The Buzz

A Deadly Accident Won’t Ground China’s Women Fighter Pilots

On the morning of Nov. 12, J-10 fighters from China’s prestigious Ba Yi Air Demonstration Team practiced maneuvers over Yutian county, northeast of the city of Tianjin.

Sitting in the instructor’s seat of one of the delta-wing J-10s was Capt. Yu Xu, a flight leader and one of four women pilots trained to operate the domestically-designed multi-role fighter. The 30-year-old native of Chongzhou, Sichuan province, had earned the nickname “Golden Peacock” after a traditional dance she had performed while a cadet.

Around 9:45 a.m., observers on the ground reported seeing two aircraft collide. Yu and her co-pilot Li ejected. Their stricken J-10 plunged into a farming field near the village of Dangyupan, Hebei province, leaving a crater 10 meters wide in its wake. Li parachuted to the surface and was treated for minor injuries to the arm and leg.

Yu was killed when her parachute struck the wing of the other J-10. Searchers found the engines and black box of her plane, and her remains sometime later. Her ashes were recently prepared for interment in her hometown.

The tragic accident caused an outpouring of national grief for the pioneering pilot. The air force officially declared Yu a national martyr.

Inevitably, observers in China and abroad have questioned whether the accident reflected deficiencies in the J-10, pilot training or even in the choice to deploy women fighter pilots in the first place. Beijing’s habit of remaining cagey about the causes of military accidents has intensified the speculation.

However, it is not even clear whether Yu was controlling the two-seater J-10 at the time of the accident.

Yu was not the first Chinese female military pilot, either, nor the only one qualified to fly fighter planes, including the J-10. In fact, the history of Chinese women in military aviation dates back more than 60 years — and spans several countries.

Arguably, the first female Chinese military flyer was Hazel Ying Lee — or Li Yueying — a Chinese-American aviator born in Portland, Oregon who received her pilot’s license in 1932.

Refused entry into the Chinese nationalist air force during it early resistance against Japanese invasion, she instead became an airline pilot. During World War II she enlisted in the United States’ Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, technically a civilian organization under military command which ferried aircraft to units ready for deployment overseas.

Lee was killed in November 1944 when another plane struck her P-63 on the landing field and burst into flames. She was survived by another Chinese-American WASP, Maggie Gee. Thirty-five years later, Congress granted the WASPs military status.

When the Communist Party acceded to power in China in 1949, its rhetoric favored gender equality, typified by Mao Zedong’s famous statement that “women hold up half the sky.”

The party banned traditional customs such as polygamy and foot-binding, and many women rose to leadership positions at the local level. In 1952, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force graduated its first class of 55 female flight crew, including 17 pilots as well as flight engineers and navigators.

This cohort performed an aerial fly-by of Tiananmen Square before Mao in six Li-2 transports, Russian-built copies of the C-47. When China detonated its first atomic bomb on Oct. 16, 1964, an Li-2 piloted by Fu Lan and other women from the second cohort flew through the mushroom cloud twice to collect air samples

Yet recruitment of additional female cohorts occurred irregularly every five to eight years. The PLAAF assigned female air crew to a single unit, the 38th Regiment of the 13th Air Division in the Guangzhou military region, where they flew Li-2, Y-7, Y-8 and Il-76 transports on charter flights, disaster relief missions and cloud-seeding operations intended to instigate rainfall.

At first, the PLAAF forbade women assigned to the unit from marrying for 10 years after enlistment. Eventually, however, many of the female flight crew married fellow pilots in the unit. Today, a mother and daughter serve in the 38th Regiment.

By 1987, the Chinese air force had only trained 208 female flight crew, all for non-combat aircraft. Six years later, the U.S. military, which opened pilot training to women in the mid-1970s, certified its first female combat pilots.

Taiwan’s air force, which clashed repeatedly with PLAAF fighter planes in the 1950s, also graduated its first five women pilots in 1993. Three have gone on to pilot F-5 Freedom Fighters, while others have served in maritime patrol and transport units, including Lt. Col. Chen Yueh-Fang, commander of the 439th Wing of C-130 Hercules transports.

Further south, two Chinese women in Singapore have recently qualified to fly F-15SG and F-16 fighters.

It wasn’t until the eighth cohort in 2005 that the PLAAF sought to train female combat pilots, selecting 35 candidates out of 200,000 applicants. Sixteen made it through the four-year training program involving 116 different tests. The graduates ranged from 21 to 24 years old and included one member of the Hui minority.