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China's female fighter pilots show their mettle

Reporter: Han Bin 丨 CCTV.com

08-01-2016 04:22 BJT

China's Air Force has been training female pilots for six decades. But women flying one of the world's most lethal fighter jets are a fairly recent development – and they’re breaking barriers. Reporter Han Bin was given rare access to the four female fighter pilots, who are conquering the skies with their skill and determination.

They are some of the toughest pilots in China. They are the Air Force's first group of female fighter pilots. They belong to the “Airborne Honor Guards”—the August 1st Aerobatic Team. Flying one of the world’s most lethal warplanes sets them apart from others their age.

"This career used to be completely dominated by men. Previously, all female pilots in the PLA Air Force flew transport aircraft. But no female pilots had ever flown fighter jets in China. That’s a big challenge for us in our lifetime," August 1st Aerobatic Team pilot He Xiaoli said.

He Xiaoli told us the 4 women have flown four types of planes, including second and third generation Chinese fighter jets. All of them have logged nearly a thousand hours of flying time.

The Air Force first recruited female fighter pilots in 2005. Only 16 made it through the grueling 4-year training. In 2013, He Xiaoli and three others were chosen by the Air Force Aerobatic Team to fly the J-10.

"When I first flew the J-10, there were a lot of corrections to my flying, as my arms weren't strong enough. I then realized that flying a fighter jet requires not only superb technique but also physical strength. I did a lot of physical training to build up my arms. It made it easier to fly a smooth formation with male pilots later on," He said.

China enrolled its first female pilots in 1951. Since then, more than 500 women have flown for the Air Force. The four female pilots had their J-10 debut at the Air Show China in November 2014. And in March 2015, they gave a stunt show in Malaysia, for the 13th Langkawi International Maritime and Aerospace (LIMA) exhibition. It was their first international performance. All four pilots trained for the September 3rd parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Second World War.

He Xiaoli was one of the two chosen for the parade debut with their male counterparts in the fly past over Tiananmen Square.

"I have to say all the 4 female pilots are working very hard. Although they can't compare with male pilots in terms of physical strength, they have managed to do the same with hard training. For example, a complete turn-around maneuver takes a lot of strength for a precision formation. Now, they can do it almost as well we can," August 1st Aerobatic Team pilot Liu Kai said.

Independently designed and developed by China , the J-10 fighter jets have become a major aircraft of the Aerobatic Team. The jets are a challenge for any pilot to fly, and the participation of these women in the training and parade is another sign that the PLA Air Force is developing rapidly.

The 4 women were in the 2009 parade to mark National Day. At that time, they were flying K-8 trainer planes. The memory is still fresh in the mind of Tao Jiali. She says much has changed since then.

"Compared with the J-10 fighters we're using now, the K-8 trainer plane was like a toy. To me, the biggest challenge is physical strength. Operating at high altitudes needs a strong
physique as well as mastery of the technology. It's not as simple as what you learn on the ground," August 1st Aerobatic Team pilot Tao Jiali said.

The J-10 is the third generation of Chinese fighters. It has more advanced systems of aviation, firepower and communications. But the biggest changes are the thinking behind the military hardware.

"I think the biggest change is that the Air Force has been under constant reforms to improve its capabilities. It has been very inclusive in innovation. It takes a growing number of female soldiers. This signals that it wants to build a more balanced and stronger Air Force," Tao said.

The need for female pilots is increasing in China's ambitious Air Force modernization drive. Many believe it highlights a rising role of women in the military, and a growing number of female astronauts in the future.

"I think the biggest challenge is still being a female pilot. I'm married, and I want to have a child. 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," He said.

He Xiaoli has never thought of giving up, ever since she was selected to be a pilot. She believes strength alone does not determine a top pilot, and the sky is NOT the limit.

The take-off of female pilots represents a new era for the PLA Air Force. Chairman Mao said women hold up half the sky. For these women, that's just the start.

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