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

November 19, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaFighter PilotsMilitaryTechnologyPoliticsPLAAFCapt. Yu Xu

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

Capt. Yu Xu was one of the first combat pilots in a long history of women in Chinese military aviation.


Typically, a trainee pilots the plane from the front seat, while an instructor advises from the back and can take control of the plane if necessary.

Undoubtedly, Beijing has political reasons for showcasing its female pilots prominently. Decisions on who can participate in state institutions such as the military are vested with significance in any society — and military service remains prestigious in China. Female fighter pilots are intended to demonstrate China’s modernity and gender equality.


Nonetheless, because the PLAAF insists on only training female pilots in gender-segregated cohorts every three years or so, the admission process does not foster equal opportunity for female flyers. The fact that the People’s Liberation Army will undergo major cuts in personnel to facilitate modernization may also make it difficult for women to advance into combat roles.

Furthermore, female pilots face the conflicting social pressures of a military institution which wishes to keep them flying as much as possible to justify the millions of dollars invested in their training, and the strong pressure within Chinese society for women to marry by the age of 27 and have children — or risk being considered “leftover” women.

“I’m married, and I want to have a child,” pilot He Xiaoli stated in a CCTV interview. “I hope I can continue flying fighter jets after I give birth. That could be the biggest challenge in my life. But I’m ready for that.”

Yu offered a different perspective in a separate interview with CCTV.

“Sometimes I’m envious of people the same age, but that is only a momentary feeling,” she said. “I have chosen a different way of life, a different occupation, and I have different pursuits [in life] … I don’t feel regret choosing to fly.”

Yu did say her dream was to fly the Chengdu J-31 stealth fighter, or to become an astronaut.

Chinese women aviators have continued to grow in number and visibility since the graduation of Yu’s class. The subsequent cohort trained women to pilot tankers, reconnaissance and airborne early warning aircraft.

In 2012, Maj. Liu Yang, a former transport pilot, became the first Chinese woman astronaut on the Shenzhou 9 spacecraft, followed by another in 2013, Capt. Wang Yaping. Another female pilot, Yue Xicui, now holds the rank of major general, having accumulated 6,100 flying hours. By January 2015, another cohort of 10 women completed advanced flight training on J-7 fighters.

The integration of female combat pilots into the PLAAF is set to continue at a slow but steady pace. Yu’s tragic death on Nov. 12 is a reminder of the risks of her profession — and of the surpassing grit and skill required of any pilot, male or female, to operate a high-performance fighter plane.

This first appeared in WarIsBoring here.