate of closure on the [American] aircraft. Initial assessment is that this seems to be a case of improper airmanship, as no other provocative or unsafe maneuvers occurred. The Department of Defense is addressing the issue with China in appropriate diplomatic and military channels."

In May, The New York Times reported another incident in which a Chinese jet flew dangerously close to an American military aircraft.

Last year, the U.S. and China signed an updated agreement meant to ensure safe "air to air" interactions between American and Chinese military aircraft. That agreement includes a provision saying pilots should avoid "approaching the other side's military aircraft at an uncontrolled closure rate that may endanger the safety of either aircraft."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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